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Navigating the chaos of an unfolding global cycle

Brian Walker, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia ; CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Australia
Stephen R. Carpenter, Center for Limnology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
Carl Folke, Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
Lance Gunderson, Department of Environmental Sciences, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA
Garry D. Peterson, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
Marten Scheffer, Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University
Michael Schoon, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA
Frances R. Westley, Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience and School for Environment, Enterprise and Development, University of Waterloo, Kitchener, ON, Canada


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There are many calls to use the COVID 19 crisis as an opportunity for transforming to a future trajectory that is more equitable and environmentally sustainable. What is lacking is a cohesive framework for bringing these calls together. We propose that such transitions could be informed by lessons from three decades of scholarship on abrupt and surprising change in systems of humans and nature.
Over time, many social-ecological systems exhibit cycles of change consisting of sequential patterns of growth, development, crisis, and reorganization. A critical phase in the cycle is the brief period after crisis when novelty and innovation can change the future trajectory. Without being prepared for this window of opportunity, deep, systemic change may be unachievable.

We propose a three-step process to identify the major drivers of the global system that need to be changed: (1) identifying what society values; (2) identifying the determinants of these valued variables; and (3) identifying the underlying drivers of the determinants and how they need to be changed. A tentative list of five such drivers are identified and discussed: (i) the economic system, (ii) homogenization, (iii) human population growth, size, and densities, (iv) consumption patterns, human ethics, and behavior, and (v) governance. They are linked to seven questions relating to how we might proceed in addressing the drivers.

If response to the crisis merely reinforces the existing system, its incompatibility with the natural world and its propensity to increase inequity and conflict will likely increase fragility and lead to another version of the present calamity. If it is a deliberately transformed system that emerges its future will depend on the reorganization process, and the way the system is guided into the future. What is needed is a deliberate, fundamental cultivation of emergence to enable transformation toward better futures in order to avoid an inevitable deepening of a system that ultimately is worse for all.

Key words

adaptive cycle; COVID 19; drivers; global; governance; gridlock; renewal; transformation

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087