What’s at Stake: Flatten the Curve to Respect Carrying Capacity
By Bill Baue & Ralph Thurm
A simple dotted line. That’s what Thomas Jefferson University Population Health Professor Drew Harris added to existing graphics on pandemic preparedness in his February 28 tweet that made the #FlattenTheCurve meme “go viral” in conveying the urgency of taking “protective measures” to slow the spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.
What’s so important about that dotted line? It added to the mix the vital notion of carrying capacity — specifically, health care systems’ capacity (the finite number of beds, doctors, nurses, ventilators, face masks, etc…) to handle the onslaught of exponentially increasing Covid-19 cases without being overwhelmed (as Italy and Spain illustrated).
As it turns out, this key detail made all the difference in the spread of the meme. And this notion applies far beyond Covid-19 and even pandemics in general; most every predicament we face today, from climate change to income inequality, has overshoot or shortfall of carrying capacity at its core. We need an expanded consciousness on carrying capacity to also go viral if we are to contend with these conundrums.
To understand the significance of the dotted line, we need to rewind to 2007. That’s when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report on “Pre-Pandemic Planning” that contained original graphic of 2 “epi-curves”: one steep (with “no intervention”) and one flatter (“with intervention”). This graphic was reprised in a 2017 CDC report that visual-data journalist Rosamund Pearce picked up and adapted for a February 29 Economist article on the pandemic. (See graphics below)
It was The Economist version that reminded Dr. Harris of a design he’d made years earlier for a pandemic preparedness training program to help students struggling with the concept of just why it’s vital to reduce the epidemic curve. “[S]o he added a dotted line indicating hospital capacity ‘to make clear what was at stake,’” he told the New York Times.
The dotted line conveys what’s a stake when breaching carrying capacity — a “line in the sand” separating a manageable problem from a clusterfuck. Interestingly, Donella Meadows and her Limits to Growth colleagues drew very similar “curve graphs” to illustrate the concepts of respecting and crossing carrying capacity about a half-century ago.
What’s particularly pernicious about crossing carrying capacity thresholds is the potential for amplifying feedback loops to trigger tipping points, thus exiting the relative stability of an existing state of a system in a non-linear phase shift to an altogether different (and inherently unpredictable) systemic state. Think of climate chaos as transgressing the carrying capacity threshold of temperature stability (the best science says the dividing line is 1.5C) tipping us into a hothouse earth, or the spontaneous 1960s riots against racism in the US or the more recent Arab Spring that crossed the carrying capacity of social justice.
In each of these instances, there are vital resources that underpin stable systems, and if these resources are depleted, or if we fail to regenerate new resources, we risk crossing carrying capacity thresholds. This line of thinking underpins our work at r3.0 on the Global Thresholds & Allocations Council, as well as our work on Multicapitalism.
Think of these vital resources as various “capital” stocks (natural capital, social capital, human capital, built capital, financial capital, and intellectual capital) that we must maintain at sufficient levels, so they can continue to produce generative flows. In all our work, we believe that applying carrying capacity thresholds, allocating resources and responsibilities in ways that are just, fair, and proportionate, is the best pathway to a Regenerative and Distributive Economy and Society.
To better understand, let’s apply this multi-capital approach to the Covid-19 crisis, first examining how we risk crossing dangerous carrying capacity thresholds.
- Financial Capital: At the same moment that traditional measures of financial capital are curving downward precipitously, as stock markets tumble across the globe, so too are we in greatest need of financial capital to support our wellbeing. Financial carrying capacities apply to the healthcare system (a “floor” of financial support necessary to keep the system afloat amidst the intense demand), the social infrastructure system (“shelter-in-place” orders prevent millions of citizens from working, risking falling beneath the financial floor of subsistence), business systems (which are similarly reeling from downed supply chains, market demand, and work disruptions), and market systems (stock markets are regularly hitting the carrying capacity of price crashes, triggering automated market shutdowns). Governments are allocating financial capital to buoy the carrying capacities in these various systems, primarily by “printing money” through deficit spending while praying that such debt accumulation does not cross its own carrying capacity. As our colleague James Quilligan of Economic Democracy Advocates asks, “how long until you grasp the real connection between our monetary debt and our ecological debt?”
- Natural capital: Professor Jem Bendell, who conceived the Deep Adaptation concept, draws a direct link between the Covid-19 crisis and the climate crisis. It is remarkable that at a moment when the lungs of the world are burning at ecocide levels, humans are met with a lung disease. And this abuse of natural capital has its origins in the abuses of the neoliberal model of financial capital growth. The decrease of availability of capacity of humans to counter pandemics and epidemics now and in the future has a direct correlation with natural capital overuse. We are now entering the final downward spiral of losing resilience being able to survive this and other crises in the future. We overshot thresholds in many ways and have allocated this overuse into market designs that now allow viruses to spread in high speed. Economic system design disconnected from natural capital availability are deadly and need to be corrected as soon as possible.
