Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 23, 2011

Syria: Now it is the children

Filed under: Futures — by Philip J. Palin on September 23, 2011

Over the years I have wondered what my response would have been if I had been alive when the rumors began of the Nazi regime’s mass murder of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others.

Official camp record photo of Samu Berkovics (inmate no. 59757), who arrived at Buchenwald Concentration Camp on a transport of Hungarian Jews from Auschwitz

I was several years younger than the four girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  I have vague memories of incomprehension.  If I had been older, would have I been outraged? If so, would I have done anything with the outrage?

Four killed in the September 15, 1963 bombing in Birmingham

When I was twelve I read Cry, the Beloved Country and wept.  I inserted South Africa into a couple of courses I taught in the late 70s and early 80s. But I made no meaningful contribution to the struggle against apartheid.  Despite my personal disapproval, I was careful to explain South Africa’s internal situation within a broader historical and geopolitical context.

For more than six months hundreds of thousands of Syrians have engaged in largely peaceful protests against the Assad regime.  More than 3500 have been reported killed, including 217 children.

Children in Lebanon carrying pictures of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, whose tortured and mutilated body turned him into a symbol of the Syrian uprising.

Today it is being reported by The Scotsman and others that, “Syrian children chanting for revolution marched in Damascus and in other parts of the country after school yesterday, only for some to be detained or beaten by security forces. Children as young as ten have been taking to the streets since the new term began on Sunday, according to witnesses, in what appears to be the first major involvement of schoolchildren in the six-month-old uprising against president Bashar al-Assad.”

Today it is being reported by Amnesty International that, “The mutilated body of 18-year-old Zainab al-Hosni of Homs, the first woman known to have died in custody during Syria’s recent unrest, was discovered by her family in horrific circumstances on 13 September. The family was visiting a morgue to identify the body of Zainab’s activist brother Mohammad, who was also arrested and apparently tortured and killed in detention. Zainab had been decapitated, her arms cut off, and skin removed.”

What should I do?

I can, of course, question the veracity of the reports and the credibility of sources.  I should certainly be aware that information is usually framed and targeted for a purpose.  This is especially the case  in a complicated context such as contemporary Syria. I can recognize the risk associated with any revolution.  I can be cautious.   I can give attention to serious problems closer to home.

But when a wide range of sources from the New York Times to Facebook all bring similar stories of courageous calls for freedom meeting brutal oppression week after week after week, what should I do?

When children choose — or are being used — to join the protests and are being beaten and killed, what should I do?

At the very least I should not avert my eyes.  At the very least I should acknowledge what I have seen.

This is not enough, but it is the very least I can do.

September 9, 2011

Change alone is unchanging

Filed under: Futures,General Homeland Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 9, 2011

The north reflecting pool, photograph by Michael Arad.

The tall towers have been replaced by deep voids.

Framed by the rush of falling water, the shallow pools are meant to reflect their surroundings.

At the edge of each void the names of the dead are inscribed in bronze.

In his original proposal the memorial’s architect, Michael Arad, wrote,  “A cascade of water that describes the perimeter of each square feeds the pools with a continuous stream. They are large voids, open and visible reminders of the absence.”

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man. (Heraclitus)

Surrounding the void is a grove of swamp white oaks.  Fast growing yet long lived, the trees could flourish for the next three centuries.  The species is native to New York and well-adapted to extremes of climate and urban life.

More than four hundred American oaks will be joined by an exotic other.  A single Callery Pear tree survived the collapse of the towers. Originally one of several ornamentals lining the plaza it was found, according to New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, “soldered, twisted and gnarled and blackened.”

The Callery Pear is native to East Asia and is considered by many an invasive species, tending to crowd out less prolific flora.   They also have “a nasty habit of crashing just as they reach their glory at 15 to 20 years old… Often large limbs are lost in wind and ice storms, but can also fail on a calm day.”

Last December when the Callery Pear was replanted, Mayor Bloomberg commented, “The presence of the Survivor Tree on the Memorial Plaza will symbolize New York City’s and this nation’s resilience after the attacks.”  Perhaps it also symbolizes our openness to diversity even in adversity.

The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony. (Heraclitus)

Tonight at 8:30 a choir with orchestra will perform at Trinity Church, a quick walk from the memorial site. The two hour performance will include elements of the Faure RequiemAmazing Grace, and three movements of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem. This is the culmination of a day-long series of concerts alternating between the Trinity sanctuary and St. Paul’s Chapel.

If you have visited Ground Zero you have almost certainly passed St. Paul’s.  This is a colonial-era church just across the street from where the towers once stood.  Amazingly the church survived without even a broken window.  A giant sycamore gave its life shielding the chapel from falling debris.

In the hours, days, weeks and months after the attack St. Paul’s served the needs of those involved in response and recovery.   Lyndon Harris, who was there, wrote, “More than 5,000 people used their special gifts to transform St. Paul’s into a place of rest and refuge. Musicians, clergy, podiatrists, lawyers, soccer moms, and folks of every imaginable type poured coffee, swept floors, took out the trash, and served more than half a million meals. Emerging at St. Paul’s was a dynamic I think of as a reciprocity of gratitude, a circle of thanksgiving—in which volunteers and rescue and recovery workers tried to outdo each other with acts of kindness and love, leaving both giver and receiver changed.”

The final performance tonight is Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace) from the Bach B Minor Mass, considered by many the consummation of Western choral music.

Discussing the purpose of the memorial, the architect explained the design’s intention as, “stoic, defiant and compassionate.” These three characteristics do not always travel comfortably together.   But you can hear each in Bach’s closing chorus.

I am told that in the months after the attack the mood at St. Paul’s was persistently stoic, defiant, and compassionate. In that particular place where the very worst was so painfully present, firefighters and cops, physicians and iron-workers, believers and unbelievers, the wide range of humanity responded as one.

Again Lyndon Harris writes, “We just got up, day after day, dressed accordingly, and went about the monumental task of trying to make sense out of absurdity, bring order out of chaos, and reclaim humanity from the violence that sought to make human life less human. This was also a season of remembrance as we mourned the loss of loved ones. It was a season of improvisation as we tried, often at our wit’s end, to respond to the needs emerging from these never before experienced acts of terrorism.”

