Lorenz’ butterfly.

Be the change you want to see in the world. – Gandhi

In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. – Proverbs 16:9 (NIV)

Had a meeting in D. C. last week – my first foray downtown in quite a while. Felt good! But meant I had to find my suit and tie (pictured). I call your attention to the butterfly in my lapel.

Have taken to wearing that lately. (You didn’t ask, but) here’s why.

Central idea is that wonderful metaphor of the Lorenz butterfly. Wikipedia tells us:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

Lorenz and his meteorological colleagues provided a mental picture:  a butterfly, minding its own business and fluttering about, can set into motion a growing disturbance that might generate a hurricane half a world- and weeks downstream.

The idea stuck. It has become the starting point of meteorologists’ stock rebuttal to all those folks who complain that weather forecasts aren’t that great.  

But perhaps Lorenz’ butterfly is a metaphor for life itself. Some reflections:

First, our individual lives and actions matter. Very cool! We yearn to make a difference. We hunger for our lives to have meaning. Gandhi’s profound quote speaks to this primal need and actually shows us how to satisfy it. he tells us that the greatest way for each of us to drive change – perhaps ultimately the only way we can make a lasting difference – is through our core character and nature. If and when we try to force change on others our efforts will (and should) fall short.

But we can’t fake it. If we change our own behavior, but it’s only an act (recall the original Greek word for actor was hypocrite), we fail to achieve the desired result. The only real and lasting influence on others or events that we have stems directly from our true essence, our being – nothing less. If others find that attractive, they’re inspired to follow suit and our influence will grow. If not, our impact will wither away.

It’s possible to sleepwalk through our reflection on this and only get part of the message – to conclude that Gandhi was right, but that he was at the same time implying that we should be satisfied with having some small individual-scale influence, not one that is earthshaking.

This is where the butterfly flutters in. Gandhi was going big. He was hinting that society, like the earth’s atmosphere, has attributes of a chaotic system. He was saying something more like: if you can master and hold fast to the needed or desired change in yourself, then that change can grow to become a reality of the larger world outside. In fact, that may be your only path to initiating big change.  

Second, we’re superior to that butterfly. We’re aware and intentional about the big picture, and what we want to accomplish in that larger arena.  The butterfly’s fluttering reflects a search for food, aquest for a mate, eons of Darwinian programming and the resulting bits of DNA – no more. In some but not all cases the butterfly may be migratory; it’s fluttering may have direction. But the butterfly is living in the moment. That distant hurricane is never on its mind. It has no idea whether its movements are generating such an extreme or ameliorating one. (Is its problem ignorance, or is it apathy? The butterfly doesn’t know and it doesn’t care.)

(That saves the butterfly a lot of frustration. Because in chaotic systems such as the Earth’s atmosphere, not all places and times are equally responsive to small changes in the initial conditions.  Only occasionally will a given butterfly find itself in a position of influence.)

Natural to feel smug in comparison. We humans can conceive of and hold to larger aims and purposes, and we are self-aware. We can see our progress towards these life goals – or instead know that we’re experiencing a rough patch – floundering about or even losing ground. We have a sense of which way we want things to go, and which way our world is tending. And a large part of being the change we want to see in the world stems from the educational path we choose and jobs we take and where and with whom we settle. We can do much to put ourselves in positions where our small contributions can make a big difference.

In the year 2023, when it comes to making a needed difference, we’re in a target-rich environment. The world needs betterment in many ways. A pandemic has shaken populations and ways of life. Recovering economies are fragile, struggling to cope with inflation and labor shortages. Meanwhile, food shortages loom. The environment, habitats, and biodiversity are on the wane. Inequity and injustice are rampant. War, terrorism, and violence wrack every continent; major actors like China and the United States are saber-rattling (and drawing other nations in). Autocracy is on the rise; democracies seem to be heading in the other direction. Given the vast scale and ubiquity of these woes, it’s easy to start (and easy to end each day depressed).

Together Gandhi’s wisdom and the butterfly’s exclamation point show us a path forward and give us hope.

But not so fast…

A third, more sobering aspect: intentionality itself has its limits. A small example from literature; Wikipedia tells the story:

The Jungle is a 1906 work of narrative fiction by American muckraker novelist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair’s primary purpose in describing the meat industry and its working conditions was to advance socialism in the United States. However, most readers were more concerned with several passages exposing health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meat-packing industry during the early 20th century, which greatly contributed to a public outcry that led to reforms including the Meat Inspection Act.

Scholars have generalized this dilemma in what is they call the intentional fallacy, saying “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”. How bad does this get? In our pessimistic moments, we speak of good intentions as “paving the road to hell.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to see similarities between the public’s reaction to warnings about climate change and its risks and the unanticipated, redirected uptake a century ago in response to Upton Sinclair.

Fourth: maybe, just maybe, there’s a Higher Level of Intentionality at play. This is not a new idea; it’s goes back a long way, some 2500 years or more.  Proverbs 16:9  (quoted above) makes clear that the people of that day (and place, the Middle East) were quite aware of the limits of intent. They saw it as the result of a hand of a Higher Power – God as they understood him. Taken by itself, the quote speaks of God’s final say without a judgment on whether that final say is a good or bad thing. But the larger context of the dozens of other proverbs and the Old Testament itself suggest they saw a God who favored plans aimed at equity, fairness, and general benefit, while working against plans to do evil. This picture of God expanded considerably as a result of later Mideast events memorialized every year since.

Change beginning requiring no more of us than merely remaking our individual selves? Change “going viral” in that deterministic nonlinear system we call society, and thus remaking the world – for the better? Reasons for hope this Easter weekend.

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Conjecture: If God can be okay with doubt, then so can we.

“A God who let us prove His existence would be an idol.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Tim Palmer, in closing out his extraordinary book The Primacy of Doubt, takes readers into the realm of the spiritual, contemplating what that primacy might tell us about God’s nature, about free will vs. determinism, or even about God’s existence or non-existence.

Virtually everyone who’s ever lived has pondered such questions, although at varying levels of depth. But even those who have been the most thoughtful – have expended the greatest effort – have concluded questions of God’s existence or nature will never be resolved.

