The verdict is out

My own uncertainty stopped me from publishing this last week,  so I decided the first step was to hit the button and let it go.

In spite of the change in the headlines, the  atmosphere of doubt continues to make us feel unsteady and every foothold  appears loose.  This past week, uncertainty forced itself front and center with the headline Air Strikes in Libya, questions back home.  In this  New York Times story described President Obama’s decision  as ” a new dynamic whose consequences were especially hard to predict.”

In the last few years, the world has lived through, the unthinkable, surviving more than one “beyond all expectations” disaster. It certainly is not merely a testament to our resilience, but at every occurrence, I’m disturbed by  the absence of credible back up plans or adequate preparations .  In the US, complex financial trading  was not the cause for the financial meltdown of 2008. Rather than sustaining the myth of their mastery, the titans of finance when finally caught playing hot potato amidst an ever-widening, global market,  managed to  shatter the illusion that they were prudently managing and pricing ever-present risks.

In the Middle East, I share Thomas Friedman’s mixed sentiments

” As one who has long believed in the democracy potential for this part of the world, color me both really hopeful and really worried about the prospects.”

Yes, the situation raises both fear and hope as the future of the region,  abruptly severs itself from the past, is just too wide open. We’ve seen how Japan’s greatest natural disaster is quickly being dwarfed  by another event, the unfolding nuclear power crisis.  All in all, the odds are favoring unpredictability.

In each case, the initiating event was a difficult problem to predict, as limited occurrences make each nearly impossible to model the timing of their occurrence with accuracy.  Were these events inevitable? No, there was no certainty that they would occur, but there was a small but distinct possibility and yet we deferred plans and preparations for this rarity.

My Father, 20 years ago began to sell Long term care insurance.  At the time, he was in his 70’s and incredibly healthy.  He himself saw no merit in buying it, but believed strongly in the merits and value of the products.  As it turned out, he died abruptly so he was right, he didn’t need it.  In the US, we stopped building and authorizing new nuclear power plants after mistakes in the control room at Three Mile Island raised the nation’s consciousness to the consequences of a serious error.

Only in the midst of concerns about global warming and rising global demand for scarce fossil fuels that have increased the risks associated with extraction from more complex environments has nuclear power been considered a possible alternative. But the news from Japan has  reawakened the consciousness of  the lasting threats of an error outweighing the possible benefits.

History of the use of nuclear power (top) and ...

Image via Wikipedia

In the face of uncertainty, our response is merely to rely on what we know, and accept the current system limitations and downsides  Policy wise, to satisfy the  increasing appetite for energy and electricity, the US remains dependent on fossil fuels and small investments in alternatives.

At the end of the day, it’s not the complexity associated with rapidly accelerating changes that we can’t seem to face.  Maybe, like my father, it’s our unwillingness to apply the logic to ourselves, and believe that it’s a risk we actually might have to face in which case the costs outweigh the potential benefits for the possibility we can’t imagine as real.  Or, maybe it’s merely the  magnitude of some risks, the rare ones that we can’t hedge, can’t contain and so we  fail to even address.   I’m not merely wondering why so  many miss  Nassim Taleb’s analysis of Black Swans.

I suspect we will need something else.  For example, a little more focus and outrage than what we have manage to muster domestically in the aftermath of these disasters.


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