UW Professor and Others Promote More Diverse Strategies to Avoid Global Disruptions

Human society needs to develop a more diverse array of potential responses to major disruptions such as pandemics, natural disasters and trade breakdowns, according to a new paper by an international group of scientists and economists that includes a University of Wyoming professor.

Jason Shogren, the Stroock Chair of Natural Resource Conservation and Management in the UW Department of Economics, is one of 28 scholars who contributed to the article that appears today (Monday) in the journal Nature Sustainability. The lead authors are Brian Walker, of Australia’s national science agency, and Magnus Nystrom, of Sweden’s Stockholm University.

With nations becoming more connected and interdependent across the globe, society is increasingly vulnerable to threats such as disease, fires, droughts, floods, storms and international conflicts, the researchers say. Developing the level of resilience necessary to avoid major economic, ecological and other disruptions will necessitate building more options to deal with unexpected situations -- a concept the scholars call “response diversity.”

“Good preparation to avoid and respond to disruption requires access to a broad set of options to face unanticipated disruptions,” they wrote. “Though the value of diversification has long been recognized …, the rapid increase in frequency and severity of ecological, social and economic disruptions underlines its growing importance.”

As an example, the authors note the March 2021 blockage of the Suez Canal by the giant container ship Ever Given, a six-day disruption that resulted in the loss of billions of dollars of trade -- due to the lack of alternative shipping routes and modes of transportation.

“The Ever Given incident is symptomatic of a global trend where people, cultures and economies are increasingly linked across geographical locations and socioeconomic contexts, but with limited pathways for changing the links,” the paper says. “… The associated costs are significant in terms of economic and ecological disruption, reduced health, civil unrest, increased risk of geopolitical conflicts, human migration and, ultimately, human lives.”

The paper also notes the global supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which have “translated into negative impacts on the cost of living or even the livelihoods of people around the world.” The Ukraine conflict, for example, has disrupted Europe’s supply of natural gas and caused wheat shortages for countries as far away as eastern Africa.

The paper gives several examples of response diversity in human systems, such as grain and water storage, insurance and banks. These societal institutions involve “trade-offs between using resources in the best way for present conditions versus using them to better deal with unexpected change tomorrow.” But it’s difficult to assess the benefits and costs of trade-offs due to the uncertainty of future large-scale conditions, the researchers say.

The paper outlines a number of strategies to develop more resilience, starting with creating “widespread awareness of the meaning of response diversity and its crucial role in responding to unexpected change and sustaining long-run well-being.” Ultimately, transforming society to be more resilient will require “a change of vision, goals and values that can guide system design and provide enough agency to influence institutions and policies.”

For example, governments and others should “encourage variety in practices, rather than just the one ‘best’ way of doing things,” the scholars wrote. But taking steps to develop response diversity will likely meet with pushback from special interest groups focused on short-term efficiency.

“Broad agreements are easy to reach, but real change requires working out the details of costs, benefits, winners and losers, and actually implementing agreements,” the paper says. “Identifying and addressing the trade-offs related to response diversity require the capacity to investigate consequences of actions in time and space. This will enable the chance to identify negative long-term trends and potential reinforcing feedback loops of concern as well as potentially correlated shocks.”

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