Systems and interconnected disaster risks

    When you see that humans have exceeded six of the nine boundaries which keep Earth habitable, it’s more than a bit worrying. But then when you follow it up with this United Nations report, it makes you want to do something about it.

    I guess this is one of the reasons that I’m interested in Systems Thinking as an approach to helping us get out of this mess. I can imagine pivoting to work on this kind of thing, because (as far as I can see) everyone seems to think it’s someone else’s problem to solve.

    DALL-E 3 generated illustration showing a metaphorical depiction of climate tipping points. The scene includes a series of large dominoes in a fragile natural environment
    Systems are all around us and closely connected to us. Water systems, food systems, transport systems, information systems, ecosystems and others: our world is made up of systems where the individual parts interact with one another. Over time, human activities have made these systems increasingly complex, be it through global supply chains, communication networks, international trade and more. As these interconnections get stronger, they offer opportunities for global cooperation and support, but also expose us to greater risks and unpleasant surprises, particularly when our own actions threaten to damage a system.

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    The six risk tipping points analysed in this report offer some key examples of the numerous risk tipping points we are approaching. If we look at the world as a whole, there are many more systems at risk that require our attention. Each system acts as a string in a safety net, keeping us from harm and supporting our societies. As the next system tips, another string is cut, increasing the overall pressure on the remaining systems to hold us up. Therefore, any attempt to reduce risk in these systems needs to acknowledge and understand these underlying interconnectivities. Actions that affect one system will likely have consequences on another, so we must avoid working in silos and instead look at the world as one connected system.

    Luckily, we have a unique advantage of being able to see the danger ahead of us by recognizing the risk tipping points we are approaching. This provides us with the opportunity to make informed decisions and take decisive actions to avert the worst of these impacts, and perhaps even forge a new path towards a bright, sustainable and equitable future. By anticipating risk tipping points where the system will cease to function as expected, we can adjust the way the system functions accordingly or modify our expectations of what the system can deliver. In each case, however, avoiding the risk tipping point will require more than a single solution. We will need to integrate actions across sectors in unprecedented ways in order to address the complex set of root causes and drivers of risk and promote changes in established mindsets.

    Source: 2023 Executive Summary - Interconnected Disaster Risks | United Nations University - Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS)

    Image: DALL-E 3