Part 3: Where do the Black Swans come from?
Dr. Anton Verwey & Johan Maritz
In two articles published earlier this year, we first explored the appearance of what we referred to as “A Bevy of Black Swans”, and in a subsequent article published in the midst of the global COVID19 pandemic explored the challenges now facing leaders and leadership. An obvious question to pose, is whether or not there is an interdependence, if not cause and effect, between leadership behaviour of the past and the advent of black swan events?
In this article, we will explore the possibility that the choices and decisions of leaders may have contributed to the reality that a single viral outbreak can so rapidly have such a devastating economic and social impact at a global level.
A Systems Perspective on Black Swans
An interesting perspective on planetary sustainability is provided to us by the work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre on “planetary boundariesi”. In simple terms, and as illustrated in the diagram below, it suggests that the sustainability of societies and the economy simultaneously influences and is determined by the biosphere. In other words, the health of societies (and the economy) is determined by the health and sustainability of the biosphere, and decisions taken at a societal and economic level that causes harm to the biosphere will eventually detract from or even destroy the sustainability of all three.
With specific reference to the biosphere, the research conducted globally since at least 2007 has led to some startling findings.
The content below is an extract from and summary of some of the planetary boundaries being researched, as well as some of the key findings to date.
Stratospheric ozone depletion
The stratospheric ozone layer in the atmosphere filters out ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. If this layer decreases, increasing amounts of UV radiation will reach ground level. This can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans as well as damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems. Fortunately, because of the actions taken as a result of the Montreal Protocol, we appear to be on the path that will allow us to stay within this boundary.
Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 concluded that changes to ecosystems due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, increasing the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes. The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services. These drivers are either steady, showing no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity.
Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities
Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. These compounds can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment (by affecting atmospheric processes and climate). Even when the uptake and bioaccumulation of chemical pollution are at sub-lethal levels for organisms, the effects of reduced fertility and the potential of permanent genetic damage can have severe effects on ecosystems far removed from the source of the pollution. For example, persistent organic compounds have caused dramatic reductions in bird populations and impaired reproduction and development in marine mammals.
Recent evidence suggests that the Earth, now passing 390 ppmv CO2 in the atmosphere, has already transgressed the planetary boundary and is approaching several Earth system thresholds. We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar sea-ice is almost certainly irreversible. This is one example of a well-defined threshold above which rapid physical feedback mechanisms can drive the Earth system into a much warmer state with sea levels metres higher than the present. A major question is how long we can remain over this boundary before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable.
Around a quarter of the CO2 that humanity emits into the atmosphere is ultimately dissolved in the oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. This increased acidity reduces the number of available carbonate ions, an essential ‘building block’ used by many marine species for shell and skeleton formation. Beyond a threshold concentration, this rising acidity makes it hard for organisms such as corals and some shellfish and plankton species to grow and survive. Losses of these species would change the structure and dynamics of ocean ecosystems and could potentially lead to drastic reductions in fish stocks. Compared to pre-industrial times, surface ocean acidity has already increased by 30percent. Unlike most other human impacts on the marine environment, which are often local in scale, the ocean acidification boundary has ramifications for the whole planet.
Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
The freshwater cycle is strongly affected by climate change and its boundary is closely linked to the climate boundary, yet human pressure is now the dominant driving force determining the functioning and distribution of global freshwater systems. The consequences of human modification of water bodies include both global-scale river flow changes and shifts in vapour flows arising from land-use change. These shifts in the hydrological system can be abrupt and irreversible. Water is becoming increasingly scarce – by 2050 about half a billion people are likely to be subject to water-stress, increasing the pressure to intervene in water systems.
Land system change
The land is converted to human use all over the planet. Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have primarily been converted to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind the serious reductions in biodiversity, and it has impacts on water flows and on the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus and other important elements. While each incident of land cover change occurs on a local scale, the aggregated impacts can have consequences for Earth system processes on a global scale. Forests play a particularly important role in controlling the linked dynamics of land use and climate and are the focus of the boundary for land system change.
Nitrogen and phosphorus flow to the biosphere and oceans
The biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus have been radically changed by humans as a result of many industrial and agricultural processes. Nitrogen and phosphorus are both essential elements for plant growth, so fertilizer production and application is theming concern. Human activities now convert more atmospheric nitrogen into reactive forms than all of the Earth’s terrestrial processes combined. When it is rained out, it pollutes waterways and coastal zones or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere. Similarly, a relatively small proportion of phosphorus fertilizers applied to food production systems is taken up by plants; much of the phosphorus mobilized by humans also ends up in aquatic systems. These can become oxygen-starved as bacteria consume the blooms of algae that grow in response to the high nutrient supply.