We can still be at our wit’s end.  Defiance often seems our default when either stoic restraint or unrestrained compassion would do better.   But it is not one or the other. We are to embrace opposites.   Bach was master of counterpoint, the musical expression of eternal paradox: love abides with hate, good abides with evil, life abides with death.  This is our perpetual reality.

All things are in flux; the flux is subject to a unifying measure or rational principle. This principle — logos, the hidden harmony behind all change — binds opposites in a unified tension, which is like that of a lyre, where a stable harmonious sound emerges from the tension of opposing forces that arise from the bow bound together by the string. (Heraclitus)

August 11, 2011

Security Through Diversity

Filed under: Education,Futures,General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on August 11, 2011

This is another in a series of posts considering the analysis and recommendations of Linda Kiltz in a recent edition of the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.


Before reading Dr. Kiltz’s article outlining the challenges in developing a homeland security discipline, I was fiercely ambivalent about the wisdom of engaging in such an endeavor. In the interests of full-disclosure, this is a subject she and I discussed while I was on the faculty of the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government and she was finishing her doctorate there in 2007. Although I admire her scholarship and passion, which I have considered carefully, I am now convinced not only that we do not need a distinct homeland security discipline, but that its successful emergence could prove harmful to the enterprise itself.

Much of my concern arises not from how we might define what is or is not within the homeland security domain, but rather what we decide is and is not within a legitimate and well-defined curriculum to support the preparation of its practitioners. Dr. Kiltz writes:

The homeland security enterprise consists of public organizations at all levels of government, non-profit organizations and businesses. As such, there are hundreds of thousands of employees and volunteers that are involved in this enterprise with a broad range of job descriptions, duties and skills. In order to prepare professionals to serve within the homeland security enterprise, it will be necessary to provide them with the knowledge and skills to perceive, analyze and respond to disaster and crises from multiple perspectives and paradigms (Drabek, 2007; Waugh, 2006; Bellavita, 2008). While this certainly will be challenging, it will be critical given the on-going threats we will face now and in the future. The scope and magnitude of the disasters in 2010 provide us with a warning signal of increasingly catastrophic disasters to come.

I have significant issues with the two main propositions presented in this paragraph.

First, while accepting the existing diversity within the field as it currently exists, Dr. Kiltz fails to acknowledge what specific contributions each makes to the whole. Is that whole equal to, less than, or greater than the sum of its parts? If the success of the present enterprise is in anyway a product of its diversity, how then will a curriculum that draws only on limited parts of the contributing disciplines foster perspectives that improve the concentration or orientation of expertise rather than promoting its dilution or dissipation?

Second, the future for which Dr. Kiltz argues we must prepare practitioners is not so much a product of the threats we face as the vulnerabilities we have already created by investing too little energy and effort in protecting or leveraging the legacies of previous investments. The byproduct of defining progress in a way that equates it not so much with innovation as with newness and moreness, has been too little attention to or respect for the uncertainties, complexities and interdependencies that arise within and not just across existing disciplines.

This leaves me wondering, “What can a new homeland security discipline do to make other disciplines — those responsible for creating and managing the domains in which catastrophes and crises emerge — more efficient and effective at managing them?” The answer from Dr. Kiltz’s perspective, it seems, relies on the unstated assumption that we cannot rely on those who created our problems to offer us the solutions. When it comes to problems like climate change, as just one example, we have choice but to do just this.

Convincing existing disciplines to invest more energy and effort in mitigating the long-term effects of past decisions and recovering from their inevitable mistakes does not strike me as the province of one discipline. Although we would do well (when it comes to mitigation at least) to develop and encourage the capacity of our existing disciplines to become more constructively self-critical and less patch-protective, when consequences arise we have no choice but to depend upon the deep expertise of several disciplines rather than the broad and superficial expertise of one to resolve the effects and mount a recovery. Creating a new discipline that carves out a niche for homeland security practitioners does little to enhance the application of expertise within disciplines to solving their own problems, and could even undermine the efforts of other disciplines — like law — to secure appropriate remedies when failures in others — like engineering or medicine — produce spillover effects.

The resilience of the homeland security enterprise depends as much on its diversity as any other system. Protecting our communities is not the province of any single group of individuals no matter how well intentioned or trained they may be. Security is a fundamentally collaborative endeavor, the strength and success of which depends less on the concentration found in any one part than the contributions of many.

July 6, 2011

Of Ozymandias, Eudaimonia and Debt

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on July 6, 2011

As deliberations over the debt limit become increasingly mired in the debate over strategies to reduce the federal debt, the previously unthinkable possibility of a U.S. government default looms larger by the day. Up until now, homeland security practitioners seem to have been more concerned with whether or not negotiators would touch their pet programs than whether the damage caused by a prolonged impasse could threaten the safety and security of our communities.

In homeland security and emergency management circles, talk of the unthinkable usually revolves around complex hazards that produce a cascade of failures resulting in ripples of consequences. This time around we are talking about a cascade of failures that will produce a complex hazard the likes of which we have no way of really knowing until they emerge. What is certain is that some effects will be immediate and others will take years to appreciate. Regardless what time scale their emergence or our awareness of them adheres to, one thing is certain: Most of the worst consequences will never go away.

Those who argue that the debt limit does not matter seem to believe in a myth of American exceptionalism that suggests we can do no wrong, that our decisions and actions will not produce the consequences for us that others have suffered, often at our hands. The opposite is more likely true. Our security could be threatened in previously unimagined ways by creditors who force us to swallow the bitter pills we have dispensed so earnestly and eagerly to others.

Nowhere is this more likely than in the developing world. China and India are rapidly approaching the points where their roles will shift from risk takers to risk makers. And those left vulnerable to the risks created by their rising dominance will surely be us.

China’s military and political might worries some. But its economic ambitions, borne as they are of a desire to keep pace with the burgeoning aspirations of the Chinese people, are greater cause for concern if only for the consequences of their pursuit on the climate and therefore our own ecology and environment.

