Shit Doesn’t Just Happen

Twin Towers

Covid-19 Files

Synchronous Failure

Shit doesn’t just happen.

Stock market crashes, multi-vehicle pileups, the collapse of tall buildings, wildfires, viral pandemics … None of these phenomena have a single, simple explanation. Rather, they all result from a multitude of events, factors and situations — proximal, distal and invariably complex.

In a recent paper entitled “Synchronous failure: the emerging causal architecture of global crisis,” Canadian complexity theorist and author Thomas Homer-Dixon and his colleagues describe how, when stresses build up in multiple, independent but inter-connected systems or geographical regions, instabilities “propagate” from one system to the next.

On the way to breaking bad, crises of this sort unfold in non-linear fashion: positive feedbacks are engaged; tipping points are exceeded; social, political, economic and environmental regimes flip, tectonically, from one state to another.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a classic example. Pegged as having emerged in a wet market in Wuhan, China, where infected bats, pangolins and other wild animals are sold, then spreading through global travel, the more distal source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was an intact, forested ecosystem where coronaviruses and other novel infectious agents hang out, naturally and harmlessly, in animal hosts.

When humans destroy ecosystems of this sort, punch roads into them, harvest them for bush meat, those infectious agents are liable to jump from animals to humans. This is precisely how HIV emerged. It’s as simple as that.

Credit: Andrew S. Wright

Not simple at all, others say. Hungry humans aren’t to blame for zoonotic infections, people like Naomi Klein argue. The most distal cause of the Covid-19 pandemic is global capitalism and its relentless hunger for natural resources, building lengthier and more fragile food chains all around the planet, denying people the right to grow or raise their own, healthier food.

Ultimately, the emerging consensus is that pandemics like Covid-19 are a huge sign/symptom of humanity’s (or global capitalism’s) destruction of the biosphere.

Having emerged through the confluence of multiple, interconnected factors, crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, in turn, spawn a lengthy chain of other crises: millions die, beginning with health care workers, economically marginalized people of colour, senior citizens in poorly managed assisted care homes and the immunocompromised; unemployment skyrockets; urban food supplies run short; universities shut down; people get lonely and commit suicide; as people stay home, automobile congestion halts and air gets cleaner, but the oil and gas and airline industries collapse; governments dole out trillions of dollars to laid off workers and collapsing corporations, saddling themselves with debt.

Mapping and modelling humanity’s “converging environmental, economic, political, and technological crises” is the mission of the recently founded and aptly named Cascade Institute. Thomas Homer-Dixon is its founder and Director. Listen to our conversation here: