Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 12, 2010

Fire, flood, and famine are white swans

Filed under: Catastrophes,Futures,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 12, 2010

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)

Chinese economy slows (China People’s Daily) and related: US stocks fall (Wall Street Journal)

Russian fires, Pakistan floods may be linked (National Geographic)

Pakistan floods: An emergency for the West (The Telegraph)

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You should have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them

Friday Update:

Floods likely to have destroyed crops worth $1 billion (DAWN) (Pakistan)

Devastating power of China floods (BBC)

Ames faces water crisis (Des Moines Register)

Russia’s peatland fires seen burning for months (Reuters)

Sunday Update:

In weather chaos: A case for global warning (Front Page of Sunday New York Times)


Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by Art Botterell

August 12, 2010 @ 2:00 am

Or to put your point another way… the distinction between low frequency and low probability is really just a matter of the size of the planning window. In the U.S. we tend to embrace a very short planning horizon. Anything that doesn’t fall within the immediate corporate financial period or political term gets discounted heavily. That encourages short-term depletion of resources without long-term reinvestment, whether we’re talking about topsoil or bridges or emergency preparedness.

Pingback by More on current international disasters « Recovery Diva

August 12, 2010 @ 4:53 am

[…] by recoverydiva We refer you to the posting today (August 12) by fellow blogger Phil Palin, titled Fire, flood, and famine are white swans. He asks why we continue to be surprised about disasters […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 12, 2010 @ 5:49 am

Mankind still cannot see much over the next hill without technology. So perhaps while we pretend we can see we cannot. The period of record for most catastrophic events is just too short to reflect adquately many risks. Whatever there probability.
Yes Phil there are both black and white swans out there and suggest you read the most recent comment by me on the previous post.
Your reading suggestions are magnificant contribution to my knowledge base. So many thanks. And of course excellent post.

Comment by 66

August 12, 2010 @ 6:33 am

The American university mirrors the chaos of the world.
You wanna bet it does. What happens in Vegas happens everywhere.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

August 12, 2010 @ 8:15 am

“low probability, high consequence” events. That’s not quite right. More accurately these are “low frequency, high consequence” events.”

Even if they (events) are low probability and/or low frequency, they are still to a degree random and unpredictable. Even though hurricanes, floods, and tornado’s and terrorism have pre incident indicators and a variety of meteorological interface and conditions, their direction, duration, and windows of predictability are unknown. Post mordems have hindsight or all “perfect” knowledge, therefore it appears relatively easy to reverse engineer incidents. The overreliance on technology and science, in terms of a predictive tool have failed to accurately predict the consequences of nature and terrorist attacks even though a considerable amount of effort has been spent on methods of “prediction.” Are catastrophes the natural result of cause and effect, or are we simply fooled by randomness?

Often, we believe institutionally that if we can understand the cause of earthquakes, floods, fires, and terrorist attacks, we can do something about them. It’s an odd model of risk management but in practice, discovering the cause of catastrophe is mostly an exercise in hindsight. Much of the 911 commission was operating post event in a “complete knowledge” situation, thereby diminishing the tightly coupled complex adaptive system messages. In reverse, post event analysis makes it is easy to trace back a path. In present, real time however, not so much.

“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”

Patterns also emerge from trend analysis. Today’s current events are tomorrow’s trends. Also, we have enough science to predict where these incidents will occur but not when. There are some hard geographical requirements for earth quakes, hurricanes et al. but to your point, about institutional memory; we dismiss it. So is the dismissal brought on by nature or nurture?

“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.”
To me this is the key and future of our resilience and preparedness models. The essence of black swans is their unpredictability; their randomness.
You must build a different response methodology. In my opinion, resilience does not come from stuff, it comes from quick adaptation to a situation; rapid recognition, rapid response action. We must invest in and make better thinkers, decision makers and problem solvers, not equipment, buildings, or Harlequin Romance (fantasy romance) Plans… Those comfortable with ambiguity are able to transcend what appears to be a limiting situation. There also needs to be a re examination of risk. We must take intellectual risk encouraging and rewarding nonconformist innovators who develop solutions to situations and enemies that easily adapt. The second part is to embrace reality and realize that our overreliance and coveting of technology is a limiting factor and realize that its use will not improve our predictability capability or mitigate risk.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. We need better fisherman, not fish!!!
Great post!

Comment by 66

August 12, 2010 @ 10:08 am

“The entire scheme has the potential to dismantle in days as market-system liquidity can disappear in an instant.”

Learning is accompanied by pain.

Comment by SummerRain

August 12, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

I think it was Kissinger (or IronMountainReport) that said, ‘control the food and you control the world’.

Low or high frequency, all of these examples of what is to come soon. Russia not selling its wheat this year will have far reaching consequences around the world soon. What frequency will that be?

Comment by 66

August 16, 2010 @ 10:06 am

They outta think twice about selling that nuke fuel to Iran. There’s a higher power. Looks like a ghost town. Booo!

Comment by Olga

May 16, 2013 @ 6:21 am


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>