Others who see little urgency in the current situation may fear the economic effects of others’ decisions and actions but gleefully imagine an America whose government can no longer afford to inhibit or interfere with the decisions and actions of her own citizens. These same people apparently see little difference between a natural person and a corporation when it comes to fundamental liberties. Sadly, the same cannot be said of these same individuals’ assessments of the responsibilities of each to the other.

It’s worth reiterating that U.S. government default is unprecedented. This is important for two reasons: First, the effects are not simply unknowable because we haven’t witnessed such an event before, but because we have no clear idea what ripple effects will result. Second, unlike other disasters that involve underlying processes that we do not fully understand and therefore cannot predict, we know with certainty that the effects of this disaster are entirely preventable.

We cannot and should not assume that the sovereign debt crises resulting from other countries’ fiscal and monetary failures presage the effects should Congress and the White House fail in their duties to resolve the current crisis. Our economy is not just the biggest, it is also intimately connected with every other economy on the planet. Several economists have warned that default would not only delay recovery from the recent recession, but could actually trigger a worldwide depression. We cannot assume an economic calamity of this sort would resemble previous economic depressions.

A devaluation of the U.S. dollar and higher interest rates resulting from default would hit pocketbooks and balance sheets immediately. Reluctance of foreign buyers to invest in U.S. treasury bills would require the government to suspend activities almost immediately to meet interest payments rather than risk further defaults. As government dollars began flowing out of the county to repay foreign creditors, job losses would rise almost as fast as the prices of basic goods and services.

Already stressed state and local governments would be hit hardest after a default. The effects of the recent recession emerged there last and have lingered far longer than elsewhere in the economy. The need for structural and systemic reforms rather than simple shifts in emphasis have already become apparent to many public safety executives as evidenced by the recent legislative initiatives to repeal collective bargaining rights and restructure public employee pension obligations.

As Chris Bellavita’s holiday post reminds us, our leaders have to work if they are to preserve our republic. Their deeds must match their words.

Phil Palin for his part reminded us that our forebears equated the ideals of the republic with the pursuit of eudaimonia. How one attains such an ideal was as troublesome to the ancients as it is for us today. Then as now, much of the disagreement centered on the importance of attaining wealth and exchanging external goods.

Agreeing on the virtue of reducing the debt is meaningless if we are not prepared to meet our obligations. Others can only ever truly judge our intentions by our actions. And even the mere suggestion that the unthinkable is now thinkable has had a negative effect on confidence in our government and its leaders.

Emerging from the current crisis, whether it deepens into downright default or not, will depend on how we respond not just to our situation but to one another. When cities and states can no longer afford to provide essential public safety services who will notice? And what will they do about it?

June 29, 2011

Disaster Dharma

Filed under: Catastrophes,Futures — by Mark Chubb on June 29, 2011

Their sense of humor intact, Cantabrians have learned to make the best of a bad situation. (Photo by Bronwyn Hayward)

This week the New Zealand Government announced that it will buy out more than 5,000 Christchurch homeowners affected by the February 22 earthquake that devastated the Southern Hemisphere city of 400,000 people. Many more are still awaiting assessments of geotechnical conditions that threaten to undermine any investment in rebuilding their shattered lives where the rubble of their homes now rests.

Since the original earthquake last September, Christchurch has experienced more than 7,300 aftershocks. Two of them had moment magnitudes greater than 6.0 and several more exceeded magnitude 5.0.

With their central business district and most iconic landmarks still in ruins people are wondering when they will get the chance to start rebuilding. The logistics alone suggest the task ahead will be Herculean — although for many it seems, at least for now, rather more Sisyphean. Some estimates indicate that it will take about five years to raze all of the damaged buildings and clear the debris left behind.

With each significant aftershock the community has come together to meet immediate needs, but some wonder how long this can continue. No firm estimates seem readily available to indicate how many people have packed up and left for awhile if not for good. But the impact of their departures are beginning to show signs of straining the social fabric even as the physical fabric of the community remains tattered and torn. This begs the question how people will organize themselves to meet the ongoing challenges of living in the devastated city.

From what I can tell from monitoring Facebook posts and talking to friends, the people coping best with the situation are those who have managed to keep a small but strong social circle intact. A sense of humor has helped immensely with this. As has the willingness to share other forms of human capital.

The most valuable commodities being exchanged in Christchurch these days are not dollars or dozers but instead quick smiles, soft shoulders, firm handshakes, hearty laughs and quiet strolls together along the dark and dusty streets. The duties of those undaunted by disaster are few but strict: In Christchurch they are summed up by a song written and recorded by New Zealand arist Dave Dobbyn entitled Loyal. The second verse summarizes much of what drives those still living in Christchurch these days:

Out in the battle, flung far and used.
Where does allegiance lie?
Sometimes when all of your hopes, and all of your dreams,
Are too much to value in one moment.
And all of us anxious, but why hurry love?
History’s here and now.
Oh and why are you waiting – waiting for what?
The history of some love?

Those daring enough to remain in Christchurch these days seem to share something in common much more powerful than their love of the place or the economic interests they have in homes or jobs. It’s the relationships that have nurtured and sustained them through this serial tragedy that now bind them tightly together. They have history together; a history bound up in love and hope.

The dharma of disaster requires little more of us than a willingness to share our vulnerability by being present in the suffering of others. No burden is too terrible or too great when enough people are willing to bear it.

Those awaiting answers, like those who now know the Government will step in to buy up their properties, have important decisions to make. Here’s hoping they find comfort and direction in the help offered by their friends and families.

June 1, 2011

New Generations Aspiring to Greatness

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,Events,Futures — by Mark Chubb on June 1, 2011

Stock and commodity markets reacted negatively today to news that sluggish private sector hiring, slipping domestic manufacturing and sliding Greek sovereign debt ratings. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans met with President Obama to discuss legislation to raise the debt ceiling following a show-vote on Tuesday meant to signal their resistance to any measure that fails to herald a new era of fiscal discipline in Washington. (Which, it should be noted, they regard primarily, if not solely, as cuts to domestic discretionary spending and entitlement programs.)

