Interdependence and Its Discontents

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Post Was Originally Published May 2, 2017 in Quartz 

A few years ago, a man named Mike Vilhauer was fishing near Sunset Lake, in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. He wandered into the woods to look for bait, and promptly got lost. For the next five days, he lived off the land—drinking from a stream, sleeping in a rocky cave, eating the occasional dandelion. After Vilhauer’s rescue, national andinternational news outlets breathlessly described his “fight for survival,” “against the odds.”

Vilhauer’s survival seems like an impressive achievement, until you stop to consider that he was simply doing what humans did, day in and day out, for most of the last 200,000 years. Of necessity, our distant ancestors had wide-ranging survival skills: they foraged, hunted, herded, and built shelters. It’s only in the last few millennia that we have taken on increasingly specialized roles. Today, we are fry cooks and nuclear physicists, bloggers and plumbers—but few of us retain the general skills that were once a prerequisite for survival.

A few years later David Ricardo extended this idea to nations, claiming that if each country focuses its production capacity on what it does better than anyone else—exploiting their comparative advantage—all nations will be better off. Later, this thinking became a pillar of the post-World War II international order. Interdependence theory—which holds that nations that depend on each other economically are more likely to work harmoniously together—has shaped thinking in Washington for almost three-quarters of a century.

Interdependence has obvious upsides. It is wondrously efficient, as it removes the redundancies of effort involved when everyone has to, say, can their own fruit—or when every nation has to grow its own rice or mill its own steel. And interdependence has coincided with an extraordinary period of peace and prosperity in the industrialized world.

But there are downsides as well. As a society’s efforts are divided into ever more discrete tasks, each member of that society becomes ever more dependent on others for the production of social goods and, ultimately, for survival—as Mike Villhauer learned on his ill-fated fishing trip.

Interdependent societies are more connected and integrated, but they are also more fragile, more brittle, and more vulnerable to cascading failures. So while highly integrated societies can accomplish feats that no group of unspecialized laborers could dream of, they do not do so well when subjected to shocks such as earthquakes, epidemics, financial crises, and political conflict. A generation ago, such shocks generally had only local effects. But in today’s hyper-connected world, a disruption in one place can swiftly cascade across the entire planet, threatening global supplies of goods and information. That’s what happened after the Tohoku disaster in Japan in 2011, the Wall Street crash of 2008, and the SARS epidemic of 2002. Accordingly, the World Economic Forum has warned of “the prospect of rapid contagion through increasingly interconnected systems and the threat of disastrous impacts.”

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