In AD79, a volcanic eruption struck the cities south of Naples, burying several of those cities and killing perhaps around 15,000 people. We know about it because it was observed and recorded by the polymathic encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder, who died in the event, and his nephew, Pliny the Younger. The latter’s account in two famous letters to the historian Tacitus is the first serious attempts to understand the impact of a volcano, and excavations and scientific research have now revealed far more. It is one of the most famous natural disasters. Yet the broader impact was limited and, while the cities were not recovered, nearby Naples grew and flourished. Despite the agricultural richness of the area, there is no evidence of any economic or social consequences – indeed, one might argue that the most lasting impact has been the impetus to scientific research and modern tourism, with visitor numbers around 4 million before the pandemic.
The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 killed about the same number of people. The impact on nearby cities was significant, but they have largely recovered. However, the effects went much further because the tsunami hit a nuclear power plant at Fukushima, causing the reactors to flood, leading to nuclear fallout, radioactive material leaking into the sea, and a significant international reaction, the most striking of which perhaps was the decision by Germany to halt its nuclear power programme.
This decision heightened German reliance on gas coming from Russia and via Ukraine in the Nord Stream project, as a diversification plan, while it ramps up reliance on renewable energy. But this decision now appears problematic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has interrupted that energy supply and exposed a core vulnerability, which Russia is exploiting.
The invasion has revealed other dependencies – on grain and fertilizers made from phosphorous and potassium. So this invasion is now threatening food shortages worldwide, particularly in lower and middle-income countries. The consequence is lower crop yields in future years, with significant attention now on Latin America. Moreover, in the west, the relatively peaceful conditions since the fall of the Iron Curtain has given a significant peace dividend. Ramping up military spending will reduce the marginal resources available for social spending. The long-term consequences remain uncertain.
The difference between these two natural disasters is an index of the massive change in connectivity we see. The Roman empire was immensely sophisticated but had Pliny the Younger not been in the vicinity, we might never have heard of an event which was both destructive and largely without consequence. For months after Fukushima, my local sushi restaurant in Rome had a notice saying that its products had been frozen and shipped before the tsunami.
We used to think that globalization had strengthened us, and to some extent it has, but we also have seen through the financial crash of 2008/9, the pandemic, the impact of Russian military aggression, and the increasingly visible effects of climate change, that massive connectivity can bring significant fragility.
That’s why so many of us are talking about resilience. We live in a world of extended supply chains and interdependencies, with an unprecedented capacity to gather and analyse data. But we need to ask the right questions and look across the right scales of time and geography to make the right decisions. Resilience requires a human centred approach to technology, decision making and data governance. We need to empower and inform if we are to build communities which can adapt to crisis. We need to trust the power of history and imagination to inform scientific choices and scenario planning.
Humanity has faced enormous challenges before, but the scale of our interdependency has made us less, not more, resilient in some ways; as has the acceleration of our world which has sadly been accompanied by a shortening of funding timescales.
Narratives of science always leading to a better world (in part a product of the overheated world of research funding and science communication), or of science as leading to disaster (fuelled by ignorance and irrational conspiracy theories) have further limited our capacity to assess what science can do.
That is why we have increasingly recognized that good science has humanities and social science at its heart, takes the long view, prizes creativity, and works without borders or boundaries of discipline or nation. This is why UKRI views international collaboration as a priority and continuously seeks out routes to facilitate increased cooperation between nations, such as establishing a physical presence for the UKRI North America office in Ottawa in 2021.
Let’s take the case of AI – clearly a rapidly growing field with enormous potential to improve our connectivity, but without ethics baked in from the beginning, it has equal potential to do great harm. Or the case of flooding; the mitigations obviously include better predictive capacity and good engineering – but long-term landscape analysis, thoughtful regulation, and improved design are core mitigations, while the science of climate change and adaptation has to be delivered through effective communication. And in the pandemic, communication has been absolutely key to what we have done well – and what we have done badly.
We know we live amidst uncertainty. We have known this for a long time. The Athenian historian Thucydides, writing at the end of the fifth century BC, saw plague, political turmoil and the unexpected defeat of Athens by Sparta. He wrote his history to help readers recognize when similar events came around again – it was recognition he offered not solutions. But recognition that uncertainty is the core condition of our existence is what we find hardest to acknowledge and often hardest to plan for.
A resilient society is one that can move quickly to recognize crisis and make good decisions based on deep knowledge of those affected. That goes as much for the shock of an earthquake, a fast spreading disease, or the slow burn of climate change or loss of biodiversity. And that’s why UKRI has put resilience at the heart of its own strategy, and its funding.