Although the economic situation in Germany and Japan are not much better than here in the United States (and some would argue much worse), the stories grabbing the biggest headlines in these countries are very different from those here at home. Indeed one might wonder whether the tables have now truly turned since the end of the Second World War.

Those Americans who worked to defeat the axis powers in World War II have come to be known as the Greatest Generation for their willingness both to make difficult decisions and to make significant sacrifices at home and on the battlefield for the sake of future generations. Their leadership benefited not only our generation, but those too of the nations they fought.

The turnabout decision this week by Germany to abandon nuclear power by 2022 and invest heavily in renewables with a target of supplying at least 80 percent of their domestic demand by 2050 reflects nothing short of a payback on our nation’s post-war investment in rebuilding war-ravaged Europe. Germany’s decision and the actions that must follow are no less ambitious than the mobilization of labor and capital required in the United States to supply the war effort 60 years ago. The German people will only succeed in reaching their goal through a combination of expanded capacity, technological innovation and significant reductions in demand through energy conservation and increased efficiency.

A segment of the population of that other great power of the war era has shown a different kind of foresight and fortitude that reflects a more personal sort of sacrifice. The lingering crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has fueled the loss of faith in the government and is now mobilizing a segment of Japanese society that one might assume has every right to sit back and wonder what happened to the country they helped build as the successors to the generation defeated by our grandparents. Instead, this generation of retirees and grandparents is volunteering to expose themselves to dangerous levels of radioactivity by helping cleanup the damaged nuclear reactors rather than leaving the job to younger workers who would be more likely to suffer the long-latent effects of such significant radiation exposures.

In both instances, the decisions and actions we see taking center-stage overseas reflect the sorts of values that made our forebears great. At the same time, their presence, even prominence in the news from abroad makes their absence from our own political debate that much more glaring and indeed worrying for our stability, stature, security and future prospects of success.

What sacrifices are we willing to make to maintain our greatness? How hard are we willing to work? How much would we pay to remain an exemplar of the can-do spirit for other nations to follow?

Judging by the crisis of confidence afflicting both the political and economic spheres, it seems the answers to these questions are “not so much.” Our crisis will continue, if not deepen, unless those who can start doing. Americans should not expect leadership of the sort displayed in Germany and Japan this week to come from politicians alone. As the examples of our former rivals aptly illustrate, we need leadership at every level of our society if we are to restore our greatness.

May 11, 2011

Saving vs. Spending

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on May 11, 2011

The Political Economy of Homeland Security

The week before U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, at least one prominent media outlet took note of an academic paper examining the return on America’s homeland security investments. Although politicians have offered varying opinions in the week since bin Laden’s killing about the ongoing need for such investments, the paper itself has received little additional notice. An event like bin Laden’s death should, however, amplify rather than reduce our interest in assessing where we stand and where we are heading.

The study’s authors, John Mueller of The Ohio State University and Mark G. Stewart of the University of Newcastle, argue that the country’s one trillion dollar investment in homeland security since the 9/11 attacks should be assessed on the basis of risk reduction and cost-benefit returns. Using such techniques, they argue, one would be hard-pressed to justify the massive scope and scale of investments given the miniscule returns achieved.

I am not sure this finding surprises many people reading this blog. Moreover, I am reasonably confident that a at least some of you question whether it even matters.

The homeland security enterprise, like national defense, has rarely considered cost-benefit returns significant criteria for making decisions. To the extent that analysts consider risk reduction, they accept the extremely low short-term probabilities of an attack while assuming something catastrophic (by some measure or another) will occur eventually.

This ensures that debates usually focus on whether or not we are thinking about the right rare event, rather than whether or not our efforts will actually make any difference at all. The opportunity costs of the investments rarely receive any significant attention.

Even if we cannot justify making all homeland security and national defense decisions on the basis of risk-cost-benefit analyses, we should be able to agree that securing should short-term yield from our investments makes sense even if  long-term benefits remain our ultimate concern. Too often, though, the short-term benefit is measured solely in terms of the immediate satisfaction of having mollified critics or addressing the exigencies of whatever crises called our past decisions into question.

As a community concerned with how we prepare future practitioners, these tendencies to focus too much on the moment on one hand and too far into the future on the other should concern us. Most of the techniques we teach new practitioners have very limited efficacy in these situations or have very little evidence to recommend them.

Allied disciplines, like political science, public administration, engineering, economics and policy analysis, employ more robust theoretical frameworks in their analyses. Although homeland security practitioners recognize many if not most of these methods, it seems we rarely use them. Why is this?

As we look to the post-bin Laden future, I suspect we would do well to recognize that most of the investments we made had little impact on the ultimate success of the mission to locate and eliminate the world’s most-wanted terrorist. As we look for ways to address the atomized residue of al Qaeda and its affiliates, we would do well to ask ourselves which investments make the most sense.

We can invest in the development of democratic institutions and the popular expression of the principles of democratic self-governance, including respect for human rights and economic and environmental equity. Or we can continue supporting the status quo ante, which equates stability with subsidies to military-industrial oligarchs and their patrons.

Applying cost-benefit analysis does not in or of itself ensure democratic outcomes. But the absence of any consideration of the economic value of investments in homeland security like anything else ensures that those who have the most to gain enjoy more say in the decision than those who have something to lose.

Building a sustainable homeland security future may not mean ensuring stability in the short-term, especially if it comes at the expense of our economic security. Investing our national wealth — especially our human and social capital — in institutions that promote freedom will generate a more stable long-term future only if we are willing to accept that speed and certainty matter a whole lot less than the price we pay in terms of blood and treasure.

April 6, 2011

Resilient Character

Filed under: Futures,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on April 6, 2011

Last week I noted the grassroots movement to rebuild Christchurch, New Zealand’s earthquake devastated core, and the interest expressed in applying principles sustainable urban development. Phil Palin’s Monday updates to his post on Japan’s transition from response to recovery suggest Japanese leaders also see an opportunity to apply innovative thinking to manage ecological impacts as they rebuild the areas shattered by the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011.