Early in his exploration of this topic, Palmer makes this statement: “From spirituality comes the concept of a caring god, a supreme and yet personal creator. Many of those who believe in such a god do so because they seek a purpose in life…”

He goes on a bit later to say “As scientists we can mock such views for their naivety or for the quaint anthropomorphic character (God as a wise old man with a white beard, for example). However, the fact of the matter is that there are many profound uncertainties about the nature of physical reality. We have discussed some of them here. How can scientists dismiss such views about religion and spirituality when their own theories are riddled with such deep uncertainties?” [Emphasis added.][1]

This strikes a responsive chord. It seems miraculous in a way that physics works so accurately on a practical level when the universe is largely dark matter or dark energy. An (admittedly irresponsible? Tongue-in-cheek?) analogy: Suppose you had an auto mechanic replace a faulty muffler on your car. You’re expecting a bill for $800. Instead your mechanic presents you with a bill for five or six times that much. When you question the cost, he says, “well, the $800 charge is a small fraction of the ‘dark’ charges, which can’t be measured or detected in terms of their results on the car or its performance, but are in reality 85% of the total. You’re actually lucky I didn’t charge you additionally for the dark energy I expended in labor.” And you say, “Of course! How silly of me to forget that! Thanks for that free dark labor! And did I fail to mention? I admire your 700-pound brain and profound research so much!”

Yeah, right.

But let’s turn now to brief conjecture on God’s view of doubt. Start with Palmer’s statement  that many believe in a caring god who is a supreme and personal creator because we seek a purpose in life. In a sense, that’s tantamount to inventing god (some say that’s indeed what we’ve done). But if God exists separate from our imagination, it might better be said that we merely discover God. In fact, it seems more likely a Creator God would actually take the initiative, and that what is happening is that we encounter or experience God. Some (many? most?) theologians conclude that God’s purpose for Creation is to be in loving relationship (there’s a lot more to this notion than space here allows us to pursue). From there it’s a small step to say that same God wants us to have free will; otherwise the relationship is not particularly meaningful – no more than that between Pygmalion and his statue. (A brief aside: allowing free will does not limit God’s power if He retains the power to redeem any and all events and circumstances for His purposes.)

In our day-to-day experience, relationships based on inequality tend to be one-sided, unhealthy. That’s why speaking truth to power is a thing. The challenge increases the larger the inequality. The higher leaders climb in an organization, the gentler, the more open and transparent they must be if they are to foster the best possible outcomes from those reporting to them. This becomes the greatest challenge they face: how to foster creativity, innovation, risk-taking, equity, inclusion in the face of the hierarchy. Most leaders fail, too-often finding themselves surrounded by sycophants telling them only what they want to hear.

Back to a creator god: since the inequality in the god-creation relationship is truly vast, mere gentleness and unselfish love no longer suffice. Only if that god introduces fundamental doubt with respect to his very existence does he stand a chance that his creation can fully develop, and the resulting god-creation relationship be truly meaningful and worthwhile. Thus it seems likely that fundamental doubt about His existence is something God intentionally introduces, versus something that merely happens to Him by virtue of some transcendent necessity.

So… doubt does seem indeed to have primacy, reinforcing Palmer’s thesis[2].

[1] It should be noted that in addition to Palmer many scientists, including several notable ones (e.g., Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Francis Collins), have expended some thought on these subjects, reaching various conclusions, and changing their views over their lifetimes.

[2] A bit of an apology. Blog posts – necessarily brief, and written in haste – don’t really lend themselves well to big thoughts. This post conatins a lot of shorthand. In addition, it’s at best incomplete, rough around the edges, and very possibly, even deeply flawed.

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The Certainty Trap: weekend reflections on The Primacy of Doubt

“You lye, you are not sure; for I say, Woman, ’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.” – Toby Guzzle, a character in a play The Cobbler of Preston, by Christopher Bullock (1716)

(“Nothing is certain but death and taxes?” Usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but the priority really traces back further.)  


Do you want to contribute your bit to progress in basic physics as well as branches of applied and social science that people care about – e.g., meteorology, economics, the science of the brain, the science of war?  The physicist/meteorologist Tim Palmer, in his delightful and substantive book The Primacy of Doubt, suggests to succeed you should embrace uncertainty-and-the-way-it-shapes-reality as your starting point, in whatever direction you set out.

Actually, in his book and its structure, he hints at something more rather more grand and encompassing: Acknowledging the primacy of doubt is the way to do life.

In his Opening Note, he says to the reader, “ …you may wonder, since pretty much everything in life is uncertain [emphasis added], why I focus on the particular, seemingly disparate [scientific]topics singled out in this book…”

In his Introduction, he picks up the theme again: “UNCERTAINTY IS AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. We don’t know if we will be run over by a bus in the coming week or win some stupendous prize…Perhaps we might wish for supernatural powers to predict the future and relieve us from the stress of living under such uncertainties. But what sort of people would we be if we had these powers? If we knew for certain what was heading our way, would we still be the creative, get-up-and-go species we are?”

And at book’s close, he makes a foray into the spiritual, and into conjecture on the existence and nature of God, he draws a parallel to the cosmological invariant set. He makes a final mention of the Lorenz attractor, drawing attention to its butterfly-like appearance, and Lorenz’ discovery of the butterfly effect. He asks hypothetically if we were to construct a picture of the global fractal geometry of the cosmological invariant set (which he acknowledges is well-nigh impossible), might it not look like the multi-faceted face of God? His final sentences? “It feels like an intriguing idea. But of course I have my doubts.”

Wow. Doubt: the alpha and omega of real-world living.

But there’s more to this story. Just as Franklin didn’t originate “his” ironic aphorism about the unique certainty of death and taxes, this idea of doubt as fundamental to real world living isn’t uniquely Tim Palmer’s[1].

The world has come at this in a variety of ways. One fairly recent articulation is the so-called  Certainty Trap (apologies for the link here, which only shows the large variety of starting points for pursuing this idea further).

Ilana Redstone is an eloquent voice in this space. An example, with respect to politics; she says this:

“In the case of thorny issues, certainty can be an invisible trap… [by recognizing it] we can better understand and navigate disagreements far beyond those that concern the existence of God. Certainty often leads to a tendency to be dismissive or disdainful of ideas, positions, or even questions that one doesn’t agree with—particularly when those ideas, positions, or questions touch beliefs we hold dear. The most difficult problems set in when we hold them so closely that we cease to realize they’re personal beliefs at all.

One of those problems is political polarization. The term is vague, but here I’m using it to refer to multiple, interrelated factors. One factor is the way the primary political parties have adopted increasingly more extreme positions, especially in the United States. Another is the growing tendency to express disdain not just for the position one doesn’t agree with, but for the moral character of the person who holds it… 

Her perspective merits a read in its entirety; hopefully this whets your appetite. For example, later in that same piece she writes (those of us who are scientists might take special note):

“The fight against mis- and dis-information—a worthy goal—is often based on two flawed assumptions. The first is that definitive answers are known to the disputed points. The second, related to the first, is that the right people to provide those answers can be identified and agreed upon. Both assumptions are themselves often steeped in the Certainty Trap—a resolute unwillingness to recognize the possibility that we might not be right in our beliefs and claims.

