You may have heard the phrase “six degrees of separation,” which commonly refers to how many people maximum separate you from a famous actor like Kevin Bacon, or any other person you don’t know. It turns out this same principle is true for other kinds of networks as well. Ecosystems, communities, and economies are all part of a series of complex networks, all of which are interrelated and part of a greater network of life on earth. This means that we can have a significant and meaningful impact on our ecosystems, communities and economies through our existing networks.
We can use this information to our advantage when tackling climate change. Networks can be a powerful asset when building community resilience, for example. A resilient community is one that maintains a network of local resources (such as local food, water, and energy supplies) and can tap into resources at the regional and national level as needed. A less resilient community is one that relies exclusively on resources that come from elsewhere; this makes the community vulnerable to supply disruptions. For example, a disruption in energy supply at the national or regional level can leave a local community in the dark, to the extent that community does not have its own access to energy, such as local renewable energy sources. Increasing local networks is just one way of building community resilience in the face of climate change.
Developing a strong local network of resources generally also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and mitigates climate change. Resources produced locally have a much lower carbon footprint. Resources shipped long distances are extremely carbon intensive and very polluting because of the tremendous amount of energy required to transport them.
Our community networks are also part of broader ecosystem networks. For example, years of research has illustrated that we as human beings—and other species on earth—are dependent on tiny microbes that live in the ocean. Phytoplankton produce over 50% of the world’s oxygen, which is the same oxygen we breathe. These tiny creatures feed on nutrients in the ocean. Many ocean nutrients actually originate on land in the soil, and are continually generated in areas of high vegetation, such as forested areas. Maintaining the abundance and health of our forests and protecting the integrity of our soil are just some ways we can support phytoplankton’s essential role in our ecosystem network. Needless to say, these strategies come with many other benefits for human beings.
Mark Buchanan, Networks: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks (W.W. Norton & Company 2002).
A. McQuatters-Gallop, et. al., “Is there a Decline in Marine Phytoplankton?,” Nature 472, E6-E7 (April 14, 2011).
B. Halpern, et. al., “A Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosystems,” 319 Science 5865, 948-952 (February 2008).