I think Phil and I both sought to make cases that such adaptations reflect a certain philosophical consistency or congruence with the principles of resilience that have represented a central theme in many of our respective posts. This should not, however, be taken to suggest that either of us see sustainability and resilience as synonymous or for that matter we see one necessarily leading to the other.

Most conventional definitions of sustainability start with an emphasis on making decisions today in ways that avoid identifiable impacts on future generations. Resilience starts with the same locus of control, but assumes a different outcome.

When we think about sustainability and act with a view toward the future needs of others, we are doing so in the hope, if not the expectation, that the decisions and actions we take can either prevent some future harm or yield some future benefit to others. When we look to the future from the perspective of resilience, we may also be concerned with preventing some specific harm or controlling circumstances that make us vulnerable.

What distinguishes sustainability and resilience, in my mind at least, is the object of these actions. Choices influenced by the ethos of sustainability seek to limit our contribution to phenomena that can do others like us similar harms in the future. Resilience, on the other hand, seeks to manage how we react to the occurrence of these phenomena when the inevitably recur or are replaced by something equally disruptive.

In the aftermath of a disaster, making a commitment to rebuilding sustainably suggests resilience. If people can look beyond the exigencies of their own immediate needs and think about the future they will leave for others then I think we can say with some confidence that they possess a certain degree of resilience.

That said, acting sustainability may be much harder for shattered communities to say they seek than it is for them to achieve in the end. Striving for sustainability suggests a resilient spirit. Achieving sustainable outcomes in the recovery process demonstrates resilient character.

March 30, 2011

Recovery: Selfless Acts of Economy

Filed under: Futures,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on March 30, 2011

When I posted Ruthless Resilience two weeks ago, I had suspected (or maybe hoped) some of you would take issue with my thesis that markets take care of themselves and in doing so exhibit more resilience than almost any other human system. Of course, my thesis relied upon the assumption that the economy, like the planet, will survive the calamities confronting us in some form even if it is not one we find particularly satisfactory.

That this can be said of the macroeconomy also says an awful lot about the sorts of microeconomic choices that confront market participants after disaster strikes. Economies rise and fall on their ability to help us meet our wants and needs. In fact, it is the difficulty the market has with making a distinction between the two (our wants and our needs), or perhaps more accurately the ease with which it utterly ignores the very existence of any meaningful distinction between the two conditions that causes much of the concern about the economic effects of disasters.

As New Zealand and Japan face the daunting tasks of reconstructing their communities, the economic effects of their respective disasters has received considerable attention. But that attention has shed very little light on the values informing market participants’ decisions about their present situations.

Economists like to assume that rational people act in their own self-interest. As such, they would have us believe that people left to their own and confronted with competing choices, will choose the option that yields the most utility. In this sense, utility is best understood as the ability of the chosen option to satisfy one’s notion of his or her interests or expectations. Although these considerations leave plenty of room for people to choose things that make them feel good by appealing to altruism or compassion rather than one’s own temporal concerns with safety and security,  such choices afford them little immediate advantage and almost always leave economists puzzled.

We have many examples of economic transactions in which people behave in ways that leave them less well off and others better off without any tangible evidence that those giving receive anything in return but the warm feeling of having done something nice for someone else. Perhaps the most common and tangible example is the tendency to tip service workers even when we have no reasonable expectation of ever seeing or interacting with them again. We have already benefited from their services and have nothing to more to gain by being generous rather than stingy. But we still choose to follow conventions that reward those who serve us knowing that it is the right or just thing to do.

Maybe this sentiment helps explain why the leading suggestions for how to rebuild Christchurch’s shattered central city precincts emphasize principles of sustainable design. The leading citizen-submitted suggestions for the future of Christchurch rated by visitors to the Re-imagine Christchurch website recommend steps to make the resurrected city the best example of sustainable urban design on the planet.

Such sentiments are not without precedent. After the devastating 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake, the residents of Napier rebuilt that city in a way that has made it one of the best examples of Art Deco design in the world.

Christchurch’s residents seem inclined to leverage the city’s pre-quake identity as the Garden City to green their community even further. Some even seem willing to relegate cars to the dust-bin of history and rebuild in ways that make the relatively flat cityscape even easier to transit by walking, biking or riding buses, trains or other modes of mass transit than it already is.

This would be interesting enough even if it were not accompanied by some suggestions that emphasize efforts to retain some slightly quirky urban design characteristics, like those one contributor refers to as “secret spaces.”

Economists might have us believe that such suggestions reflect the interests of Christchurch’s residents in encouraging tourism, which does constitute a significant portion of the local export economy. But I would like to believe that the aspirations reflected in these suggestions indicate a higher sense of value and a commitment to future generations’ enjoyment of a place that has inspired and sustained many generations already.

In the end, those making the decisions about how to rebuild may neither have much to gain from these choices nor much more to lose than that which has already been sacrificed. If economists’ efforts to work out the puzzling ways in which our values influence our decisions are right in assuming that we value present losses more highly than future gains, then there has never been a better to time act selflessly than right now.

January 26, 2011

New Rules or New Game?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on January 26, 2011

In his State of the Union Address tonight, President Barack Obama acknowledged that the rules governing our society and our place in the world have changed. Many Americans, he said, have experienced the impact of these changes in lost opportunities, diminished outlook and a dashed sense of optimism if not outright despair. Nevertheless, the President challenged us to see the future as ours to shape, and he outlined a four-point plan to renew American confidence in our competence, our creativity and our ability to make the world a better place by collaborating and competing.

The four elements of the President’s plan — innovation, education, building the nation, and managing the debt — seem sound but strike me as not enough to meet the challenges we face. If what we confront, as the President himself proposed, is a “Sputnik moment,” we have less need for new rules than we do for a whole new game.

As the President himself noted in examples sprinkled throughout his speech, the greatest changes have arisen from people seeing in past crises opportunities dressed up as challenges. The nation itself, he noted, was founded on just such a radical idea. The notion that the nation’s existence reflects a quest to promote an idea — securing the common good by protecting individual liberty — was itself a radical innovation in its day, and one we are in danger of taking for granted.

