Not shocked but stressed

In a recent post on Global Dashboard, I wrote about resilience, drawing on thinking that Alex and I have been developing together for a new project we hope to launch later this year.

The post was triggered by David Miliband’s argument that one of the defining features of the era we live in is a shift in the balance of responsibilities between state and citizen. It was a mistake to assume this would lead to greater stability, I argued. The key question is whether, when faced with a distributed threat, our systems become more resilient or less so.

Lloyd Anderson, head of science at the British Council and an ecologist, pointed out to me that it is helpful to think about three levels of influence on a system: trends, stresses and shocks.

Trends are gradual shifts in a system’s composition and context. Shocks are immediate and catastrophic. Stresses sit somewhere in the middle, and tend to affect a complex system in a particular way. Under pressure, the system ‘resists’ change up to an unpredictable point. It then shifts rapidly – and usually irreversibly – to another equilibrium.

We pay plenty of attention to shocks and trends. The former sell newspapers, while the latter keep social scientists in work. But stresses are deadly, both because they fly beneath the radar, and because they have the potential to lead to deep-seated changes that undermine the basis of our way of life.

Take two examples: the 2003 heat wave in Europe and the slow-burn insurgency in the Niger delta.

In 2003, thirty-five thousand people died when much of Europe experienced an unusually hot summer. It was Europe’s deadliest natural disaster in fifty years. Agricultural production was also hit hard, France’s nuclear reactors ran out of water, and fire destroyed 650,000 hectares of forest (that’s roughly equivalent to the whole of Ireland’s forest).

The cause? An anticyclone that lingered over Western Europe much longer than was normal. The heat wave was deadly because few people understood the threat until it was too late. They were used to coping with occasional hot days. Why should a prolonged period of heat be any different?

Many of the victims were old people who had been left in sweltering apartments in the cities while their families were on holiday. Others tended to come from economically deprived groups. Studies have shown that “loss of autonomy and social isolation” were key factors leading to mortality.

Part of the responsibility lay with the state. Governments did not have adequate surveillance systems in place, while health services were short staffed during the summer holidays. But it was a lack of community support that was most to blame. Many lives would have been saved if people had encouraged their neighbours to drink more water.

A second example is an under-reported, and very unusual, war that is being fought in Nigeria’s oil-producing region, the Niger Delta. John Robb profiles a ‘guerrilla entrepreneur’ who stands accused of running the insurgency by cell phone from his base in South Africa. (Shall we pause while you head to John’s site to read the whole extraordinary story?)

This is not the kind of catastrophic war that dominates our television screens. However, the impact has been extraordinary. Nigeria has lost up to a quarter of its oil production during the worst periods and oil companies no longer dare to send Western workers to the area.

“The intent of this activity was to hollow out the Nigerian state by depriving it of income, driving away its corporate allies, and creating a temporary autonomous zone (aka chaos) in the Delta (due to a proliferation of violence and copycat attacks by other groups),” Robb writes.

His conclusion is a deeply worrying one:

[This type of attack] proves that the disruption of systems, rather than mass casualty attacks, can create a global brand for a militant organization. Also, given the demonstration of the leverage involved (attacks costing hundreds of thousands generated nearly $30 billion in disruption) that a low cost expansion of the technique could destroy the economic foundation of an entire state.

These low-intensity calamities receive nothing like the attention given to catastrophic shocks. We all remember Hurricane Katrina, rather than Europe’s heat wave, in spite of the fact that the latter was twenty times more deadly. The Niger Delta has largely been ignored by the media, regardless for its pervasive impact on a fragile state and, via oil prices, the global economy.

Unsurprisingly, we have a similar bias when it comes to responses. On the one hand, there’s a deep-seated (and false) belief that people are terrible at coping with shocks. On the other, stresses creep up in our collective blind spot and often continue to be disregarded beyond the point where everyone is talking about the extent of the threat.

Health crises show how this works. “Lawless extravagance,” was how Thucydides described the decline of public morals in ancient Athens, as a plague – “too grievous for human nature to endure” – swept through the city. When things go wrong, all of a sudden, we assume that people will be overwhelmed.

But that’s not true. A few years ago, I worked with my long-time collaborator, the economist, demographer and public health expert, David Bloom, on likely public responses to avian flu. At the time, George Bush was speaking openly about plans to impose martial law if a pandemic took hold.

It turns out that, although the panic myth remains pervasive and damaging, when disaster strikes, people seldom lose control. Take Katrina. When the hurricane struck New Orleans, initial reports spoke of an orgy of violence in the Superdome, the city’s makeshift storm shelter.

Graphic tales of how the poor were raping and murdering one other contributed to the paralysis of the central authorities. When rescuers finally arrived, they came in full body armour, expecting to come under attack. Instead, they were met with applause and cheers.

