Governing Cascade Failures in Complex Social-Ecological-Technological Systems: Framing Context, Strategies, and Challenges

J.B. Ruhl · 22 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 407

Abstract

Cascade failures are events in networked systems with interconnected components in which failure of one or a few parts triggers the failure of other parts, which triggers the failure of more parts, and so on. Cascade failures occur in a wide variety of familiar systems, such as electric power distribution grids, transportation systems, financial systems, and ecosystems. Cascade failures have plagued society for centuries. However, modern social-ecological-technological systems (SETS) have become vast, fast moving, and highly interconnected, exposing these systems to cascade failures of potentially global proportions, spreading at breathtaking speed, and imposing catastrophic harms. The increasing potential for cascade failures of the magnitude of the 2008 financial system collapse, which had a truly global reach and affected systems well beyond finance, screams out for clear thinking about governing vulnerability to cascade failures in SETS. Yet, legal scholarship on the theme is essentially nil, and a more comprehensive, generalizable governance theory leveraging knowledge from scientific research on cascade failures has not emerged. Research initiatives are needed to forge ground on three fronts: (1) system modeling and monitoring; (2) event prediction; and (3) event prevention, response, and recovery. This Article is a first step in that direction. Part I outlines the cascade failures problem. Part II summarizes the scientific research on cascade failures. Part III identifies strategies for controlling cascade failures. Part IV explores the governance challenges of deploying those various strategies in large-scale SETS. Part V extends the analysis to the special case of cascade failures within ecological systems and the difficulties of managing them through the strategies coming out of cascade failures science. Lastly, Part VI suggests directions of future research on governance of cascade failures.