By Juli Pausas, and Alexandro B. Leverkus.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed; please check back for a link to the full paper.

Earthquakes, wars, and pandemics abruptly change the dynamics of human societies. As humans living within societies, we view each of these events as a unique disaster. If we take a broader view and look at these disruptive events as analogues to ecological disturbances, that could help us understand them and better prepare. A disturbance event can be described according to its spatial extent and the severity of the disturbing force, such as the spread of an epidemic diseases or the Richter magnitude of an earthquake.

However, the actual effect of disturbances –for instance in loss of life and infrastructure– also depends on the properties of society itself.

Dangerous diseases cause fewer fatalities if they occur in rich societies, and small-magnitude earthquakes can be devastating if poor construction materials are common. Disturbances sometimes reinforce each other, such as hurricanes that initially destroy a town but are most deadly through diseases spread because of lack of clean drinking water. But rather than being only destructive, repetitive disturbances can produce societal adaptations that allow us to cope with future events. Recurrent fires have led to building regulation and fire brigades, diseases to vaccination campaigns and medical response infrastructures, and tsunamis to global alert systems.

While we can control some impacts of disturbances based on our experience from past events, we cannot avoid them all, and we inadvertently create new disturbances as society changes. As we face novel risks from global societies and environmental changes, understanding disturbances in human societies may help develop policies towards a better capacity to buffer their impacts and a quicker and more comprehensive recovery.