Mission critical approach to planetary risk management

lit up aeroplane cockpit dashboard

Do we have appropriate indicators and feedback systems to tell us when we have breached the planet's critical systems boundaries? Photo: Photofarm.nl, Captured by Dirk-Jan Kraan, via flickr

How often do we think about the complexity and risk inherent in our modern world?

We don’t think twice about jumping onto a Boeing 737 and flying to Sydney at the drop of a hat. We take for granted the intricate supply chains required to keep our supermarket shelves stocked. We plug electronic equipment into our 240 volt sockets without ever thinking about the reliability of our power generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure.

Yet what sort of risk management decisions ensure such systems can reliably support the modern life we’ve come to expect? How much safety margin and redundancy is built in? How do we measure and monitor the critical parameters of these systems to ensure that we are not moving into dangerous territory?

As consumers we tend to accept these modern organizational and technical phenomena as robust, reliable and resilient. We’ve paid our money and we damned well expect service and support – or else we’ll complain and find another supplier offering better frills.

But what if we looked into the practices required to assure the safety and reliability of such vital services? What would we find?

The risk management rigor applied to safety and mission critical systems such as aircraft, nuclear power stations, military technology, banking software and so on are highly regulated. Analysis of failure points and their consequences is profoundly deep and broad.  Manifold problems are examined to predict new risk scenarios lurking in the background. Where the consequences of failure are catastrophic, decision makers build in safety margins, deploy high redundancy capabilities and include mitigation strategies.

Would you ever board an aircraft or trust your life savings in a bank that didn’t employ such sophisticated practices?

Applying mission critical systems to Spaceship Earth

If we consider our entire planet as a safety and mission critical system, how sophisticated should risk management approaches be for such important issues as accelerating climate instability, energy security, ecosystem vulnerability, and resource depletion, among other issues?  Wouldn’t it make sense to apply similar precautions?

As an example let’s look at the unequivocal scientific consensus that our warming planet is driven by human behavior.

At the core of effective risk management is the realization that just because something hasn’t happened before, it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen in the future. So, if the consequences of failure (i.e. in runaway climate change) are catastrophic, then it’s appropriate to rapidly and effectively intervene to reduce the likelihood of such an outcome. In the case of climate change, one such intervention would be to place limits on the greenhouse gases emitted by our economic activities.

With all living and evolving systems there’s a mysterious relationship between cause and effect that is only ever retrospectively understood. It’s extremely difficult to make sense of the evidence, feedbacks, and diverse drivers of a system as complex as the interrelationship between humanity and bio-geo-chemical planetary dynamics. But at the same time, we know the sort of future conditions we don’t want to have to deal with. In such situations we must deploy “fail safe” probes or “experiments” to determine whether a particular intervention will shift the dynamics to a better picture. With global climate, if we consider the possibility of a sudden shift to dangerous temperatures and extreme weather events then the responsible action is to put the brakes on…swiftly and firmly!

And if we did brake, what would be at risk?

Economic growth itself (or perhaps more aptly defined, “uneconomic growth”). Yet have we ever conducted a true social, ecological and spiritual cost/benefit analysis on perpetual economic growth?

What if there’s a rapidly diminishing return on happiness, well being and vitality for all of this continuous growth and complexity? Economic growth beyond viable limits makes things better and better for fewer and fewer people, worse and worse for more and more people and at a faster and faster pace. Perhaps it’s time to discuss a Steady State economic system rather than the Ponzi growth scheme that we’ve all bought into.

Reclaiming democracy, embracing stewardship

To take such bold and noble action requires us to see Earth and all of the amazing forms of life on it as something worthy of our highest humanity and stewardship. Clive Hamilton was too soft—it’s not a “Growth Fetish” at play. Rather, we’re embroiled in a ‘growth addiction’, an addiction that must be curbed if we’re to have any chance of reaching humanity’s highest potential. What’s required is a shift to a Steady State economic system that redistributes wealth more equitably and deals with the real limits to growth evidenced in Earth’s natural restraints.

As citizens and custodians, rather than consumers, we must wake up and face the reality that democracy in its current guise is in decline. Our current democracy has been sold to corporations and the media and our current forms of government are unable to deal with the constellation of complex issues that threaten us all.

We must also fess up to the fact that this has happened on our watch. While we’ve been busy acquiring stuff, the social and ecological fabric that acts as our life support framework have frayed.

We must then step up to make the necessary changes in our own lives; join up with others who also recognize the need for transformation and work persistently to power up a system of influence that can engage hearts and minds to fall back in love with our planet and honor the privilege we’ve been given to enjoy this marvelous neck of the galactic woods.

–Andrew ‘Wilf’ Wilford for Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    Democracy is alive and well….it’s “one dollar, one vote”, as it always has been. Elections are simply entertainment to place people in office who will do what the dollars tell them to do. The ‘soccer mom’ who votes for a liberal once every 4 years is still spending hundreds each week to vote for wars and corporations.

    The problem is with the price malfunction. If the costs of the wars and corporations were reflected the actual price of gas, Tahoes, mini-gatorades or individually packaged fruit snacks, then perhaps the flow of dollars might more accurately reflect what people need. Unfortunately, they don’t, and people do not have the time or skills to work constantly against the onslaught of the Cheap Life Lobby which always favors the flow of cash over the vague desires or risks of living things.

    As for systemic risk assessments, our food system is a Corn Monorail running on Petroleum Pedestals.

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