In what struck me as burying the lede, the President made few if any bold policy pronouncements or proposals until he mentioned his administration’s plan to present a proposal to reorganize executive branch departments and agencies to reflect his agenda. He gave few hints at what this might look like beyond offering an amusing anecdote about the conflicted way in which our government regulates and protects salmon, smoked and otherwise.

Incremental changes in government administration, tax policy and fiscal management will not fix the problems facing our country or renew the promise of its founding documents or the potential of its citizens. The President admitted as much himself, but he offered few if any tangible insights into how we might restore the vitality of the institutions touched by the agenda he proposed. I for one hope that the relative position of comments concerning reorganization of executive branch functions in his remarks does not reflect the true priority of this initiative. If it does, the other planks of the platform he outlined may be doomed.

Finally, unless you count his goal of increasing the percentage of energy we produce from renewable sources to 80 percent by 2035, his remarks barely touched on homeland security. When he turned to foreign policy concerns near the end of his address, he relied almost entirely on boilerplate plaudits. While renewing promises that al Qaeda, its affiliates and supporters will have no safe haven while he occupies the Oval Office, he made the point that renewed focus on domestic issues does not mean abandoning our commitments abroad or seeing those beyond our borders solely as consumers or competitors.

With all of this said, I wonder whether you see the President’s remarks as new rules, a new game or neither? Either way, what would you like to see come of each of the four policy planks he proposed? How will actions to implement policies in each of the four areas — innovation, education, infrastructure and debt — help us build a stronger, safer nation?

December 29, 2010

What I Learned in 2010

The end of one year and the beginning of another gives one pause. New beginnings are a chance to start over. If we’re honest with ourselves, a bit of reflection can help us enter the knew year equipped with insights that help us avoid or at least reduce the impact of new calamities like those that confronted us in the year before. As I look back at 2010 for lessons, here are the top five things I saw that make me wonder what the year ahead holds in store:

We still don’t know security when we see it. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously quipped in a landmark First Amendment case that he knew hard-core pornography when he saw it. Unfortunately, the naked truth about homeland security is we still know know what it is when we see it. Full body scanners and aggressive pat downs to search airline passengers have, however, hinted at the limits of public support for security theater. That said, we still have few clear hints how we should balance the competing interests of civil liberties like privacy and security.

We may be smarter, more successful and skillful than our adversaries, but that ain’t saying all that much; or, maybe it’s just hard to find good help these days. Most of the homeland security successes we witnessed this year, seem more like lucky strikes than genuinely skillful performances by our security services. Maybe that’s because our adversaries have had less success recruiting skilled operatives than we might have imagined. This makes me wonder: with unemployment still running nearly 10 percent nationally (and much higher in some minority communities) why is it so hard to find skilled help? What’s more, as local and state governments find themselves in the death grip of fiscal austerity, how will they meet public expectations of them for safety and security? Judging by public criticism of the response to severe weather events as we end the year, not well at all.

It’s the economy, stupid. Before we had even managed to stop writing or typing 2009 when we meant 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake that some estimates suggest killed more than 250,000 people and left millions more homeless. As the year came to a close, the country languished in the grip of a cholera epidemic and a presidential succession crisis. The flow of aid lagged far behind pledges from international donors, leaving the impoverished country barely clinging to life. If we ever had any reason to doubt the fact, Haiti confirmed that poverty is any adversary or calamity’s best friend. The corollary to that observation is equally clear and simple: Resilience is about resources. The fungibility of capital — that is the ability of any individual or group to apply their stores of human, social or political capital to conduct transactions that transform natural, economic or material resources to their own or others’ benefit — depends on both the sufficiency and diversity of those hard assets as much or more than any degree of cleverness or incentive to apply themselves. Necessity is the mother of chaos, not invention. In the absence of resources, don’t expect that to change unless you are willing to watch things get worse not better.

Victory (sometimes) favors the unprepared. The benefits of diverse stores of all forms of hard and soft capital was aptly illustrated by the New Zealand response to September’s earthquake in Christchurch and the numerous and still ongoing aftershocks. People there weren’t all that well prepared (especially for the specific event that occurred), but they knew how to use what they had to take care of what they needed. As such, they fared much better than the Haitians and required no outside assistance. The Chileans too, although better prepared than either the New Zealanders or Haitians, demonstrated that was all the more true when a society’s resources and mindsets are both well-adapted to the environment they inhabit.

Casting oil on the water sometimes makes waves. Rather than calming turbulent seas, the explosive destruction of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico and the resulting release of millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea made waves for months. Rather than crystallizing public opinion on energy policy and the need to invest in alternatives to petroleum, the federal response — both on a regulatory level and an operational level — came under intense criticism for ignoring the needs of local citizens who depended upon the Gulf of Mexico for their livelihood. Never mind that some depended upon industries that posed a risk to these ecosystems while others depended on the ecosystem itself, the debate never fully confronted the difficult policy choices facing the country now or in the future. As the federal government continues its work with Gulf Coast states on a recovery plan we should be looking forward not backward for answers about the future.

Clearly, many more things happened in 2010 than I have covered here. What were your top lessons learned from 2010? And what are your hopes for the year ahead?

November 16, 2010

Getting by Giving

Filed under: Futures,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on November 16, 2010

Today I am starting a new job as a deputy fire chief in a fire district near Seattle. As such, I have been pretty consumed with the details of moving and starting a new job rather than keeping up with my homeland security reading and preparing this week’s post. Nevertheless, it strikes me that the odyssey upon which I am embarking offers a new prism through which to observe what’s happening in our field at the state and local levels.

Over the past several months, I have commented often about the importance of leadership in dealing with the challenges we face. As such, it should come as no surprise that I was attracted to my new position by a charismatic fire chief with a reputation for innovation and integrity. During the interview process, his commitment to these ideals became more than evident.

