Mallen Baker argues that it’s irresponsible not to make contingency plans, especially when the potential failures concern the fundamentals – such as food

Imagine your critical business systems depend on one computer server. This server is huge – it has immense capacity – but you have grown into that space and now every single day you are pushing it to its limit.

Any good risk manager would have furrowed brows by this point.

First of all, it’s not good to be using the system at its limit, since any problem could push it to the point of failure. Secondly, if so many critical systems depend on this one server, you would want robust back-up plans. In other words, in order to keep your business running smoothly, you would produce your contingency plans to deal with easily predictable system failures.

Now let’s substitute the global food system for the server. Here we have a system that is operating at full capacity. Any hiccups in normal production can lead to serious problems. This year we have seen such hiccups.

Droughts and other abnormal weather striking in numerous places at the same time have given us the vision of how climate change will put that already stressed food system under further stress. And we seem to think that it is OK if the current human population of seven billion continues its dizzying rise up to about nine billion.

What all this means is that we live closer and closer to the edges of what the system can produce. Which means that system failures of any size start to have brutal consequences.

We have no back-up plans. In older times, we would have grain stores to cope with the possibility of a drought. But with the numbers of people we now have living so close to the edge of what the system can provide, the ability to build up such reserves is non-existent.

We believe in the robustness of our systems. We assume any abnormalities to be temporary, and that changes brought about by climate change will produce winners as well as losers, keeping the overall balance.

Fact not fiction

The idea of catastrophic system failure is not taken seriously enough to plan for. If you talk about the possibility of the collapse of life in the oceans, it sounds like science fiction. The fact that one billion people in the world are dependent on seafood for their main protein doesn’t seem to raise the importance of the scenario in people’s minds.

If it was a computer server we were talking about, not bothering to plan for catastrophic system failure would be seen as the height of irresponsibility.

But we don’t plan. We didn’t for the dot-com crash in the late 1990s. We didn’t for the debt crisis of recent years. We rather knew there was something wrong in there – but the prevailing wisdom made questioning the possibility that things could carry on the same way to be aberrant behaviour.

This isn’t good enough. Any business contemplating their risks should at least ponder some of the following questions.

First – is this an area where we can sit back and expect governments to produce the answers? If not, then does that mean that we have a part to play?

Second – what would it mean for our business continuity if there was a system failure in global food production? Start with a relatively small one, which leads to increased food prices across the world and starvation in a few areas. Play the consequences through – additional waves of anti-austerity riots, perhaps greater protectionism, pressure on land that produces non-food crops to be switched.

We’re not far from that scenario this year, of course. But suppose it was twice as bad next year.

Now think big. What about a major catastrophic failure? Suppose we get a major eco-system collapse of ocean life. Do the research. Absorb just what that would mean for us as a planet. What are all the other systems that depend on the oceans that you might not think about? What would happen to that one billion people who are dependent? What would their governments do? How would it affect people’s hopes for their children’s futures? How would it change their buying behaviour?

Maybe you think this scenario so unlikely; it’s not worth planning for. You know, just like BP didn’t think that a deep water explosion was a big enough possibility. But the failing of the oceans is happening in front of us. How unlikely do we really think it is that it will continue to its conclusion?

Let’s not conspire to act all surprised when the predictable happens and to somehow suggest “nobody could have foreseen this”.

Mallen Baker is managing director of Daisywheel Interactive and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.

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