Atmospheric aerosol loading
An atmospheric aerosol planetary boundary was proposed primarily because of the influence of aerosols on Earth’s climate system. Through their interaction with water vapour, aerosols play a critically important role in the hydrological cycle affecting cloud formation and global-scale and regional patterns of atmospheric circulation, such as the monsoon systems in tropical regions. They also have a direct effect on climate, by changing how much solar radiation is reflected or absorbed in the atmosphere. Humans change the aerosol loading by emitting atmospheric pollution (many pollutant gases condense into droplets and particles), and also through land-use change that increases the release of dust and smoke into the air. Shifts in climate regimes and monsoon systems have already been seen in highly polluted environments, giving a quantifiable regional measure for an aerosol boundary. A further reason for an aerosol boundary is that aerosols have adverse effects on many living organisms. Inhaling highly polluted air causes roughly 800,000 people to die prematurely each year. The toxicological and ecological effects of aerosols may thus relate to other Earth system thresholds.
Summary: Planetary Boundaries
As is shown in the figure below, in most if not all of these nine planetary boundaries we seem to have already crossed the boundary into the zone where human sustainability is severely compromised and at risk.
Waste Accumulation and Planetary Boundaries
Ruth DeFries, professor of sustainable development at Columbia University, argues that the planetary boundaries are relevant, but that there also should be a focus on waste accumulation. Current sustainability concepts such as Planetary Boundaries focus on limits to resources, whilst waste accumulation is another important root cause of unsustainability.
DeFries’s conclusion is that increasing waste treatment and reducing consumption rates might be more actionable in the short term. This can be the “low hanging fruit”, whilst action on planet boundaries should also start immediately, but will have more medium to longer-term impact.
Social Boundaries & Social Immunity
The health of the society on which businesses depend depends on the existence of a decent social welfare system and the absence of extreme poverty and inequality. This has been referred to as a country’s “social immune system.” Business leaders will need to recognise how vital it is for their companies’ long-term health, as well.
Kate Raworth of Oxfam, in response to the planetary boundaries, designed social boundaries. She argues that Humanity’s challenge in the 21st century is to eradicate poverty and achieve prosperity for all within the means of the planet’s limited natural resources.
Planetary boundaries together with social boundaries create a safe and just space between the two, in which humanity can thrive. Moving into this space demands far greater equity – within and between countries – in the use of natural resources, and far greater efficiency in transforming those resources to meet human needs. This will require strong leadership, inclusive governance and long-term planning.
Achieving sustainable development means ensuring that all people have the resources needed – such as food, water, health care, energy etc. – to fulfil their human rights. It means ensuring that humanity’s use of natural resources, especially the poor, does not stress critical Earth system processes, by causing climate change or biodiversity loss. See figure below for social boundary shortfalls/adequacy.
Societal and Economic Impact and Causes
With reference to Figure 1 – Systemic Interdependence on page 1, the question that came to us is the following:
“What are the fundamental drivers of the choices made at a societal and economic level that have led to the destruction of planetary boundaries?”
In trying to get to at least one possible explanation, our departing assumption is that these drivers should be explored from an individual (leader) perspective. Blaming “society” or “them” is simply too abstract and potentially leads to the finding of excuses rather than explanations leading to changes in behaviour. Our second
the assumption is that there are numerous frameworks that could prove useful to understand individual choices, such as Spiral Dynamicsiii or the five leadership stages. For the purposes of this article, we elected to revisit a thinking framework used in one of our articles some time ago, namely the domains of human motivation as described by Gharajedaghiv, who worked with Russel Ackoff on so-called third-generation systems thinking.
The model (see the diagram below) is fairly simple to understand. Essentially it suggests that:
1. Each one of us has a set of expectations across five dimensions (the inner segments);
2. Some first-order obstructions may prevent us from achieving our objectives/ambitions;
3. If these are in play for long enough the second-order obstructions are given effect (the outer circle);
4. There are “boundaries” between the expectations and first-order obstructions, and first- and second-order obstructions respectively (the red dotted lines).
At the level of groups, it is, for example, easy to explain why particular communities feel alienated, due to continued scarcity, maldistribution and uncertainty across one or more of the expected dimensions. This may then of course influence the choices such communities exercise in terms of how they react to real or perceived first order obstructions.
At the level of an individual, the model is still easy to understand, but a reflection on how individuals act made us consider the possibility that:
1. We each, whether individually or collectively as an enterprise, have a preference that will determine what we really prioritise;
2. We each have one or more biases which will inform whether or not we perceive or believe that we personally experience scarcity, maldistribution or uncertainty
3. That will inform our behavioural choices to alienate ourselves, adopt a polarised stance, and/or act in a corrupt manner.