Here’s another more recent piece by Redstone, focusing on tumultuous events at Stanford Law, but offering more general truths. An excerpt (again, you might want to read the fuller context):

So how can we avoid the Certainty Trap and engage without compromising core beliefs or countenancing views that we believe cause harm?

There are two basic ways. One is to be aware that the tendency to condemn the character of someone who disagrees with us comes from a certainty that is fundamentally inconsistent with the world we live in — even if that means examining our certainty around what constitutes harm itself.

The other is to recognize that no idea, value or principle is exempt from questioning, examination or criticism — by oneself or others. This second piece means clearly articulating our principles. After all, it’s difficult to question what hasn’t been named. But, again, it doesn’t require letting those principles go.

Ultimately, we don’t have to abandon our principles or our values — we just have to be willing to hold them up to the light and examine them. One way to think about avoiding the Certainty Trap is that it’s less about answering questions than it is about generating them.

Much to chew on!

A concluding thought. Avoiding the certainty trap, acknowledging the primacy of doubt, is a key first step to working with others to solve real-world problems, ranging from terrorism and war; to poverty; the environment and natural resources; and much more.

All this has been summed up in another aphorism: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Of course, Mark Twain coined that truth. (Or maybe not…)



[1] In fact, there may be a general truth here; the only truly unique ideas are minor, flawed ones. Truly good ideas are widely, perhaps even universally held; however vaguely, by all eight billion of us and those who have gone before. Our contributions lie, and are limited to, unique articulations of those.

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Remedial reading: The Primacy of Doubt.

Last Saturday, a uniquely-trusted source sent me this e-mail: I am reading Tim Palmer’s new book “The Primacy of Doubt” … if, by chance, you have not yet read this one, I think you would love it.

Advice from a trusted source? The name Tim Palmer, a leading light, not merely in a single field, but two – meteorology and basic physics? And the subtitle: From Quantum Physics to Climate Change, How the Science of Uncertainty Can Help Us Understand Our Chaotic World?

How could a meteorologist remain unmoved? Of course I bought it! The book has already been out for six months (eight billion people are busily accomplishing a lot while our backs are turned), so my reading was belated. Fortunately, in this age of instant gratification, the Kindle edition was in my hands within minutes. Had finished my remedial reading[1] by midday Tuesday.

Bottom line? If you’re a regular reader of LOTRW, chances are good you’ll want to buy this book and master it. Unique in its accessible presentation of chaos theory and its application across basic physics, meteorology and climatology, economics/financial crises, pandemics, war, science of the brain; and even our free will, consciousness, and God. No chaotic system left unturned.

Those interested can find any number of more comprehensive reviews of The Primacy of Doubt online. These are uniformly positive. Instead of merely piling on, I’ll focus on a few quick initial impressions and personal takeaways.

Inter alia, the book makes clear:

  1. Doubt is truly primary. Back in 2007, NASEM’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate published a landmark report entitled Completing the Forecast: Characterizing and Communicating Uncertainty for Better Decisions Using Weather and Climate Forecasts. They captured the rationale this way “Uncertainty is a fundamental characteristic of weather, seasonal climate, and hydrological prediction, and no forecast is complete without a description of its uncertainty.” Palmer is suggesting rather the opposite: characterizing the uncertainty is not some mere add-on, but rather a foundation of the weather forecast process. And furthermore, he argues it would make for a similarly useful starting mindset in the initial approach to economics[2], public health, and all the other applications he treats.
  2. Ensemble forecasting is essential – not merely useful. Palmer reminds us that when confronted with a chaotic system such as (but not limited to) the Earth’s atmosphere, the means to improved predictions do not lie so much through more detailed, accurate measurements of the initial state and greater model resolution, but rather through multiple less-detailed forecast runs designed to reveal the sensitivity of the forecast to slightly different initial conditions.
  3. Limits to the predictability of chaotic systems are intrinsic, not simply technological.
  4. Predictions per se differ from projections (the latter are conditionally dependent upon possible system responses to the predictions – e.g., human responses to environmental and economic forecasts).
  5. Uncertainty and doubt shape the implications of climate science for policy.

(Could add much more, but this gives a flavor…)

In closing, The Primacy of Doubt provided me a small personal gift – two (quite tenuous) touchpoints to my father Robert Hooke and his work, which I’ve mentioned from time to time in LOTRW. First, in discussing the geometry of chaos, Palmer dips into fractals, noting in passing that the arithmetic of fractals can be accomplished using p-adic numbers. I’d heard this latter term, but only because my dad had earned his Princeton Ph.D. with a thesis entitled Linear p-adic groups and their Lie algebras (published a year later in Annals of Mathematics, in 1942). This was an occasional dinner-table topic when my younger brother and I were growing up. At the time my puny adolescent brain absorbed little more than the thesis title and the idea (promulgated over my entire childhood by our mother, who was my dad’s biggest fan) that dad had mathematical superpowers.

Second, in The Primacy of Doubt chapter on weather, Palmer discusses a so-called annealing algorithm that uses noise to avoid being trapped by local peaks in searches for true optima.

This also struck me as vaguely familiar. In mid-career my dad had left pure mathematics to go into statistics and operational research, doing a postdoc under John Tukey at Princeton. Years later, while at Westinghouse, dad and a colleague, Terry Jeeves, published “Direct Search” Solution of Numerical and Statistical Problems in the Journal of the Association for Computing Machinery (JACM)., 8 (2) (1961), pp. 212-229. The paper described the mathematics behind an analog device they’d patented for identifying optima in the absence of guiding mathematical formulas (a paper that’s since been cited nearly 6000 times in this A.I. world). My (still) puny but now “mature” brain wondered if there might be an association between annealing algorithms and this work. Willy-nilly, I googled the phrase “simulated annealing Hooke Jeeves” – and was rewarded with a sizeable number of hits.

Isaac Newton once said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Tim Palmer’s wonderful book drives that point home, putting into context the work of Einstein, Mandelbrot, Lorenz, Penrose (and even Palmer himself). But at the same time we’re reminded that we stand equally on the shoulders of the ordinary but far more numerous unknown scientists who made quotidian advances into the endless frontier.

Thanks, Tim! (Thanks, Dad!)

[1] (Full disclosure), the word “read” in this context requires some explanation. The Primacy of Doubt is a serious work. Though intended to be accessible to the general public, in places it can be heavy going. Instead, I read this book the same way I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace – in a single day, years ago. I was home sick from high school; my 1950’s vintage world didn’t include today’s rich abundance of internet entertainment options. Needing something to do, I started reading before breakfast and confronted immediately a thicket of Russian characters, each with several patronymics. Impossible to sort out who was who! But I decided to forge on, willy-nilly, trusting that the people who mattered would be familiar to me by book’s end. Sure enough, it worked (though the material that “sticks” today deals more with the Napoleonic wars, Russia’s scorched earth policy, and conditions in tsarist Russia than any of its literary chops).