According to Ed Bush, public affairs official for the Louisiana National Guard, wildly inaccurate news reporting was one of the few drivers of panic within the dome:

A lot of them had AM radios, and they would listen to news reports that talked about the dead bodies at the Superdome, and the murders in the bathrooms of the Superdome, and the babies being raped at the Superdome and it would create terrible panic. I would have to try and convince them that no, it wasn’t happening.

At the same, the Coastguard was harnessing civilian support as it attempted to rescue tens of thousands of stranded people. Disaster researchers, Tricia Wachtendorf and James M. Kendra describe the spontaneous emergence of a flotilla of boats at the disaster scene. The same thing happened during 9/11 when a private fleet evacuated hundreds of thousands of people from Manhattan.

During the worst disasters, communities are necessarily thrown back on their own resources. The 1918/19 flu epidemic killed between twenty and forty million, but the sick did not go to hospital. They were cared for at home, by family members or by ad hoc networks of volunteers.

I have written before about Ada Dolch, the principal whose school was in the shadow of the World Trade Center. She took the decision to evacuate her pupils against safety protocols and advice from headquarters, which she refused to contact in order to concentrate her energies on the task at hand.

And also about the Vietnamese church that helped its community bounce back so quickly after Katrina. “This community was able to make use of an array of cultural tools that aided their swift return,” researchers concluded. “In particular, historical narratives common to members of this community and the appropriation of the “model minority” myth served as effective tools in the rebuilding process.”

Indeed, frustrating the public’s desire to respond (a common urge of centralized institutions) can be deeply counter-productive. Monica Schoch-Spana and Thomas Glass, of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, are strong advocates of letting as many people as possible play their part.

“In times of crisis, having a constructive role to play engages people in a common mission and provides a sense of control in periods of grave uncertainty,” they say.

But if we are better than expected at responding to shocks, our ability to respond to stresses seems to be much less developed. (There’s probably some law that dictates that I should make reference to slowly boiled frogs about now.) Again, two examples:

First, think about Alex’s work on scarcity, which focuses on the four poles of climate, energy, food and water. Greenhouse gas emissions must soon start to fall if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Energy demand is likely to increase for 50% in the next twenty or so years. Food prices are now shooting up, as demand outstrips supply, while water is becoming ever more scarce.

These issues are all linked. Alex argues that some connections are obvious: “climate change causes droughts; droughts cause crop failures; climate change and energy scarcity both demand a retreat from oil dependence.” But other links are more subtle:

Think about the extent to which water security relies on energy security. 40 per cent of the costs of water in developing countries are for the energy used to extract and pump it.

Consider that because food can be turned into fuel, there is now an arbitrage relationship between prices for the two – from now on, in other words, higher oil prices equal higher food prices.

Or think of how the global food trade is effectively also trade in “virtual water”: in the case of a kilogram of wheat, the 1,300 litres of water that it took to grow it.

What are we doing about this? Nothing much really. We’re talking about climate, but we’ve barely begun to the shift to a low-carbon economy. Energy supplies are becoming more, not less, secure. And as for water and food…we’re not even at the starting line on these issues.

Second, consider how we react to terrorism. I am not thinking about the short-term, day-of-the-attack response, but what happens over the following days and months.

All terrorist movements rely on their ability to provoke their host society into an adverse response. It’s the state itself that is expected to carry most of the burden of undermining its legitimacy. This is exactly what Al Qaeda attempted to do through 9/11, as it aimed to entangle the West in conflict overseas and use this to radicalise further recruits.

Osama Bin Laden even boasts about the fact – cheekily quoting an unnamed British diplomat speaking at Chatham House to support his contention that “we and the White House are on the same team shooting at the United States’s own goal.”

A big question for us, then, is whether we will react more effectively to a future 9/11, or more to the point, to a sustained series of low level attacks from an increasingly distributed terror network.

Would we be able to resist further undermining some of the basic tenets of our civilization (human rights, rule of law etc)? Would the creaking relationship between America and Europe be permanently sundered? And how much provocation would European societies withstand before they begun a disastrous crack down on their own ethnic and religious minorities?

So a few quick conclusions…

  • Shocks matter – of course they do. But stresses are more insidious and often have greater potential to change the way we live.
  • Our reaction to a shock will often be better than we think. But belief in the ‘panic myth’ – amplified to a feedback shriek through the media – can itself lead to panic.
  • Distributed responses increase our resilience, but only if there is a good enough communication across the network (see the point above).
  • Faced by an unfamiliar stress we’re likely to under-react (scarcity) or over-react (9/11)
  • There’s therefore a huge premium on the psychological dimension to resilience – our hearts and minds (9/11); broad and deep awareness of the problem (scarcity) – which is the only force able to moderate our response.

One more post on this when I get a chance – trying to wrap things up, by looking at how psychological resilience feeds down into a stronger institutional response, and then into specific measures to protect points where there’s a high risk that our systems will fail.

And asking what this should mean for governments and why its provides a powerful lens for thinking about how they need to change.