This and every Christmas, our attention eventually turns to our true love, and his/her gift of seven-swans-a-swimming (along with six geese-a-laying, five gold rings, four calling birds, and all that other kit).
Here are seven Black Swans that figure in this year’s headlines.
Black Swans? Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his best-selling book, Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, has famously pinned this label on unlikely, high-consequence events. He tells us they share several common properties: “First, [each] is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
Examples sometimes given? The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, whose 70th anniversary was observed this past week. The rise of the Internet (note that some Black Swans can be beneficial). The 9/11/2001 terrorist attack. Hurricane Katrina’s strike on New Orleans. The 2008 global financial-sector meltdown. In each event, post hoc study finds plenty of signs that prompt us to conclude, “They (we) should have seen this coming, and taken action.”
Anything similar we might have to contend with in the future? What are the world’s circumstances and this particular point in history offering up as Black Swans? Here are seven candidates.
A large asteroid impact. “Far-fetched,” you say. Well, 2005 Yu55 came near enough, didn’t it? And almost all seven billion of us are basically doing little more than sleepwalking through this and other narrow astronomical escapes. We say, “Wow, that’s coming pretty close. But it’s going to miss. What’s for dinner tonight?” There’s little thought along the lines of what would we do if, or, more accurately, what will we do when? One of these days, a similarly precise orbital calculation will predict a collision instead of a mere pass-by. And it’s time now to think through the consequences, and what actions we’ll take. Wait instead until a collision is, say, only six months out, and we’ll find very few options available to us.
Adverse environmental consequences of fracking. When you read the articles and look at the web material, do you get the idea that fracking is the answer to the maiden’s prayer? Energy. In the large amounts we need. Available domestically, instead of from dicey sources abroad. Cheap – so far. In a form we’re used to using; the needed infrastructure is all in place. Clean compared with the coal we might otherwise burn. Seem too good to be true? Maybe. Take, for example, EPA’s report released Thursday. We risk groundwater pollution. Increased earthquake activity. And somewhat slowed, but nevertheless rising, greenhouse gas concentrations. And we’re consuming huge amounts of needed water. Such unintended consequences of fracking are only slowly being identified and documented. But the practice of fracking is growing explosively, on every continent. Any unwanted side effects may well prove to be manageable (like that asteroid near-miss). But if things get messy, they could get messy on a massive, expensive scale.
A collapse of the Euro. For months the Europeans – and their international creditors – have been fixated on this. They’ve watched EU leadership bicker and dither and attempt a series of last-minute rescues. Each attempt thus far has fallen a bit short – forcing another go around in a few weeks. Each successive attempt has perforce been more extreme. It remains to be seen whether this latest settlement, agreed upon by the entire EU with the exception of Great Britain, will prove sufficient where the others have failed. Ordinary Asians, Americans, and Africans have idly watched from what we all presume to be the sidelines. Analysis suggests this complacency is misguided…that a failure of the Euro will ricochet around the world’s financial system much as America’s stock market bubble set into motion the chain of events leading to the Euro’s current crisis: immediate losses in the trillions of dollars, followed by an extended recession and accompanying high unemployment. Again, a near miss is possible…keep hoping!
An attack on, or failure of, our global cyber infrastructure. This week’s main story covered a cyber threat from a few years back to our military. The threat? Known as Agent.btz or Agent.AWF. Google the names; you’ll find Wikipedia entries and more. Agent.btz’s weapon of choice? Apparently a thumb drive. Hmm. A lot of those around. The challenge here is the blistering pace of technological advance, matched by quick societal uptake. With seven billion people and a $100 trillion dollar world economy we’ve desperately needed all this capability and have put it to widespread use as soon as it’s come available. IT underpins our entire society. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems manage all of our critical infrastructure…energy, food, water, transportation, health, financial… Our new and growing dependence has outstripped our experience with emerging vulnerabilities. Identity theft? Computer viruses and worms we’ve seen so far? They’re only the merest first hints of a downside to information technology put into place decades ago. Newer, bigger, more daunting problems are coming. This is perhaps the blackest of the seven black swans.
A global food shortage. Science and technology of the past few decades have outstripped or kept pace with population growth over the same period. But innovation seems to be slowing, at least for the intermediate term. And biofuel demand is now competing with food for arable land. Costs are spiking, and impoverished, vulnerable populations face spot shortages even now.
Climate change. This morning, the folks at Durban seem to be reaching an agreement. But what kind of agreement? Looks to be a last-minute compromise to keep the Kyoto accords in force for a few more years while we commit to continue working toward a possible new treaty that might come into force in 2015. Or 2020. In the meantime, fossil-fuel use and carbon emissions continue to rise – faster than ever. We’re gaining an appreciation for what’s involved in the needed climate adaptation, but we’re moving slowly. Suppose those Kyoto negotiators had been told fifteen years ago that’s all the progress we’d have to show today for their efforts. They’d have been dismayed.
The rise of social networking. Ah…at last, some possibly good news. That, and the IT revolution at its root, continue to be one of the more promising Black Swans. Together? They hold the potential for surmounting these other challenges. Why? Because they allow, even encourage, the harnessing of seven billion minds to solve Black-Swan and more mundane challenges.
Why these seven Black Swans? You have already thought of more, haven’t you…maybe a pandemic, maybe nuclear war…and we should hold a place or two for one or more of Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.
So why these seven? And why today? Each is a threat without precedent (the one good Black Swan excepted; it is an opportunity such as we’ve not seen before). Each –unlike some of those notional Black Swans of the past – is a global threat, or has the potential to be so. As each occurs, there will be no unaffected populations able to carry on. And each is figuring in the news, in some guise, every day. Afterwards, however dazed, we won’t be able to say we hadn’t a clue. Here’s a final reason for this group: all are interconnected, and all are pieces of the sustainability puzzle our generation is working through.
Let’s go back to that seventh Black Swan: the social networking made possible by IT. But that social networking is only potentially helpful. We could opt to use that tool to facilitate our collaboration on things that matter. But there’s an alternative. We could settle for using social networking to increase gossip, to build cliques, and to accelerate the spread of envy, hate, cynicism, division.
Why mention this? For two reasons. First, when we check out social networking sites we find evidence of good and bad at work. Rather mirrors the human condition, wouldn’t you say? So, this, too becomes a global challenge we should address.
Fortunately this one isn’t at all expensive. It’s entirely under our control. Moreover, during this season, if ever, is our opportunity to get that seventh Black Swan working for us, not against us: to build our store of “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
A big reservoir of such good will? A recognition that our fates are intertwined, shared; that we’re fundamentally interdependent? The best possible starting point for handling any big problems that may come up.