Navigating the chaos of an unfolding global cycle

Brian Walker, Stephen R. Carpenter, Carl Folke, Lance Gunderson, Garry D. Peterson, Marten Scheffer, Michael Schoon, Frances R. Westley

Research output: Contribution to journalEditorialAcademic

27 Citations (Scopus)


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.

Original languageEnglish
Article number23
Pages (from-to)1-4
Number of pages4
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Adaptive cycle
  • COVID 19
  • Drivers
  • Global
  • Governance
  • Gridlock
  • Renewal
  • Transformation


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