The real world we live on does much if not most of its business through extreme events. In fact, it might be argued that extremes are a feature of many large systems. “A tempest in a teapot” is an oxymoron. But “when it rains, it pours.” And these extremes of precipitation are not just the salient feature of the hydrologic cycle. They also play a big role in redistributing heat around the globe, the formation and maintenance of the polar ice caps, the nature and functioning of ecosystems, the very landscape, including familiar geological formations – hills, river valleys, seashores. The lightning in those tempests triggers chemical reactions that in part shape the trace composition of our atmosphere – especially oxides of nitrogen. And so on.
When we were not yet a global society, but an aggregate of hundreds or thousands of local societies, living on the real world meant coping locally with local hazards: cycles of flood or drought, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, etc. Even though here and there a community might fail, myriad other communities and societies continued on, unaffected…and in the earliest human history, wholly unaware…of what might be going on half a world away.
That is not the case today. Advances in science and technology and extraordinary social change, spurred by economic incentives, have transformed us. In particular, information technology, especially with the invention of the telegraph and then radio, served to make us all more aware of catastrophes when they occurred. In the century since, that same IT, itself transformed, has taken us a step further, connecting us to such a degree that our fates, once independent, are now intertwined. Today we’re not just aware of events a world away – we’re impacted by them.
For an appreciation of this, contrast the impact of the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD, which destroyed Herculaneum and Pompeii but was noted across the Roman Empire only; the eruption of Tambora in 1815, which created the somewhat mysterious “year without a summer” in Europe and the Americas in 1816, and the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which was known worldwide essentially in real time. Fast forward another century, and we find that even relatively minor volcanic eruptions – Eyjafjallajokull and Puyehue-Cordon – have had immediate repercussions on international air travel and associated business and trade. [Pick your hazard of interest; you can trace its impacts through a similar trajectory over the centuries.]
We have become such an interconnected, truly global society not through any grand, strategic design, with the long-term consequences anticipated and thoroughly thought through. Instead this revolution in the way we live and work is the result of experiment – in fact, a plethora of experiments – with far more attention given to immediate individual or corporate gain than to long-term societal risks and consequences.
The benefits have been truly extraordinary! But we are belatedly discovering (and in many cases, creating) new risks.
When we’re lucky, we see these risks coming in advance rather than hindsight. More accurately, some see these risks coming in advance, while most of us remain oblivious. Pick any location, any institution, any future possibility, and people will start lining up – some will see it as opportunity; others will see only disaster. Only rarely are opinions equally divided. This means that in most cases, it’s easy to go along with the preponderant view. Generally that view proves correct.
But not always. And it has been thus since the beginning. That is why, in legend, we find virtually all Trojans enamored with the Greek gift of a large wooden horse – the seeming end to years of siege and war. Only Laocoon feared the worst…and prescient though he was, he was attacked and killed by sea serpents for his pains. His warnings fell on deaf ears. In actual history, we find that in the 1930’s, the world as a whole, wearied by “the Great War,” “the war to end all wars,” was reluctant to take on Hitler; only a minority, the Winston Churchills of the world, were arguing for confrontation. By contrast, the world is arguably better off for having largely ignored the 1990 warnings of Iben Browning of a New Madrid earthquake and Harold Camping’s doomsday prophecy of last month.
Our difficulties are compounded by the complexity and uncertainties enshrouding the threats we face today. They are not matters of black and white. Monday at the WCDM Lester Brown put forth his view of the future, a kind of sum-of-all-fears view, and outlined the steps we should take to head off a grave future of worldwide social upheaval driven by a global shortage of food (itself the result of climate change, population increase, and unsustainable water resource management)and accompanying price run-ups. But there’s plenty of room for disagreement here, plenty of opportunity for events to unfold in a more nuanced way than a sudden, precipitous breakdown of worldwide social order.
It’s tempting to see this diverse set of views about the future, about our goals on the one hand, and the unintended consequences of our actions on the other, as a problem. But the fact is, we’re far better off with such divergent opinions and dialog, even contention and a bit of rancor, than we are when we all share the same blind spot. As we keep the dialog going, we sharpen the issues and improve our chances for wise decisions and appropriate action.
Other Conference plenary sessions the past two days have examined quite different disaster scenarios. Tuesday morning Richard Clarke spoke of cyber-threats. That afternoon a panel looked at the likely consequences of a major earthquake and tsunami triggered along the Cascadia subduction zone, just off the western coast of North America. A talk on nuclear threats is scheduled a few minutes from this posting.
More on these talks and scenarios in future posts.