A persistent drought and intense heat has brought huge wildfires to the Moscow region, killing off twenty percent or more of the Russian wheat harvest. The international price of wheat doubled between late June and last week. (This week the market is a bit confused).
A super-flood has inundated the breadbasket of Pakistan directly affecting 14 million people. According to Al-Jazeera, “The prices of basic items such as tomatoes, onions, potatoes and squash have in some cases quadrupled in recent days, putting them out of reach for many Pakistanis.”
China has experienced significant flooding in several regions since late May, and more heavy rain is predicted. In July Chinese food costs increased 6.8 percent as a result of flood-related supply problems. The floods have also worsened conditions in already hungry North Korea. The geopolitical and broader economic consequences remain to be seen.
These extreme events — plus the earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — are sometimes categorized as “low probability, high consequence” events. That’s not quite right. More accurately these are “low frequency, high consequence” events.
8.0 earthquakes are infrequent. But in any given year on a global basis such earthquakes are highly probable. The probability of such an earthquake devastating California increases slightly each day.
In homeland security — and other disciplines — we are helpfully encouraged to consider what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has tagged as Black Swan events. Mr. Taleb explains a Black Swan has three attributes:
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
What is happening in the Indus River valley has also happened in the Yellow River valley and will recur in other river valleys. Last night flooding in Iowa killed one and displaced hundreds. What is happening outside Moscow occurs each year outside (occasionally inside) San Diego and Melbourne. Earlier this week California firefighters contained a large fire near Banning.
Such disasters should be a regular expectation because historical events convincingly point to their recurrence. Unfortunately, our sense of history seems to have a half-life of about ten days. As a result, we are perpetually surprised.
In a new history, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, the authors outline three fundamental policy errors that recur in history, across several civilizations, and which may characterize our contemporary situation:
In the modern world, we’ve made the same three mistakes that the Romans made and the Mayans made. And that first mistake is that we, too, have come to depend on fertile topsoil. And we have ignored the fact that the topsoil is eroding. Now, we’ve masked our problems with topsoil with chemical fertilizer, but that just swaps one dependency for another.
The second mistake we’ve made is the fact that we’ve come to depend on harvests, which we get from relatively nice climates. And the late 20th century was pretty good, generally speaking, for growing season – say, between 1930 and 1990, there were no major climatic shocks in the world’s bread baskets. Things are likely, however, to change.
The third mistake we’ve made in the modern age, which also echoes the historic antecedents, is that we have caused our farmers to grow economically efficient by specializing in one or two products. And while this makes wonderful economic sense, it’s terrible ecology. (August 7 NPR interview)
Patterns are perceived over time and space. The scope of time and space available to us is key to the accuracy of our perceptions. But… regardless of this scope, we are strongly inclined to favor direct over indirect perception. It requires unusual effort to apply indirect knowledge as vigorously as direct experience.
I have only seen one black swan. From a distance it was an beguiling creature. I have had, in contrast, several unhappy encounters with white swans. They are aggressive, mean, and smelly animals. I understand — and accept — Mr. Taleb’s conceptual distinction. But in the flesh, a white swan may not be so different from a black swan.
If I am attentive and as well-prepared as possible to meet a white swan — or a flock of white swans — I should be a bit better prepared for the black swan as well.
For further consideration:
Is another food crisis coming? (Time)
Russian fires, Pakistan floods may be linked (National Geographic)
Pakistan floods: An emergency for the West (The Telegraph)
Floods likely to have destroyed crops worth $1 billion (DAWN) (Pakistan)
Ames faces water crisis (Des Moines Register)
In weather chaos: A case for global warning (Front Page of Sunday New York Times)