The commitment of the community and the firefighters to his success was also evident. This is not to say he has enjoyed a smooth tenure since taking up the position a bit less than a year ago. Indeed, the burgeoning fiscal crisis, the annexation of a portion of his district by a neighboring city and a campaign by the union local representing firefighters from his last department to pass a vote of no-confidence in his leadership have presented personal and professional challenges. Fully aware of these issues when I applied, it was was his pleasant (cheerful really) demeanor and ability to see the opportunities in these challenges that convinced me to join his team.

From what I can see so far, the community, the elected fire commission and the firefighters themselves see in their chief the hope of a better future despite the challenges they face as well. His ability to articulate a clear and shared vision, involve others in charting a way forward, give the work back and manage the pace of change so the challenges remain manageable have given people tangible evidence of his commitment to their welfare as well as that of the organization and the community.

One of the things that seems to distinguish the agency I am joining from some of its peers is its commitment to learning. My role comes with an unusual and unexpected title for a fire department: chief learning officer. Besides overseeing training, I am responsible for the fire district’s emergency management, risk management, research and development, and safety and wellness programs. The combination of these portfolios reflects an appreciation of the changing nature of fire and rescue services and a desire to shape the service in ways that reflect the relative shift in emphasis away from fire-related services to other activities that address risks arising from natural and technological hazards.

I have a lot to learn about my new community, the fire district, my new colleagues and my new role. In the process of getting settled, I will undoubtedly learn a great deal about myself and my capacity to endure change. One of the most important things I have learned from past moves is the importance of accepting both my limitations and the assistance of others. In the process I have become much more aware that when I recognize and maximize others’ strengths by asking for their help we both get something valuable in return.

What are the most important lessons you have learned from the experience of taking a new job or assuming a new role in homeland security? How have you shared these lessons with others and how did you benefit from that experience? How can we maximize the strengths of others to benefit the whole of the homeland security enterprise?

October 27, 2010

Beyond 72 hours

Filed under: Futures,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on October 27, 2010

I had an interesting conversation with a new colleague today. The new public information officer in our office asked me how emergency managers settled on 72-hours as the threshold value for disaster kits. Why, she wondered, was 72-hours the magic number for determining how much water, food, medicine, cash, and other supplies we should stockpile to prepare ourselves and our families for an emergency. Many emergency managers have asked a similar question in recent years, which has caused some to urge the public to prepare to fend for themselves for even longer periods without outside help.

As we discussed the basis for this guidance — in particular the lack of hard evidence or specific and explicit assumptions to support these recommendations — we concluded that the form and specificity of this suggestion probably had something to do with the fact that so many people still feel anxious even after they follow our advice. Does the emphasis on material preparedness and the connection to specific time periods reinforce public expectations about officialdom and its obligation to respond to our needs? Does it simultaneously discourage resilience while encouraging preparedness?

Today’s nationally-syndicated WBUR radio program, Here and Now, included a segment on disaster preparedness and resilience featuring Irwin Redlener, author of Americans at Risk and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. In the interview, Redlener reiterated his assertion that America remains unprepared for a catastrophic disaster largely because of paralyzing bureaucracy and widespread incompetence. Redlener was particularly critical of the lack of a clearly articulated national preparedness goal that encourages simultaneous efforts to improve coordination between top-down and bottom-up approaches to preparedness.

When Redlener’s book was first published in 2006, memories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were still fresh in the minds of nearly every American and his voice was one among many calling for comprehensive reform of the federal system of preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. Today, images of Haiti and news of the recent outbreak of cholera in refugee camps housing survivors who relocated from the quake devastated capitol of Port-au-Prince haunt us.

As we approach the midterm election next week, this argument resonates among many segments of an electorate that find the current economic and social situation unacceptable and desperately want someone to accept responsibility for the “slow motion disaster” many are calling the Great Recession. As I listened to the broadcast, which included discussion of the effects of the fiscal crisis on local and state emergency managers’ and public health officers’ budgets, I had to wonder whether we can responsibly draw any meaningful connections between the situation unsettling most Americans as they head to the ballot box and our nation’s state of disaster readiness.

I am not alone in questioning whether Redlener’s got it all right. This week, the FEMA Local, State, Tribal, and Federal Preparedness Task Force issued its final report, Perspective on Preparedness: Taking Stock Since 9/11. Although I doubt they had Redlener’s book specifically in mind, the task force concluded that notwithstanding a lack of clarity or consistency over time about how we define preparedness in the United States, the nation is better prepared now than we were a decade ago but still lacks a coherent and shared strategic direction.

The task force highlighted the important contributions of the federal government to preparedness in the form of policy guidance, capability assessment tools, and grant funds, but saw important opportunities to strengthen the gains made in all three areas by adding a fourth emphasis on strategic investments. In particular, the task force recommended steps to foster a culture of preparedness by creating incentives for preparedness and strengthening connections among existing networks to help the nation identify and prepare for emerging threats.

These recommendations seem sound enough on the surface. But taking up Redlener’s point of view, the goal is not the only problem. It’s also about how we develop and execute our plans to achieve it.

Reading the other task force recommendations, I can see why Redlener is so critical of the federal approach and have to wonder what he thinks about the task force’s recommendations. It is not too hard to imagine myriad new federal strings being attached to the dollars flowing from federal coffers to state, local, and tribal authorities. Previous investments that sought to promote material improvements in preparedness will likely be replaced by new process-oriented requirements without achieving the desired alignment or shared sense of purpose.

With so many fingers in the proverbial pie and so much dependence on federal support for state, local, and tribal preparedness programs, it is easy to see why Redlener is so skeptical (or perhaps cynical). Technical, political, and legal interventions offer little promise of ensuring social and cultural change if the funding priorities remain driven from the top-down.

The United Nations — an institution renowned by many in the United States as the epitome of bureaucratic incompetence — has taken a somewhat broader and in many ways more pragmatic approach than the FEMA task force. In the Hyogo Framework for Action, the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction emphasizes efforts to address the underlying problems associated with disaster vulnerability: poverty, climate change , and social justice. These priorities drive a different sort of strategic investment than that proposed by the FEMA task force, one that encourages human development through education, gender equity, shared decision-making among diverse communities, and sustainable urban development.

