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Disturbance in human societies

Like ecosystems, humans societies are also subject to recurrent disturbances, that is, they are subject to discrete events that abruptly affect the functioning of a society [1]. There is a variety of such societal disturbances, including hurricanes, floods, epidemics, nuclear accidents, earthquakes, and wars among others (Table 1). Very large or severe disturbances are infrequent and unpredictable. Yet societal disturbances are intrinsic to human societies; they have occurred through the entire human history and will continue to occur in the future. Societal disturbances can temporarily disrupt the functioning of societies. However, when those disturbances are frequent, societies adapt to them and thus disturbances contribute to shape cultural evolution. That is, societal disturbances have a cost at short temporal scales, but they can build up resilience at mid- to long-term scales. 


Table 1. Examples of disturbances that affect the functioning of human societies. From [1]

Disturbance typeExamples
MeteorologicalDroughts, hurricanes, floods, ice storms, heatwaves
BiologicalEpidemics, pandemics
Accidental (technological)Nuclear accidents, urban fires, power blackouts
Socio-politicalWars, terrorist attacks
GeologicalEarthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis
VirtualStock market crash, internet crash, cyberattacks
ExtraterrestrialMeteorite impact

Fig. 1. Comparison among five disturbances that produced large numbers of fatalities at the global scale, over the last 4000 years of human history (from 2000 BP to 2020). Note the log scale. From [1]

Fig. 2. Frequency distribution of the five disturbances together included in Fig. 1. The vertical dotted line is the 99% quantile and suggests that 1% of these disturbances accounts for 87% of fatalities over the last 4000 years of human history (from 2000 BP to 2020). Note the log scale. The frequency distribution (of the raw data) is strongly skewed (skewness = 24.98) with a long tail (Pearson’s Kurtosis = 789.73). From [1]


[1] Pausas JG & Leverkus A. 2023. Disturbance ecology in human societies. People and Nature [doi | wiley | pdf]

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