Applied the same strategy here. Figured that even if I didn’t get a concept that mattered the first time around, the topic would be revisited, applied to another context, expanded, and clarified later on. This worked to some extent, though not so well for the quantum-mechanical bits! Spent some time the past couple of days rereading those, with good results, though if Tim Palmer were to show up at my door brandishing a pop quiz, I’d flunk.

No worries! The Primacy of Doubt is now a member of that small handful of books worth reading again and again. I’ll master it eventually (though, by then, Palmer will likely have turned his quantum mechanical conjectures into groundbreaking theoretical advances… and further papers and books).

[2] Palmer cites Richard Bookstaber’s The End of Theory: Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction here. LOTRW provided a review when the book was first published.

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Everything, Everywhere, All at Once!

(writing this post in haste – wanting very much to post it before tomorrow evening’s Oscar Awards. Apologies in advance for any resulting rough edges.)

Meteorologists are in the business of making forecasts. And although the Navier-Stokes equations are silent on the Academy Awards selection process, I’ll venture a prediction: The Oscars will be a big night for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. (Space prevents a detailed summary of the film here; many of you may have already seen it. The link provides extensive background; you might also watch the trailer to get a flavor)

Hardly going out on a limb! Reviewers such as Roger Ebert who make such projections  for a living give the film strikingly high marks. The praise is near-universal. Even seasoned critics are offering comments such as “This movie is easily going on my top 10 favorites of all time list.”  Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, compiled from 381 reviews, gives it a 95%. And expert Oscars forecasters see a big night ahead, subject to their usual caveats that the Academy process is political. (To say the least. Many influences come into play, reflecting the needs and aspirations of the industry, the demographics of the voting population, and more.)

Importantly, the critical acclaim is more favorable (slightly) than the audience reaction; the Rotten Tomatoes audience score is a (still high) 88%.

(Full disclosure) the movies my wife and I watch recreationally have this ratio of audience score to critical assessment reversed. We don’t normally watch films that make us think too hard. And preserving our absolutely wonderful marriage is my top priority, so I normally defer to my wife’s viewing preferences. (Incidentally, this means a lot less attention to the NFL and MLB than I might prefer.)

But occasionally (for the Super Bowl; or for this-or-that important individual game) I request a special dispensation. And I did so here. A two-hour time block is a big commitment for us. Given this, saying “let’s watch an action movie about a woman who owns a laundromat and is dealing with family issues and with the IRS” is a hard sell. Worse, I had to admit in advance that while viewing, we would struggle to follow the plot line even in the most general way and be bewildered/overwhelmed by a rush of complex, sometimes violent action and detail (another forecast that verified). Also watching this movie through a home-streaming option is (relatively) expensive. But I wanted to see it. So I begged.

Why? And why do I recommend/wish to inflict this experience on you?

Two reasons. The first applies to everyone living on the 21st-century real world. The film mirrors much of our actual lives. However real the multiverse may be, we don’t really live in it consciously day-to-day. But the chaos of actual 21st-century living gives the flavor. Most of us daily attack stupefyingly complicated and relentlessly demanding careers. Whether at home or at the office the day job is a grind. The larger context? Hardly stable or in any way reassuring. Our world constantly teeters on the brink of collapse: the global economy. Co-existing unemployment and workforce shortages. War in Ukraine. Tensions with China. Terrorism. The reverberations of the pandemic. Immigration: populations  on the move in the face of climate change, famine, geopolitics. Drugs. Drought. Floods. Unusual winter storm patterns. Earthquakes. A sense that our daily individual actions and decisions at the same time (a) have profound consequences and (b) don’t make a difference. Family relationships – spousal, parent-child, etc. – fraught even in the best of times – are dangerously frayed by this world’s pulls.

To repeat: the whole multiverse shtick, profound or unfamiliar as it may be, doesn’t feel like much of an extension of today’s real-world challenges. So at the movie’s end, when everything comes down to those deep family relationships, it’s a strangely reassuring reaffirmation of what matters most to all of us. It’s actually celebratory.

Second, the LOTRW readership is largely a community focused daily on understanding big, chaotic systems like the Earth’s ocean and atmosphere, the Sun, and their impact on individuals and social systems. The chaos seen here is mother’s milk to meteorologists.

As a small, whimsical footnote to drive home the point. When the movie came out, the title had a bit of familiar ring that I couldn’t place. Finally, last night, during a bout of insomnia, I remembered why. It’s associated with this bit of doggerel, dating back to 1957 (!) from our AMS community[1]:

More data, more data,

Right now and not later.

Our storms are distressing,

Our problems are pressing.

We can brook no delay

For theorists to play.

Let us repair

To the principle sublime:

Measure everything, everywhere,

All the time.

More data, more data,

From pole to equator;

We’ll gain our salvation

Through mass mensuration.

Thence flows our might,

Our sweetness, our light.

Our Spirits full fair, our souls sublime:

Measure everything, everywhere,

All the time.

(emphasis added).

Meteorologists have known for decades that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can change weather, and therefore change history. We make our living not just witnessing everything, everywhere, but quantifying and predicting it – and not just “all at once” during the occasional violent event, but “all the time.”

Everything, everywhere, all at once? We’ve got this.

[1] Poem by A. Fleisher. Originally published in 1957 in the Proc.Sixth Weather Radar Conf., American Meteorological Society, Boston, MA, p. 59. Slightly modified by Peter Black, NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division.

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Per Tony Stark, (re-)inventing human herd immunity to natural hazards.

(completing the thought of the previous LOTRW post)

Humanity is far down the path to developing herd immunity with respect to covid-19 and derivatives. Time was, our paleo-forebears “invented” an artificial but similarly effective resilience with respect to weather, climate and other geophysical extremes. How?  By observing and mimicking the innate behavior of animals and plants – following the latter’s seasonal migrations and changes. In this way nomads and pastoralists not only maintained a (somewhat) steady food supply but also gained a side benefit: they minimized the worst impacts of a sometimes-violent Earth’s rhythms of flood and drought and intense heat and cold. In retrospect, this prehistoric way of doing business might be thought of as an early form of  sustainable development (call it sustainability-version-1.0).The characterization is too grand by half; aside from the pastoral overlay, human practice did little more than plagiarize the behavior of other predators in the ecosystem.)

