What’s at Stake: Flatten the Curve to Respect Carrying Capacity

By Bill Baue & Ralph Thurm

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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)

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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.

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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.

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:

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.

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r3.0 is a pre-competitive & market-making non-profit delivering groundbreaking Blueprints & Transformation Journeys for system value creation.

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