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

  1. Dave Rodenhuis says:

    #4. Population — Reduce the human population. It’s started. Accelerate. I’ll do my part. 🙂

    • William Hooke says:

      🙂 Dave! Great to hear from you on any subject, but especially in this vein. Your comment is on point. Crisp. You haven’t lost a step. Continuing best wishes.

  2. Re #4. Well, let’s see. Wars do that. Famine does that. The government can order no children by diktat, a la China. Maybe a little harsh, but … Nah!

    What really works is prosperity. Those more prosperous don’t need to have as many kids to support their families. We need to help those at the bottom prosper – to build wealth so they can weather whatever storms of whatever type that may come. And reparations aren’t the answer. Most of those who’ve been stuck in inner city schools can’t read or write or manage their money. That means that eparations will go to the grifters, the hucksters and the flim-flam men and women (the con game is an equal opportunity employer, as the founders of the BLM Foundation have shown us). Reparations also would go only to less than a quarter of the poor – after all, there are twice as many non-Hispanic whites living in poverty as blacks. Add Hispanics to blacks and you still are aiming at only half those in need.

    So how do we get to prosperity for those in need? It’s easy to answer but hard to do: education – your #2, Bill. Teach science and math, rudimentary economics and financial literacy, and communications (English and public speaking). Teach our history – warts and all – but don’t ignore the progress we’ve made. Point to all those who’ve succeeded through their own endeavors – no matter the color, no matter the ability, no matter the field. Certainly you can highlight the barriers they’ve overcome, but in doing so acknowledge the effort and the achievement in doing so.

    The only ideology taught should be that most fundamentally American one – aspiration. We should aim to do good, and we should aim to become better. To me, education is the only real vaccine for our turbulent times. And too many seem willing to leave too many of our children unvaccinated.

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