This month, it’s 70 years since the Great Smog of London. Estimated to have caused up to 12,000 deaths, it remains one of the biggest man-made disasters in UK history.
It’s also a neat microcosm of our current deadlock over who takes responsibility for the global climate crisis, perfectly illustrating how ‘everyone and no one’ is to blame and why individuals and businesses can feel so helpless. But they shouldn’t; quite the opposite in fact. Let me explain why.
Complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory suggests that the world is a socio-ecological system that is made up of an interconnected web of different systems – be they natural, social, cultural or economic – that relate to each other in complex, non-linear and dynamic ways. So complicated and cumulative are these relationships that it becomes almost impossible to scientifically prove the impacts of any one part on the overall socio-ecological system. So when a systemic disaster strikes, like the Great Smog of London, it’s easy for individuals to pass responsibility, claiming ‘it wasn’t me’ because other people were to blame too.
While the weather in London in December 1952 was cold, it wasn’t unusually so. People responded the way they normally did in winter by putting a bit more coal on the fire and burning the fire for a bit longer in the day. Darker, colder days put extra demand on the electricity systems as well, which at the time were generated from coal. And most of the factories in London were largely powered by coal generators, too. Traffic levels had grown alongside the population of London, with more steam locomotives, diesel lorries and buses than ever before after the closure of the electric tram system.
But when this noxious mix was combined with some unusual weather patterns, the level of air pollution turned lethal. Suddenly there was no wind to disperse the air pollution and a heavy fog acted to trap the air pollution at nose-level of London’s unsuspecting population. This stagnant weather continued for a few days, allowing the pollutants to accumulate to the point where people couldn’t see or breathe. But Londoners, who were used to smog, initially didn’t change their behaviour, continuing to expose themselves to this toxic air. Death wasn’t instant, coming about through respiratory infections over the following weeks and months that took a major toll on the very young, very old, those with underlying conditions and those in poorer living conditions.
So who was to blame for all those deaths? The citizens burning coal? The coal producers? The factories? Those running the transport system? The people who went out in the pea-souper? The landlords who provided poorly ventilated houses? The government for not locking down the communities? The planning authorities that had known about London’s air pollution problem since at least 1661?24 The weather system? The butterflies half a world away whose beating wings may have shifted the anticyclone over London? The list is endless, but no one can identify the source of the soot that tipped a normal set of behaviours into catastrophe or know exactly where this tipping point lay. What we can see is that each individual soot emission reduced the level of resilience of the complex adaptive system that is London, until the system collapsed so dramatically and tragically.
The solution wasn’t to hunt down and punish individual culprits, but rather to look for ways that re-established London’s resilience to reduce the risk of this concurrence of different events from ever happening again. This included systems-level reforms, such as the Clean Air Act of 1956, changes to the powers of local authorities and revised planning regulations. The Great Smog of London was a critical learning event for many other cities and nations that had the opportunity to understand the systemic complexity of air pollution and act in advance. While many did, many others chose to ignore it, resulting in massive deaths from human-induced air pollutants combined with predictable weather patterns that continue in some countries even today. London itself failed to learn and act quickly enough, leading to another lethal smog event in 1962 – no doubt due to the significant controversy over the science, risks and who pays for solving the problem in 1952 (in much the same way as what happened during the recent COVID-19 crisis).
However, CAS theorists suggest that the flip side of this systemic complexity and volatility is that the effects of any individual can also be remarkably powerful too – which should be hugely encouraging to small and medium-sized responsible businesses doubtful of what impact their individual efforts can make. Who knows how many catastrophic ecological tipping points have been narrowly avoided by the responsible actions of just one person? Equally, how many social and economic recoveries have been sparked by the influence and investment of one business? The most important thing is for businesses to try to understand how these various systems operate and interact so they can recognize what impacts they have (or could have) on the resilience of society and the natural world.
That’s why CAS theorists argue that sustainability needs to be subtly reframed as supporting socio-ecological resilience – or ‘resilience-based stewardship’, as they call it. In practice, this would encourage responsible businesses to look beyond the impacts of just their operations and take an active role in the preservation and enhancement of the wider social and ecological systems their operations are dependent on. So rather than Unilever, for example, just looking to improve the sustainability of the palm oil it sources from somewhere like Borneo, it has been working with other national and international groups, governments and agencies to prevent the wider degradation of regional and global ecosystems and alleviate the underlying social issues that damage the longer-term resilience of Borneo.
Such cross-sector partnerships with NGOs and public sector bodies – whose expertise and core mission are about socio-ecological systems – can provide the knowledge and skills to help businesses of all sizes ‘close the loop’ between their operations and the wider systems they depend on and need to protect. These collective activities might be harder for companies to direct and measure than their own sustainability strategies, but there can be no effective strategy for business resilience that doesn’t also support the resilience of wider society and the environment.