Tag Archives: Hysteresis

Humans have the tools to avoid eco-geddon: Chris Wood

Earth at dawn from the International Space Station. Photo by Reid Wiseman, NASA, public domain

Earth at dawn from the International Space Station. Photo by Reid Wiseman, NASA, public domain

Systems approaching the brink display some common features, and sometimes thresholds give advance warning, writes Chris Wood in his new Natural Security column. They recover more slowly from disruption; “in-state fluctuations” become wilder and less predictable; conditions “flicker” rapidly from one state to another. But by opening our eyes to these and other signs, we may be able to determine where some of the riskiest thresholds lie — and how to push them, and ourselves, back from the brink of “eco-geddon.” We have the tools, he argues: the question is whether we have the will. An excerpt of Isn’t It Hysterical? The cliff is ahead. We have the tools to see it (subscription*):

The single most useful thing that many national governments could do for their natural security today is to start by taking a good long look at it. 

How does this come up? Funny story. I learned a new word recently. This doesn’t happen as often as it used to in my line of work, so I enjoyed it. The word? ‘Hysteresis.’ 

The term seems to have a range of definitions, some more negative than others: it can mean a deficiency or lack, for example. But its dominant meaning is of a lagging effect: when something in a system’s past influences how it responds to the present. All of human history, it turns out, really has been as hysterical as some of our darker comics suggest.

But so are ecosystems at scales all the way up to the global. That is: incremental damage can accumulate over time, rendering an ecosystem imperceptibly less robust until a critical threshold tips it, usually irreversibly, into a new state … log in* to read Isn’t It Hysterical? The cliff is ahead. We have the tools to see it.

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