The difference in strategic approach, although probably too subtle for some, yields, I would imagine, very different tactics in some important instances. The FEMA task force approach is more likely to produce interventions in primary schools aimed at practicing “drop, cover, and hold on drills” and teaching kids to prepare disaster kits for their homes. The UNISDR approach, on the other hand, would seem to favor improved offerings in ecology, geography, geology, and sociology that improve understanding of natural hazards and the connections between human and natural systems.

The big difference between the UNISDR and FEMA approaches lies not in the specifics of their recommendations though, but rather in their assumptions about how programs will be put into action. The UNISDR approach emphasizes efforts to reinforce economic, social, and cultural progress by fostering collaboration, education, and engagement. The FEMA approach relies on the assumption that it’s all about protecting the gains we have already made by ensuring people have access to the financial, technical, and administrative resources they need to achieve their goals.

Going beyond 72-hours requires us to think differently about how we define preparedness as well as how we help our communities prepare for disasters. Any new emphasis on process should recognize the importance of fostering diverse participation, promoting social equity, encouraging reflection, and stimulating growth rather than preserving the status quo ante.

September 15, 2010

Local, Simple, Varied, Connected

Filed under: Futures,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on September 15, 2010

Predicting the future is always risky. That is if you expect to get it right.

Thinking about the future and the varied forms it might take usually takes one of two forms. The first involves preparing for the alternatives. This approach emphasizes the uncertainties. The second involves deciding how to influence factors within our control. This approach focuses on the drivers of change. Successful strategists cannot afford to overlook or emphasize either approach or dimension of change over the other.

Recently, I was asked to prepare a forecast for the next 10 years. The objective was to identify key trends that would shape emergency services in the coming decade.

Before attempting to imagine what the future would look like, I had to ask myself, how has the past shaped where we are today? This is very different from looking to the past as evidence of how the future might unfold. Instead, it asks what story arcs present in our current narrative are likely to project themselves into the medium-term future.

If these arcs or trends represent recurrent themes in human history, it may be worthwhile to look to the past to see how they play themselves out over time. This is not the same as looking to the past as a predictor of the future, which is what most of us are inclined to do. Thinking about why things happened as they did is quite different from asking how they turned out and expecting them same to happen again.

Much of the concern about the future these days focuses on what the world will look like if trends like climate change, urbanization, globalization, and radicalization continue to play out the same way they have over the past decade. Concerns about resource scarcity, especially petroleum and water, only compound anxiety about alternative future scenarios and the instability the factors driving them seem to suggest.

Could it be though that enough of us have already recognized and begun responding to these factors in ways that alter our future trajectory for the better? How will we discern this, especially if some of the undesired things we fear come to pass? A positive view of the future may not be widely recognized or reported in the popular press, but it has gained currency in many quarters as evidence of small, dispersed and very committed efforts to remake life beyond the current Industrial Era have begun to emerge with increasing frequency, urgency and intensity.

Many enterprises in the public, private and non-profit sectors have adopted triple-bottom line methods to measure their performance. This approach asks organizations to consider their environmental and social performance alongside their fiscal results. Looking at these three factors to the exclusion of technological and political developments is somewhat intentional. This approach assumes that these developments are in large measure artefacts of the other three. As such, the rise of radicalism, globalization and so on are directly related to how people experience and express (respond to) these underlying conditions.

Looking at the future through this lens, if only to align it with the way many organizations and institutions are now assessing themselves, therefore seems appropriate. Looking at economic, environmental and social performance provides us with a prism through which we can shed light on the political and technological changes we might experience.

Alongside these variables, I see four larger trends, which we might consider drivers, that will influence how we experience effects in each of these areas: I refer to them as local, simple, varied and connected. You might see other drivers in play, but I consider these four for the value they offer in looking at how individuals relate to communities and how communities relate to one another.

In each instance, we have to admit the uncertainty of arriving at any single, definable end-point associated with any dimension or variable. Looking at the extremes gives us a chance to consider the full range of plausible scenarios for each.

In most instances, individuals and communities will prefer a value somewhere between the two extremes represented by each diagonally opposite pairing presented in the matrix above. To the extent that this is true, the challenges to shaping the future to arrive at such conclusions are many. Not the least of these is our tendency to look to the past for answers rather than looking for new options and consulting others.

When I look at this table for opportunities to leverage key strengths of emergency services that can shape the future for the better, I see many opportunities. Thinking about the strengths emergency services bring into this environment — adaptability, tolerance for ambiguity, commitment to service — I see opportunities to approach problems with greater creativity and collaboration.

What does this analysis suggest to you? For which alternative futures should we prepare? How do you view our capacity to shape the future?

September 14, 2010

In Panopticon We Trust

Filed under: Futures,Privacy and Security — by Christopher Bellavita on September 14, 2010

In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham (of “greatest good for the greatest number” fame) wrote about the “panopticon”  —


According to the Bentham scholars at wikipedia:

The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the incarcerated being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect [Silke Berit Lang] has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience.” Bentham … described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

[The panopticon] design was invoked by Michel Foucault [in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison] as [a] metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and [normalize]. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon.”

The homeland security debate about privacy versus liberty focuses almost exclusively on how government erodes privacy rights.

Less emphasized (at least in my reading) is the role the private sector plays in privacy intrusions.  Maybe because many people voluntarily surrender privacy to the private sector, under the guise of increased efficiency, convenience, and choice — to say nothing of the difficulty determining what privacy you actually surrender if you have an account on Facebook or Google.

What will the future be like in this domain?  Will big brother arrive not with a government ID card, but with a cents-off coupon promise to make life better through interoperable data bases?


My colleague, Richard Bergin, brought the brief videos (below) to my attention.

The first (about 2 minutes long) is about ordering a pizza in the future.  Most of the information (in the scenario) comes from private sector data bases.

The second video (less than a minute) is a story about how radio frequency ID (RFID) will make life at the grocery store better for all of us.

The last video (around a minute) shows why every right thinking family man or woman would want to have one of these things implanted, as soon as possible.

Ordering pizza in the future

Shopping in the future

Making sure the health information needs of you and your loved ones are taken care of

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)


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