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Slow response of societies to new problems: causes and costs

By M. Scheffer, F. Westley and T.C.M. Brock

Abstract

Human societies are confronted with a continuous stream of new problems. Many of these problems are caused by a limited sector of society but cause, spillover costs" to society as a whole. Here we show how a combination of mechanisms tends to delay effective regualtion of such situations. Obviously, problems may remain undetected for some time, especially if they are unlike those experienced in the past. However, it is at least as important to address the dynamics preceding the Solution because societies that are systematically slow in suppressing problems in the early phases will pay a high overall cost. Here we show how a combination of mechanisms tends to delay effective regulation. Obviously, problems may remain undetected for some time, especially if it is unlike those experienced in the past. However, even if a problem is recognized by experts, the time lag before society in general recognizes that something should be done can be long because of the hysteresis in change of opinion. This causes abrupt but late shifts in opinion, much as described for Kuhn's paradigm shifts. We use a mathematical model and review empirical evidence to show that this phenomenon will be particularly pronounced for complex problems and in societies that have strong social control, whereas key individuals such as charismatic leaders may catalyze earlier opinion shifts, reducing the time lag between problem and solution. An opinion shift may also be inhibited by downplay of a problem by a credible authority and by competition for attention by simultaneously occurring problems. Even if a problem is generally recognized, actual regulation may come late. We argue that this last phase of delay tends to be longer if a central decision-making authority is lacking and if disproportionately powerful stakeholders that benefit from the unregulated status quo are involved

Year: 2003
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Provided by: NARCIS
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