In our reflections, we also wondered whether we really know and understand what our real preferences/motives are? Are we mindful about our own definition of poverty, ignorance, powerlessness and so forth? How much of how we think is based on personal choice, even if not consciously so? It is in this firstly personal dynamic, we would argue, that crossing or destruction of planetary boundaries could be understood. In this context, we created the following diagram that shows how our thinking about and acting on our own expectations may, in fact, contribute to the erosion of planetary boundaries.
It is our own choices about wealth, truth and power that led to decisions that created the erosion of planetary boundaries. For the sake of our own wealth or power, we adopt particular behaviours in how we think about purpose, how we think about our enterprises, how we think about and act towards other human beings. Through centuries of such choices and decisions, we have finally reached the point where the planet has become “corrupted” to the degree that human sustainability is also at significant risk.
Systemic Interdependence Reviewed
Given the preceding, we would like to offer a different perspective also in Figure 1 – Systemic Interdependence as shown below. At the risk of oversimplifying, the diagram on the left may lead to the impression that society engages with the biosphere in order to have a positive impact on the economy, almost as if economic “health” is the end-goal of societal activities. Whilst this may not be the underlying philosophical approach, our sense is that the diagram on the right of the figure below, more accurately describes the following:
• Economic activity, which is not only a financial/commercial phenomenon but is fundamentally a social construct;
• In which all individuals, institutions, enterprises, communities and nations participate;
• Leverages the rich diversity and offerings of a local and global biosphere;
• In order to have a positive impact on the sustainability of societies and humanity.
In this admittedly very simple reframing of a diagram is the possibility to really rethink at a very deep and existential level our purpose, and what it means to be a human being. It is in this conversation, and ones similar to it, that we believe we can leverage the crises brought about by our personal and collective black swans to craft a better future for all of humanity.
The thesis in this article is that we need to introspect about our own choices and decisions as leaders. Through our own choices we have created scarcity, maldistribution and uncertainty. With COVID19, this has now become a global “black swan”, leading to the almost certain “corruption” (read destruction) of our planet. We are not suggesting that this is “the end of the world”. What we are suggesting is that a return to “normal” is a delusion and that we need to think individually and collectively about the personal choices we make as we grapple with the opportunity to craft a “new normal” that works as well for each one of us as it does for the biosphere which hosts us.
Rockstrom (Stockolm Resilience Centre) and DeFries are positive and place their faith in human creativity as a primary means to our survival. Humans are resilient, entrepreneurial and we begin again. There is also enough resilience left in the planet if we act immediately. The future can be positive if we can learn from our failings.
A new kind of capitalism should be emerging, one in which all companies’ value communities, the environment and workers just as much as profits. Many consumers, workers and socially conscious investors are buying into the concept of Socially Responsible Capitalism and are acting on their beliefs. Normative dimensions must also be explicit when framing future sustainable development narratives. There is no universal, one-size-fits-all solution.
Ludwig Wittgenstein quoted, “S/He who wants to put a boundary to human thought, has to think on both sides of that boundary”. This is something for all of us to contemplate.
i Planetary boundaries is a concept involving Earth system processes which contain environmental boundaries, proposed in 2009 by a group of Earth system and environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University.
ii Stockholm Resilience Center, Stockholm University. (2020). J. Lokrantz/Azote based on Steffen et al. 2015. https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetaryboundaries/planetary-boundaries/about-the-research/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html
iii Graves, C. W. (1970). Levels of existence: An open system theory of values. Journal of humanistic psychology, 10(2), 131-155.
iv Anderson, R.J., Adams, W.A. (2015). Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results. Wiley.
v Gharajedaghi, J. Source unknown.
vi Andrea Sophia Downing et al. (2020), Learning from generations of sustainability concepts. Environmental Research Letters, Accepted Manuscript.
vii Carey, J. (2020), The 9 limits of our planet … and how we’ve raced past 4 of them. Ideas.Ted.Com. viii Raworth, K. (2017). A Doughnut for the Anthropocene: humanity’s compass in the 21st century. The Lancet: Planetary Health. ix Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and just space for humanity. Oxfam Discussion Papers.
x Schmidt, E, (2020). Can capitalism solve capitalism’s problems? The Conversation, UCT.
xi Rockstrom, J. (2020). Emergence from emergency: The case for a holistic economic recovery plan. The Club of Rome. xii Savall, H et al. (2019). Socially Responsible Capitalism and Management. Routledge & CRC Press.
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