However sustainable, nomadism had its limits. Humanity, individually and collectively, imagined greater opportunities. Generations of such vision and ambition led to today’s agriculture, advanced economies, urbanization, and the accelerating technology and social change. Millennia of innovation have greatly increased human numbers, extended lifespans, and enhanced the quality of those lives.

The improvements have also exposed humanity to new and unanticipated downsides. These include, but are not limited to, climate change; loss of habitat and biodiversity; and a widening gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged, accompanied and aggravated by the complacency of the former and a backlash of the latter. Human successes have also occurred in a time short compared with natural climate variability and the recurrence of Earth’s extremes. As a result, year-by-year flood and drought, hurricanes and winter storms continue to surprise – to expose unforeseen vulnerabilities and risks of unprecedented scale (illustrated most recently, for example, by the Pakistan floods and western U.S. water shortages) latent in our current (often novel and therefore untested) ways of doing business.

In sum, we have exchanged sustainable development for brittle, possibly short-lived, affluence – and even that small advance isn’t equitably accessible to and enjoyed by everyone[1]. Can our current practices can be maintained over the long haul? The jury is out.

Hence societies’ worldwide efforts to overlay our ways of doing business with various forms of protection against hazards. Akin to The Avenger Tony Stark’s development of his Ironman suit of sci-fi armor, we seek to create and “wear” improved resilience.

Many early attempts have focused on engineering: levees and dams to deal with cycles of flood and drought; HVAC to cope with seasonal extremes of heat and cold; new methods of building design and construction to withstand storms and high winds. Because these and similar first-generation fixes provide mere resistance to hazards (as opposed to true resilience) we might call them Ironman v1.0.

Today’s globally-connected ways of living have altered the vulnerability profile. Though loss of life and property damage still matter crucially, hazard threats are in equal measure about disruption of flows of commerce and trade through impacts on critical infrastructure, such as roads and rail; electrical power and other forms of energy; water supplies; waste disposal; etc. Here in the United States, the ice storms and heavy snows of the winter season have brought home the importance of keeping the lights on, roads passable, and more.

Think of it this way. Ironman v1.0 “protected the wearer from physical harm,” but Ironman v2.0 focuses on uninterruptible critical infrastructure, equipping the wearer to “continue to function, not simply survive.” Such extended capabilities require nations and peoples give attention to land use; assess and reduce hazard risks to physical plant-and-function of networks responsible for maintaining power, food and water supplies, waste disposal, transportation, communications, financial transactions; and more.

 An aside: Weather, climate and other geophysical extremes present themselves quite differently around the globe. Polar threats are different from the hazards at tropical latitudes. Coastal threats differ from those inland. Earthquakes and vulcanism are driven by plate tectonics. Many of the threats are quite local in nature, and they encounter local populations and settlements that vary widely in terms of urbanization, economy, technology, and culture. The world therefore presents many microcosms of the larger hazard challenge. This has led to piecemeal approaches and a corresponding diversity in appearance and function of Ironman suits worldwide. The effect has been to accelerate innovation (a good thing) but at the same time progress has been uneven and blind spots and gaps still remain (and remain to be discovered) in the protection needed.

To build true resilience to hazards across our society – to build true herd immunity to natural hazards into our DNA – something much deeper and more pervasive is needed (Ironman v3.0 as it were). An exhaustive treatment can’t be given here, but the basic elements include:

  1. Learning from experience. Instead of merely rebuilding-as-before after disasters, and therefore condemning future generations to live under the same cloud of disaster risk, we need a culture change. We need to achieve holistic understanding of the causes of disasters we suffer (an example in the current news might be nailing-down the origin of the covid virus; another, ongoing example might be the attribution of certain disasters to climate change) and make appropriate changes in action or behavior. Building-back-better (though unfortunately identified with a single political party) comes to mind. Also, as has been noted many times in LOTRW posts, we would do well to adopt the NTSB mantra: “this or that calamity must never happen again.” (The original LOTRW post on this topic was followed by many others over the past decade.)
  2. Learning period-full-stop. Learning-from-experience is part of a larger context of education more broadly. That begins with the subjects of natural hazards and the engineering and social approaches towards hazard risk reduction specifically. Experts tell us that K-12 public education on these topics is middling-to-poor at best. But the problem is far broader: trained-labor shortages pose one of the biggest challenges facing the implementation of green technologies. And mere technical training is not enough. Education – setting these topics in the context of societal values is essential. That’s because the last element needed is…
  3. Equity. In today’s connected society, resilience can never be fully realized until it’s universal. All of us, whatever our role in the world’s interlaced demand and supply chains, need to cooperate from protected platforms to keep economies going and social fabric intact in the face of natural hazards. Game theory and social science continually show that fairness is essential, not merely helpful here.

A closing thought. Avengers:Endgame audiences might recall Tony Stark/Ironman’s role in disintegrating the supervillain Thanos[2] and his army once and for all, thereby saving the human race from extinction.

Stark sacrifices his life to this end. If humanity is to build and sustain resilience to natural hazards, many of us will have to give our lives to this cause – not in some cataclysmic climax, as Stark did, but through the steady, continued expenditures of our time and talents.

😊Totally worth it!

[1] LOTRW – the blog and the book – explore this.

[2] One source, Michael Jung, tells us that  Thanosthe Mad Titan, has one of the most threatening names in Marvel Comics. In Greek, the name “Thanos” is a short form of the personal name “Athanasios,” which means “immortal.” The name, however, is also derived from the name “Thanatos,” a Greek mythological figure who carries humans off to the underworld when their lives are done.

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To build “herd immunity” to natural hazards, channel Tony Stark.

Herd immunity to pandemics is a thing – actually, something of a human superpower.

However, herd immunity to other hazards, including weather and climate extremes, is not. No human superpowers here! But perhaps we could emulate the fictional Marvel character Tony Stark – and invent some.

Digging a bit deeper:

Humanity is more-or-less successfully coping with covid-19 in much the same way as it has handled previous pandemics over past millennia – through the buildup of:

Herd immunity (also called herd effect, community immunity, population immunity, or mass immunity) is a form of indirect protection that applies only to contagious diseases. It occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through previous infections or vaccination, thereby reducing the likelihood of infection for individuals who lack immunity.

Today, we recognize herd immunity as an example of a basic biological process we call natural selection. The idea (and the label) has been around long enough that today it seems ordinary. But when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace introduced it in 1858 it was electrifying. To recapture the feel for the early impact of that notion, let’s speak of a human superpower – one built on a three-fold foundation: 1. The pre-existing diversity in people’s immune systems allow some – perhaps many – to survive a pathogen’s initial attack. 2. Human immune systems are trainable. 3. Virtually all human beings share these traits; generally speaking, access is not (directly) restricted to a limited, privileged few. The ultimate result? Successive pathogen onslaughts encounter a more resilient population and fewer pathways for infecting any remaining vulnerable human hosts.