- Manufactured Capital: The need of the health care system for technology, machines, testing, and supplies for personnel up to the maximum of capacity in hospitals defines the threshold of manufactured capital. Overshooting healthcare system carrying capacity leads to their collapse at the moment of highest need. Ironically, many hospitals abandoned their slack capacity of additional beds and supplies, following the logic of “just-in-time” supply chain maintenance pioneered by Toyota in the 1980s. Allocation of the available manufactured capital, human capital, and social capital to areas with the highest amount of infections is now a daily challenge for governments and suppliers of the health care system.
- Human Capital: The knowledge, skills, experience, and expertise of individual healthcare professionals represent vital human capital, which is reaching the threshold of its carrying capacity for deployment to handle the mushrooming Covid-19 cases. Health care system budgets everywhere are in decline (and costs are increasing), so we already face a lack of trained health care sector employees.
- Social Capital: A society thrives through collaboration and interaction. The Corona crisis is reducing physical interaction, and increases the possibility of violence. Already now the amount of violence in lockdown areas has tripled and separation of elderly people leads to social isolation. This has considerable mental and psychosomatic consequences in a population. Regular interaction with loved ones and friends, collaboration between businesses in trusted ways, and intercultural exchange define a threshold of ‘balanced interbeing’. Allocation normally happens automatically by befriending, joint experiences and moments of success with each other. That possibility is missing in a time of lockdown.
The Silver Lining: Social Tipping Points
While ecological tipping points typically result in adverse outcomes, social tipping points can be positive, creating the momentum necessary for transformative change toward respect for carrying capacities. Crisis situations, as it is often said, can bring out the best in us. A multicapital thresholds-based assessment also allows us to look at the positive impacts in the various categories. We already hear stories of much cleaner water in Venice canals again, unknown visibility of stars late at night due to less to no pollution, and the returning voice of nature in our joint awareness of being part of nature ourselves. We see great activity towards ‘staying strong together’. The Dutch King Willem Alexander recently called this ‘Stamenhorigheid’ (samen sterk — being strong together) in an address to the Dutch people, adding a new word to the Dutch vocabulary. Here are some examples of capital-based benefits:
- Financial Capital: Citizens rich and poor are pouring donations into charities and making direct contributions to support those adversely impacted by the crisis
- Natural Capital: The slowing down of the world economy allows nature to take a deep breath. Air quality increases while carbon emissions and resource overuse decrease.
- Social Capital: Physical distancing, sheltering in place, and self-quarantining all require social capital — collective understanding of the wisdom of these measures — in order to #FlattenTheCurve. This understanding of our common fate can translate across other crises, creating an ethic of wiser stewardship of our Commons.
- Human Capital: great numbers of volunteers are jumping in to support areas in urgent need. Medicine students and retired health care professionals are offering help to fill the carrying capacity constraints of the healthcare system.
- Manufactured Capital: In order to increase health care capacity, hotel chains, educational institutions, and governments are offering space for Covid-19 overflow as well as other uses, such as birth clinics and physiotherapy. Countries are helping each other out with urgently needed supplies.
Never Waste a Good Crisis
We at r3.0 believe that awareness of thresholds and carrying capacities represents a vital mindset for navigating the 21st Century transformation to a Regenerative and Distributive Economy and Society. We believe that the #FlattenTheCurve meme, pivoting as it does on the dotted line of healthcare system capacity, provides a ripe opportunity for a paradigm shift into thresholds and carrying capacity consciousness. Indeed, it often takes a crisis to foment the momentum necessary for more radical transformations.
As Giorgos Kallis points out in his book Limits, the act of self-limitation — recognizing external limits and making a conscious choice to live within them — represents the highest form of freedom. The world is currently running a global experiment on whether we can raise the game of self-limitation, as a means of sharing the abundance of this Earth and its living beings with all.
Covid-19 shows in a time lapse what economic, ecologic and education system failures created in slow motion for the last 3 to 4 decades and what ‘business as usual’ might mean for our future if we don’t take drastic measures very soon. We now have the unique opportunity for a maturation toward the design of a ‘Regenerative & Distributive Economy’ by using thresholds & allocations as the new supply & demand of the 21st century, moving us away from natural and manufactured capital scarcity and into social and human capital abundance. How would new currencies be designed, how would new business models look, how would forward-looking governance replace backward-looking governance? How would governments fund, steer and regulate this new economy? And how would we achieve wellbeing for all? Now’s the time to find out!
Author Note: article corrected on March 28 due to this article.