Friday, March 25, 2011

Goethe, Dominos, and Black Swans

It’s been a good year for disasters. Three months into 2011, the planet has already undergone 76earthquakes ranging from six to 9.9 magnitudes on the Richter scale. The death
toll in Japan alone from the recent quakes and subsequent tsunami will certainly surpass 100,000.The number continues to grow as affected coastal villages dig out.

In Japan, a secondary, very real fear comes from the failure and breakdown of affected nuclear plants which could spew radioactive material into the atmosphere. Prevailing winds would then carry this deadly dust to the rest of the world.

The Japanese have always been victimized by earthquakes and tsunamis and so have largely adjusted their lives to the whims of a capricious Mother Nature. Their architecture is designed to accept tremors and does so hundreds of times a year—lesser tremors, of course,
that those generated by the latest shift of the planer’s plates. What they did not anticipate, or perhaps chose to overlook, was the potential effects of natural disasters on something that, once unleashed, cannot be controlled again.

All nations using nuclear power to generate electricity have made a deal with the devil. Think Faust on a national level—we trade our souls for a cheap power source and in doing so we
believe we exert some form of control. Actually, we control nuclear power much as we control sunlight, that is to say not at all. We pretend that by drawing the shades we exert some sort of power over a star. With nuclear power, we have  done much the same by surrounding the beast with concrete, water, valves and cooling ponds, all of which are fallible. We do not know how to really tame the core of a runaway reactor though we should have learned a lesson or two from Chernobyl, and the next nuclear tragedy is not a probability, it is a certainty.

Such things have a domino effect. Natural tragedies wreak havoc with commerce. The aftershocks are felt worldwide as markets reflect uneasiness and fear, and nations weaken.

A new term has recentlyentered the vocabulary. Scientists speak of ‘black swans’ when referring to a wide array of possible destructive events. The phrase was coined and
popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a New York University professor of risk engineering and author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Black swans include
any number of tragedies that could have been foreseen. The September 11 attack comes to mind, as does the ravage of New   Orleans by Katrina, the eruption of Mt. St. Helen, and the possibility of solar flares that would knock out a good percentage of the planet’s power grids. Here’s a simple, very real example: a fault runs through CharlestonSouth Carolina. It has devastated that area before, in 1886, with a quake estimated at a magnitude of 7.3, that
killed 60 people and was felt as far away as Wisconsin. The area has a very real seismic
history, scientists believe, yet the population at large does not believe Eastern Americans cities are vulnerable.

Such events reverberate. We should be prepared for them but seldom are. As go individuals, so do nations. We forget pain, we take little stock in history, and we are amazed when it
repeats itself. Perhaps we’re getting what we deserve.

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