A key point. As the definition notes, innate herd immunity can be augmented by intentional societal action. In the covid-19 instance, researchers quickly mapped the virus genome, and drew inferences on its sources and ways of working. Others developed tests to detect the presence of the virus. The pharmaceutical industry invented vaccines to train and strengthen natural immunity at the individual level (as well as antivirals to constrain the severity of individual infections). The larger society adopted habits such as mask wearing, social distancing, teleworking, and remote learning to protect against disease transmission.

Pandemics, however, are not the only doomsday challenge we face. And when it comes to the others, we lack a built-in physiology that might help us survive. What to do? The answer differs from challenge to challenge, but let’s start with natural hazards – primarily cycles of flood and drought, and severe storms such as hurricanes, but also including climate change, earthquakes, and vulcanism. These matter because our host planet does its business through extreme events. Earth’s ecosystems and the individual plant and animal species they comprise have nearly-perfectly adapted both their structures and their behaviors to the timing and nature of these extremes – capturing their benefits, and minimizing their associated hazards.  The global migrations of birds and whales, seasonal births of many species timed to take advantage of plentiful food supplies, and hibernation are just a few examples.

Early on, the human race enjoyed a similar success, through nomadism: hunter-gatherers simply followed the migrations of wild game, and pastoralists moved their herds and flocks to productive grasslands. In this way they kept losses low and at the same time kept food on the table.

But wait! There was no table. No furniture of any kind. No shelter of any permanence. Keeping pace with migrating animals and seasonal changes required traveling light. Shelter and possessions were kept to a minimum. Nomadism had its limits; work was relentless and wealth accumulation not in prospect.

Human creativity and cleverness helped our ancestors see clear opportunities – advantages of truly marvelous consequence and scale – that would be offered by agriculture, by trade, and by built environments, if we would only root ourselves in fixed place. What we saw less clearly was that these advances would be accompanied by novel vulnerabilities to hazards[1]. An earthquake threat is magnified by building collapse. Drought poses a greater hazard to a society dependent on monoculture. And so on.

While the opportunities posed by fixed settlement, economic specialization, and technology advance were evident and immediate, it has taken time for the attendant shortcomings and vulnerabilities to manifest themselves. What’s worse, even as the risks have become more evident, continuing scientific and technical advance and social change have further mutated the vulnerability. Particularly challenging has been the rapidly growing dependence on critical infrastructure – early on, in the form of civilization’s dependence on roads, on water supplies, and waste disposal – and more recently on energy (especially electricity), and on communication; and on soft infrastructure like centralized financial, educational, and healthcare networks.

Enter the (entirely fictional) Marvel character Tony Stark, who:

…is initially depicted as an industrialist, genius inventor, and playboy who is CEO of Stark Industries. Initially the chief weapons manufacturer for the U.S. military, he has a change of heart and redirects his technical knowledge into the creation of mechanized suits of armor which he uses to defend against those that would threaten peace around the world. He becomes a founding member and leader of the Avengers.

Mr. Stark possesses no superpower. But being clever, he conceptualizes and builds some, most notably his Iron Man apparel. As a society, we need to do the same if we want to cope with weather, climate, and other geophysical threats with superpowered effectiveness.

What might that look like? More details to come.

[1] And disease as well; pathogens have historically found new opportunity in crowded urban environments.

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Existential threats, and human superpowers.

coronavirus and the asteroid Dimorphos, compared

To be human these days is to have a lot to worry about. News media play into this mindset. Joel Achenbach’s recent post, appearing in yesterday’s print edition of The Washington Post Magazine, provides a particularly thoughtful and comprehensive example. Here’s his list of existential worries, compiled under the foreboding title What Doomsday Looks Like Today:

10. Solar storm or gamma-ray burst.

9. Supervolcano eruption.

8. Asteroid impact.

7. Naturally emergent, or maliciously engineered, pandemic plant pathogen affecting staple crops.

6. Naturally emergent, or maliciously engineered, pandemic human pathogen.

5. Orwellian dystopia. Totalitarianism. Endless war paraded as peace. The human spirit crushed. Not a world you’d want to live in.

4. Cascading technological failures due to cyberattack, reckless development of artificial intelligence and/or some other example of complex systems failing in complex ways.

3. Nuclear war (may jump soon to No. 1).

2. Environmental catastrophe from climate change and other desecrations of the natural world.

1. Threat X. The unknown unknown. Something dreadful but not even imagined. The creature that lives under the bed.

Cringeworthy indeed.

The doomsday piece was short on suggestions for global fixes. Achenbach closed with a focus on NASA’s recent successful attempt to impact and redirect an asteroid. He points out that this is less of a success story than a promising start, ending with these words: Sometimes you just celebrate the win – and get ready to fight another doomsday.  

Well said! A lot of work left to do, and we need to stay on our guard. But let’s admit it. Sometimes, confronting the challenges we face in today’s world, you and I wish that – like Tony Stark, or Thor, or Hulk – we could simply and naturally bring to bear a superpower to make things right.

Well, it turns out we all can and do. You and I – every single one of us – have a truly remarkable superpower, one that we call on each and every day, one that carries us through an unending series of life-and-death battles. Fact is, we don’t contend with a single enemy, but swarms of them. And they’re comparably super-powered, superbly equipped to do us in. Among their powers? They’re invisible. They enter our bodies unnoticed. Once in, they rapidly penetrate and spread. Even as they destroy and disable, they multiply in numbers, they feed, and they gain strength. They use us as launch pads to sneak up on and attack others.  They even take up permanent residence when given the chance. And it doesn’t end there; they also mutate. They’re constantly changing shape and form in a relentless effort to render themselves unrecognizable and/or more dangerous. Give these myriad enemies a single name, like Legion, or Pandemos, and we’d have the makings of an Avengers blockbuster film.

The real-life enemy? pathogens. Our comparable, contending superpower? The human immune system.

Over the course of history, the human race has suffered many casualties from these wars – most notably in the plagues and pandemics triggered by bacteria and viruses. To date we’ve always survived, and eventually emerged the stronger for the experience.

The recent covid experience is illuminating, and rather amazing when you think about it. Covid-19 encountered a world population of eight billion people. By official counts, some 6 million people died. (By studying excess deaths over the period, most public health experts conclude this figure is a serious underestimate. The true death toll so far likely numbers between 15-30 million.)

