Plenary Lecture, International Conference on Complex Systems, Boston U.S.
Critical transitions occur when slow, sometimes imperceptible, changes in conditions bring a complex dynamical system to a point where runaway processes such as positive feedback take over from the negative feedback processes that have hitherto kept the system in check. Examples that have been cited include sudden shifts and collapse in ecosystems, financial market collapse, climate change, social collapse, and the outbreak of revolution or war. At an individual level, the onset of medical problems such as asthma or epileptic attacks, and even the breakdown of relationships, may also come into the same category. In this talk I describe how recent discoveries in ecology have revealed the existence of a generic set of early-warning signs that are common to a wide range of critical transitions in all areas of life. I explore how we may be able to use such warning signs to predict the imminence of such transitions and to help avoid them or ameliorate their effects.