I am mesmerized by Black Swans. We must live day to day, year to year, gettin’ on with getting’ on. Surprises aplenty are not so few and not so far between—and we’ve mostly learned how to cope and at least muddle through.
In fact, we can’t live life, personal or professional, awaiting a Black Swan to alight on our pond. Still, one may-probably will do so—and our response-behavior will, as Mr Taleb claims, determine our life’s course.
Well if we can’t plan for it, and we can’t let it distract us 24 hours a day every day, what can we do?
Beats me, is mostly my response.
But I have fallen deeply in love with a word that may be of use … Resilience.
In response to the high number of school children killed in school collapses in the recent Sichuan earthquake, Andrew Revkin writes in the New York Times about the challenges of enhancing resilience – even when the problem and solution are well understood – in his article A Move to Turn Schools From Earthquake Death Traps Into Havens:
… The main challenge in bolstering resilience to such geophysical shocks, Ms. Wang, Mr. Tucker and many other experts said, is not the structural engineering. There is no mystery to adding and securing iron rods in concrete, securing floors to beams, boosting the resilience of columns, monitoring the size of gravel mixed with cement.
It is not cost, either. In California, Dr. Tucker notes, the premium for building earthquake resistance into new schools is less than 4 percent. The payoff, beyond saved lives, is significantly lower repair costs after a temblor — 10 to 100 times less than in unimproved buildings. (In poorer countries, the differential in cost could be substantially higher, other experts note, but the payoff, they say, is priceless.)
Rich or poor, the big challenge lies in overcoming social and political hurdles that still give priority to pressing daily problems over foreseeable disasters that may not occur for decades, scores of years, or longer. In some developing countries there is a tendency to ascribe earthquakes and their consequences to fate, but Dr. Tucker and other experts say that lets the authorities off the hook.
“I can’t hold a government responsible for protecting its citizens against a meteorite falling out of the sky,” Dr. Tucker said. “But I can and do hold a government in a country with known seismic risk responsible for protecting its children, who are compelled to attend school, from the school collapsing during an earthquake.”
Dr. Tucker has written or co-written a lengthening string of reports pointing to the building risks worldwide as more populations shift to urban areas, often into shoddy, hastily built structures, with children sent to schools in similar, and often worse, condition.
Arthur Lerner-Lam, who maps disaster risks at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, agrees that urbanization in earthquake zones is setting the world up for its first true megadisaster — a million-casualty earthquake that many seismologists say is only a matter of time. The greatest risk, he said, lies in a belt from Italy and Turkey through central Asia and the Himalayas into central China.
In such regions, Dr. Tucker said, the best blueprints and materials are no guarantee of safety without adequate building codes, laws, training, inspections and enforcement.
The biggest challenge of all may simply be redefining security, and building societies that demand that government investments match risks, said Fouad Bendimerad, an engineering and risk-management consultant in California and chairman of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative.
“The typical government spends around 15 percent of its G.D.P. to defend against exterior military threats that may never occur during the lifetime of generation,” Dr. Bendimerad said. “Why do we want to exonerate governments from dedicating a small portion of that 15 percent to protect against the threats of natural hazards that we know will happen?”
People from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Albaeco interviewed biodiversity, resilience and social-ecological researchers to provide brief answers to a set of Resilience questions. The videos are available on the Centre’s website:
Why is biodiversity important?
Gretchen Daily, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University (USA), answers this topical question.
What is ecological anthropology?
Professor Steve Lansing from the University of Arizona explains the meaning behind ecological anthropology.
What do you think will be the future ‘environmental surprises´?
Will Steffen, professor of the Fenner School of Environment & Society, The Australian National University, answers this question.
What is a regime shift?
Professor Terry Hughes from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies explains what is the meaning behind the term ‘Regime shifts’.
What is a complex systems approach?
Professor Steve Lansing from the University of Arizona explains the meaning behind the complex systems approach.
What is the key limiting factor for human development?
Professor Paul Ehrlich from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences, explains the key factors that affect human development.
What is a social-ecological system?
Professor Stephen Carpenter from Zoology Department, University of Winsonsin, explains the meaning behind the term social-ecological system.
In Feb 21 2008 Nature, ecologists Robert May, Simon Levin, and George Sugihara write about how ecological thinking can be used to illuminate financial dynamics in their commentary Complex systems: Ecology for bankers:
‘Tipping points’, ‘thresholds and breakpoints’, ‘regime shifts’ — all are terms that describe the flip of a complex dynamical system from one state to another. For banking and other financial institutions, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression epitomize such an event. These days, the increasingly complicated and globally interlinked financial markets are no less immune to such system-wide (systemic) threats. Who knows, for instance, how the present concern over sub-prime loans will pan out?
Well before this recent crisis emerged, the US National Academies/National Research Council and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York collaborated on an initiative to “stimulate fresh thinking on systemic risk”. The main event was a high-level conference held in May 2006, which brought together experts from various backgrounds to explore parallels between systemic risk in the financial sector and in selected domains in engineering, ecology and other fields of science. The resulting report was published late last year and makes stimulating reading.
Catastrophic changes in the overall state of a system can ultimately derive from how it is organized — from feedback mechanisms within it, and from linkages that are latent and often unrecognized. The change may be initiated by some obvious external event, such as a war, but is more usually triggered by a seemingly minor happenstance or even an unsubstantial rumour. Once set in motion, however, such changes can become explosive and afterwards will typically exhibit some form of hysteresis, such that recovery is much slower than the collapse. In extreme cases, the changes may be irreversible.
Two particularly illuminating questions about priorities in risk management emerge from the report. First, how much money is spent on studying systemic risk as compared with that spent on conventional risk management in individual firms? Second, how expensive is a systemic-risk event to a national or global economy (examples being the stock market crash of 1987, or the turmoil of 1998 associated with the Russian loan default, and the subsequent collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management)? The answer to the first question is “comparatively very little”; to the second, “hugely expensive”.
In a WorldChanging article Conservation Easements, Climate Foresight and Resilience Alex Steffen asks if “resilience” is a good way to describe the need for resilience:
If the nature of even non-catastrophic climate change is to make the world much more unpredictable, adaptation is impossible in a meaningful sense.What is possible is planned resilience: we can make our own systems more rugged and distributed, our natural systems protected and managed in ways that best preserve their ability to respond to (and incorporate) disturbance while preserving ecosystem services and biodiversity. We can plan to become good at dealing with chaos. But that is quite different than adapting to a singular change, and it takes dramatically different kinds of priorities.
Now, “Resilience!” is not exactly be the battle-cry we’re looking for. Anyone else got a suggest about how we might compellingly describe the goal here?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses the term Black Swan to identify significant unexpected events. Holling made some similar points from a different perspective in his 1973 paper on resilience and his 1986 paper the resilience of terrestrial ecosystems; local surprise and global change. In on the interdisciplinary Edge Taleb writes on Learning to expect the unexpected and defines what he means by Black Swans:
A black swan is an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations. Most people expect all swans to be white because that’s what their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise. Nevertheless, people tend to concoct explanations for them after the fact, which makes them appear more predictable, and less random, than they are. Our minds are designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information that fits into a compressed narrative. This distortion, called the hindsight bias, prevents us from adequately learning from the past.
From my perspective, Black swans occur when there are significant mismatches between the models people use to understand the world and the subsquent expectations that those models produce and observations. In other words, black swans are model errors – something that I’ve written (Peterson, Carpetner & Brock et al 2003) in the context of ecological management.