But most people’s immune systems enabled them to shake off the disease with little apparent difficulty; for them, the typical course was not that different from common influenza. Partially as a result, monitoring proved a challenge. Global statistics of confirmed covid cases come to some 600 million, or about ten percent of the population. But we’re told undiagnosed or unreported cases were most likely three or four times that figure. (And even this trivializes covid’s impacts. Research suggests that 40% of covid survivors experience long-covid[1].)

Three attributes contributed to this success.

1.Diversity in human immune response has helped the human race survive so far. Smallpox, the bubonic plague, and myriad other threats have ravaged society over millennia, but have always left survivors. As any particular pathogen mounts successive attacks, it encounters a population of those survivors and their descendants, whose immune systems just happened to be better suited to fend it off. In that way, populations repeatedly exposed to any given infectious disease tend to build up an inherent herd-immunity, rendering pandemic threats self-limiting over time. (That’s certainly proved true of covid. The repeated waves of the disease, though more contagious, have been less severe.)

2.But covid survivors aren’t merely more immune by default or heritage. The human immune system that protects us against pathogens doesn’t consist solely of a generalized, innate component; it also has a built-in adaptable piece. The latter can be trained by prior exposure to identify and destroy specific pathogens. Individuals, once exposed, can be much more disease resistant the second time around.

In effect, our immune system learns from experience.

3.Importantly, this ability to adapt and learn from experience at the biomolecular level has been hardwired into our individual physiology over millions of years of human evolution.

As a result, it is nearly universal (essentially everyone is included) and involuntary. It’s not something we consciously control – and it’s always “on.” You and I can’t choose to opt out – anymore than we can prevent others from bringing it to bear.

This threefold combination – preexisting population diversity, learning from experience, and inclusion and unity in the face of the threat – is the key to herd-immunity. Remove any one of these three attributes, and humanity would be far more vulnerable to pathogens.

Unfortunately, humanity possesses no comparable natural immunity to other “existential worries.” Or do we? And could attention to these three attributes hold the key to reduce other risks we face?

More next time.

[1] Lingering fatigue affected more than one in five. One in eight reported shortness of breath, insomnia, joint pain, memory loss, and other problems. A smaller group develop more severe complications and conditions such as heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and even chronic fatigue syndrome.

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Long-term (covid, Fiona, Ian): a postscript.

Journalism has been artfully described as “history’s first rough draft.” Blogging is something less: perhaps “thought’s scratchwork?” Posts are certainly ephemeral – and often they deserve to be. They may be short of context: they typically contain only a single idea, and or only the germ of that idea. The ideas aren’t even guaranteed to be good. They often lack the kind of rigor enforced in science by experiment and peer review; and imposed in journalism by legwork and consultation with original (usually multiple) sources, followed by the steely-eyed scrutiny of editors. Like scratchwork, blogposts are most useful only when/if they capture, improve upon, or contribute to a larger, more deliberative thought process of the author or others.

On the positive side, that feedback process can be quick. Take Wednesday’s LOTRW post, drawing comparisons between hurricane losses and long-term covid. Less than 24 hours after posting, this email came in, containing gentle advice from a close colleague:

Meant to share a very interesting storymap with you, Bill. Here’s a link, if you haven’t seen this already — https://www.nesdis.noaa.gov/news/harms-way-hurricane-idas-impact-socially-vulnerable-communities

My ignorance was even greater than she realized. Storymap? Is that even a thing? The new-to-me mashup-word sent me scurrying to the internet, to find this:

A story map is a graphic organizer that helps students learn the elements of a narrative. Learning to identify a story’s characters, plot, setting, problem, and solution prompts students to read carefully to learn the important details. There are many different types of story maps.

Closer to my colleague’s point, there is also this description from an ESRI website:

A story can effect change, influence opinion, and create awareness—and maps are an integral part of storytelling. ArcGIS StoryMaps can give your narrative a stronger sense of place, illustrate spatial relationships, and add visual appeal and credibility to your ideas.

(Okay. Yet another wondrous-but-simultaneously-humbling reminder of the marvelous advances eight billion people can and do make while our backs are turned…)

So, then, jumped to the NOAA storymap in question. Published this past June, and entitled In Harm’s Way, it tracks the impacts of last year’s Hurricane Ida (not to be confused with this year’s Ian) as it tracked across the United States.

What a remarkable piece! It starts out this way:

In the past, storms like Hurricane Ida could have simply been seen as a natural disaster, affecting both economically advantaged and disadvantaged alike. But it’s becoming readily apparent that low-income communities suffer more damage and are at greater risk from extreme events. Research shows they are less prepared for the effects of extreme weather events. 

Often, residents of low-income communities don’t have the resources to evacuate, recover, or adapt in the face of extreme events. Additionally, the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations are frequently compounded—such as the COVID-19 pandemic, inland flooding, and rising global temperatures, in Hurricane Ida’s case.

With every climate-related disaster in the nation, economic damages are measured and addressed, while the human toll is less readily assessed. Residents of the most-at-risk communities are increasingly pushed into permanent displacement, homelessness, or deeper into poverty. As disasters become more frequent in a changing climate, vulnerable communities find it more challenging to recover and too costly to try to rebuild or retreat.

Hopefully, you’ll find time to read the full NOAA storymap. Definitely lives up to that earlier promise: a story can effect change, influence opinion, and create awareness—and maps are an integral part of storytelling. But a warning! Don’t expect it to be a quick read, the way so much web-based content can be. It’s information rich – has more in common with poetry than with prose, with rich chocolate than potato chips.

A big takeaway for me in the context of yesterday’s LOTRW post? In the comparisons between hurricane and covid impacts I failed to make explicit the important role of pre-existing conditions. In the case of covid, adults and children who are immuno-compromised or suffering from chronic heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma or chronic lung disease, sickle cell anemia, etc., are at greater risk. What’s more, these vulnerabilities correlate with age-, income-, education-, and race-ethnicity disparities. The NOAA storymap and many other sources drive home the connection of these preexisting susceptibilities and inequalities to the hurricane case.

A final postscript on a postscript? Yesterday the Washington Post ran a story highlighting the scale and degree of the suffering and impact of Ian on those at ground-zero, especially those with preexisting vulnerabilities.


Makes it all the more important to look for ways and means to build up community-wide resilience to hurricanes and other hazards analogous to the herd immunity acquired in the face of infectious disease. That can be done! More on that in the next post.

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Long-term covid…and Long-term Fiona, Long-term Ian…

Downed trees and power lines in Bartow, FL following Hurricane Ian – 52393701499” by State Farm is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Consider this working definition of a natural disaster: disruption of an entire community, persisting after the hazard has come and gone, and exceeding the community’s ability to recover unaided.

