Thinking about the unthinkable – 2011 style

Half a century ago, a young man by the name of Herman Kahn burst into national and international prominence because of his proclivity (and aptitude) for Thinking about the Unthinkable (the title of a book he wrote which appeared in 1962). The book was a sequel to his 1960 treatise On Thermonuclear War, and pretty much dealt with the same subject matter. Kahn’s contribution was to apply rudiments of game theory and unsentimental analysis to the cold war – the nuclear arms race and the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. One takeaway emerging from his work at the time? The key to avoiding war was to ensure that neither side see an opportunity to win by making the first strike. [An acronym arose to capture this: Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).] This led to a massive proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a diversity of platforms for hiding and launching these: aircraft, submarines, missile silos, etc.

In those days, the world’s peoples focused their thinking on nuclear war as the one event that could be something of a showstopper for the human race. It was in the back of everyone’s mind for decades, and prompted policies and events ranging from the Marshall Plan to the Vietnam War.

Today, with the splintering of the Soviet Union, the spread of nuclear weapons technology, and the rise of terrorist groups, that threat has morphed into something far more complex.

At the same time, human ingenuity has created many more threats, and human imagination has contemplated an additional variety of still further threats from the external world.

A short catalog of these?

–          nuclear scenarios ranging from dirty suitcase bombs to acts of rogue nations

–          pandemic

–          climate change

–          an asteroid strike

–          global collapse of the financial sector

–          cyber threats…

One question that ought to interest all seven billion of us is this: how much thought and energy is being devoted to understanding these and other possibilities? Have we identified the full set of scenarios? What else might be added? What do we know about their likelihood? What are their relative risks? Can we detect the emergence of these threats at an early stage? What options do we hold for addressing any and all of these hazards? What research would improve our odds of staving off or postponing such global catastrophes?

Why bring this up now? Because of what today’s headlines reveal to be on our minds.

Contrast the amount of ink (in print media), or the amount of viewing time being devoted to two topics.

The first? The Washington Post article by Vastag and Eilperin entitled: Global warming already crimping crop production, pushing prices higher. The latter is based on a report published in the most recent issue of Science, by David Lobell, Wolfram Schlenker, and Justin Costa-Roberts, suggesting that global warming has already resulted in reductions in grain production of 4-6%, triggering grain price rises totaling tens of billions of dollars.

The second? Articles too numerous to count on the death of Osama bin Laden.

Both threads of thought are likely to prompt animated discussion for months and years ahead. And they should!

What really matters, however, is the focus of those discussions.

With regard to the agricultural report, look to see what fraction of the coverage emphasizes how to refine such calculations and estimates going forward, versus what fraction casts aspersions on the motives of the people and groups arriving at various estimates.

With regard to bin Laden’s death, what percentage will argue the merits of passing along photographs of the events and the aftermath, identities of the men involved, details of what happened during the last few minutes and other gossipy bits? What percentage look forward to the more serious issue of the nature and likelihood of the terrorist threats that remain or will emerge? We can only hope that away from the headlines, the balance of effort is on the future real-world challenges as opposed to the ear-tingling trivia.

We seem addicted to gossip about the possible…

…at a time in history when we need rather urgently to think about the unthinkable.

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