For the moment, focus on the idea that the impacts of disasters don’t quickly fade, but linger.  

Start with the pandemic. Covid’s long-term, persisting disruption grows increasingly evident day by day and month on month. Over the past three years, one hundred million cases have been documented here in the United States. Fortunately, the great majority of these cases have proved mild, and recovery quick and seemingly complete. For most sufferers, the experience was hard to distinguish from a bad case of the flu. As a result, up to an additional 50 million cases nationwide may have gone unreported.

Of course, the fuller picture is more sobering. For a small minority the outcome of the infection was far worse – requiring hospitalization, and even proving fatal, in some cases.

What’s more, it appears that as many as one in five infected (whether severely or mildly) may experience symptoms of so-called long-term covid, that persist and are debilitating even months later. Those symptoms are both physical and mental. They vary in severity, but they include headaches, difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”), sleep problems, joint or muscle pain, dizziness when standing, shortness of breath, diarrhea, or stomach pain, and (perhaps unsurprisingly, given this list of woes) depression or anxiety. Victims may also be more vulnerable to type-2 diabetes, kidney failure, and heart problems. Long-covid, though defined only in the most general terms, and difficult to diagnose unambiguously, currently devastates millions.

In the face of these health impacts, and given the large numbers of people affected, experts have estimated the associated effect on the national economy. They’ve concluded that long-term covid:

This eye-watering figure is itself undoubtedly an underestimate. Additional covid long-term impacts include the following:

  • enduring financial and psychological, and spiritual burdens on the family members of those who died.
  • Inflation, stemming from governmental actions to ameliorate the impacts of widespread lockdowns. (Additionally, the specter of recession looms.)
  • A generation of school-age kids who have seen their educational progress impeded or even interrupted for 1-2 years, at a critical point in their maturation/development. Standard test scores have plummeted.

War – disaster by another name – imposes similar long-term losses. Some time back, economists made similar efforts to assess the cost to the United States of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They arrived at a total approaching some $3 trillion. What’s especially sobering? They have noted that only a third of this cost has already been incurred – and most of that money was borrowed, embedded in the national debt. Little of this has been pay-as-you-go. Two thirds of the expenses have yet to be experienced. The cost includes nearly $2 trillion in health care, disability payments, burial and other costs not yet incurred that will be due to 4 million veterans over the next several decades, peaking, we’re told, only around the year 2050 (!).

As the case with covid, any impacts of the wartime deaths on the families (say, the effects of the loss of a breadwinner at a critical stage in a family’s life; the grief of family members and the pervasive, continuing influence of that grief on family prospects) haven’t been factored in.

Which brings us to natural disasters. Take Hurricane Ian. On September 29, as many as 2.7 million of Florida’s businesses and homes – a quarter of the total – were without electrical power. By October 3, that figure had dropped below 600,000. On October 14, the Washington Post reported the remaining outages numbered only a few thousand. It could be argued that as has been the case with covid, the millions of people in the hurricane’s path who were homebound for a few days, or suffered a temporary loss of electrical power, were merely inconvenienced. But the same report ominously noted that

At Ian’s ground zero — places like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel — it may be weeks, perhaps even months until the lights come back on. While many have sought refuge elsewhere as the islands are rebuilt, some vulnerable, elderly residents refuse to leave — meaning they are living without consistent access to lighting, refrigeration and, in some cases, even water.

On October 19, the New York Times reported that hundreds of people are still living in shelters following Hurricane Ian. The article contained this excerpt:

As of Tuesday, 476 people remained at two public shelters in Lee County, most of them at Hertz, an ice hockey and concert arena. The county took a direct hit, with 5,041 residential properties destroyed and 13,052 suffering major damage, records show. Many of their occupants have second homes or relatives with a guest room to fall back on, or can secure rental properties while they await federal disaster assistance, insurance adjusters and general contractors to help them begin rebuilding their lives.

But many of the people relying on shelters have none of those options. Sleeping side by side on American Red Cross cots and air mattresses are service-sector employees who are newly homeless and unemployed, retirees dependent on Social Security checks, and newcomers to the region with neither resources nor connections. Many were renters in North Fort Myers and other lower-income areas, barely making it even before Ian.

The Post article focuses on those living in shelters. But those displaced who are now living with relatives or in other rental properties are not much better off. At best their lives have been put on hold.

They’re experiencing long-Ian.

Amidst much media fanfare (occasioned by covid’s novelty), the covid virus is mutating into new variants, which in turn trigger surges of cases across the population. In the same way, hurricanes come and go, triggering surges of death, suffering, and economic loss. There’s the Hurricane Fiona variant. Go back a few years and we see the Hurricane Maria variant. The Harvey variant. The Katrina variant. The Andrew variant. Each of these has claimed its long-term casualties. Those who survived these and other natural disasters, but were severely impacted, are still alive – and many find their present circumstances, years later, still dictated by that single catastrophe. (Much as college graduates find themselves still enmeshed in college debt. However, long-term disaster survivors lack any benefit corresponding to that of the educational experience, or any political prospect of debt forgiveness.)

Some closing observations. First, the discussion here has focused solely on the hurricane “variants.” Natural hazards losses extend to flooding, drought, wildfire, tornados, and other events as well. Although definitive economic analysis of the long-term costs of natural hazards has yet to be accomplished, NOAA estimates that natural hazards losses totaled $145B in 2021, a figure roughly equal to the average for the past five years. At that rate, losses are aggregating at a rate of a trillion dollars every seven years. According to one estimate, one in ten U.S. homes (14 million!) experienced disaster loss in 2021. (That figure which primarily represents damage from winter storms, appears a bit extreme; it’s probably better characterized as “weather-related damage.”) More extensive, definitive economic analysis of these impacts would be useful.

Second – in contrast to the pandemic – the U.S. economy, its building stock, and ways of doing business have not been “vaccinated” against future losses, nor is there a buildup of any “natural immunity.” Successive weather and climate events can be expected to produce every bit as much shock and disruption as those in recent experience.

Third, and finally, the burden of these losses (covid-, military-, and hurricane-) is spread unevenly across the population. What’s more, the relatively unaffected world quickly moves on. Hurricane Ian no longer commands the headlines. For most Americans, today’s focus is on the upcoming mid-term elections, on gas prices, . But for the elderly on Sanibel island, or those families still in shelters and without jobs to return to, the nightmare is only just beginning, its full dimensions just coming into view. Just as long-covid sufferers or wounded veterans who’ve lost limbs or suffer from PTSD struggle to get medical attention, let alone actual relief, so Ian survivors experience loneliness and isolation – often leading to alienation – in the face of desperate need.  

This fraying of the nation’s social fabric may represent the greatest cost of all.

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