We face too many threats. Let’s respond rationally!

by Fabius Maximus

Summary: Every day we’re bombarded with stories about severe threats to the world. Countless well-meaning special interest groups publish incendiary stories, which journalists uncritically repeat. We can’t afford to prevent or mitigate them all, so we do little or nothing. Here’s a first step to rational action. Let’s start today. The clock is running.

Asteroid or comet impact. It will happen again, eventually.

NASA-asteroid-impact - D. Davis-NASA
Graphic from the 2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference. By D. Davis-NASA.

So many dangers!

“Apocalyptic and misanthropic environmental narratives, as Clive Hamilton represents them, have had an important role in stirring up the public. But they have also contributed to widespread resignation and cynicism. So far, they have fallen short of mobilizing enough people to bring about real political change.”

— NYT Journalist Andy Revkin.

That’s the heart of the problem. We face many threats, as humanity always has. Unlike our past, we have the ability to prepare for some of these. But the daily bombardment of doomsday warnings leaves people feeling helpless, with the natural result of ignoring all warnings.

How do we decide to allocate funds amidst these many threats? By popular appeal. Which threat has the greatest sympathy to the public? Which has the most utility to our elites, and so get the most funding and media attention? This is nuts, but it is our way. We might not be able to afford it with the larger challenges in our future.

A supernova would bad news if it explodes within 50 light years of us.

Supernova Explosion - NASA

The coming certain dooms

“If current trends continue by the year 2000 the United Kingdom will simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people, of little or no concern to the other 5-7 billion inhabitants of a sick world. …If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
— Paul R. Ehrlich speaking in London at the Institute of Biology in Autumn 1969. From “In Praise of Prophets” by Bernard Dixon in the New Scientist, 16 September 1971.

The New Yorker warns about a doomed region: “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker – “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”

That’s topped this week by James Hansen and 15 other climate scientists predicting (in the Huff Post’s words) “Catastrophic Rise In Sea Levels”, with “sea levels rising as much as 10 feet in the next 50 years.” That’s topped by this press release from the U of GA:  “Earth’s ‘battery’ draining too fast to sustain life” – “Unless humans slow the destruction of Earth’s declining supply of plant life, civilization like it is now may become completely unsustainable.”

Limits To Growth
The doomsters’ bible. Available at Amazon.

Add these to the top of your pile of past warnings, such as … We face a world full of foes, from terrorist sleeper cells in your town to great powers bent on world conquest (China and Russia). But even our foes will go broke as the world’s resources are exhausted: peak oilpeak fresh water, even peak phosphorous.

At least the collapse of the world economy and the wars that follow will remove our ability to further wreck the biosphere. No overpopulation. But underpopulation will be terrible. Of course, we will still suffer the effects of past chemical pollution (and subtle ones, like impotence from hormones in the water). Too bad about the coming mass species extinction; we’ll miss the animals (unless we build a space ark, as in the film “Silent Running“).

While we suffer from these ills, we will bake amidst the floods, droughts, and storms from  climate change. These will distract us from the natural disasters wrecking the world: the reversal of Earth’s magnetic fieldmega-tsunamis that scour away the cities on our coasts (more here), and super-volcano eruptions (like Yellowstone).

For variety, the sun will hit us with another solar storm like the Carrington Event of 1859; the National Academy’s warning is terrifying(read the summary). This will knock out the world’s electronics, so we will not see the asteroid or comet that will destroy a continent (“The odds that a potentially devastating space rock will hit Earth this century may be as high as one in 10“).

Now for the bad news: as a result of all these things we will be too weak to deal with the coming super-plagues (in addition to the disease of the week, dozens of them, each afflicting 5% – 10% or more of the population).

A super-volcano will erupt again.

Doom fatigue

The result of this barrage is public apathy. So many threats, of different kinds and different magnitudes and probabilities over different time horizons. Are we doomed? That’s a commonplace expression in posts and comments mentioning climate change. There are so many different kinds of doom in our future, often presented as certainties. Worse, the remedies are costly and of uncertain effectiveness. Why bother doing anything to avoid them?

Plus, older adults remember past forecasts of certain doom. By now the world should have been wrecked by nuclear war, famine from over-population, resource exhaustion, poisonous pollution, bankruptcy of the government, satanic cults, and global cooling (science by press release in the 1970s). Those apocalypses passed us as surely as the Christian end-of-the-world predictions. Perhaps today’s forecasts of doom will prove false as well.

There are tools to help us put our risks in a useful operational context, allowing us to manage our fears and rationally allocated funds amongst them. Nothing will happen so long as special interest groups, each touting their own cause, dominate the news – and funding rewards the most successful fear-mongers. We’re all losers from their competition.

Fear: Sinatra

A first step to a better world

What is the cost of minimum prevention or mitigation of the “plausible worst case” for all these risks? Probably a lot more than we will spend. Perhaps more than we can afford to spend.

The precautionary principle provides answers for individual threats, such as climate change. It gives us no guidance for allocation of funds across the full universe of risks. The finance industry copes with this problem every day. Each security in a portfolio has its own range of risk exposures, but risk can be meaningfully assessed only at the portfolio level when compared to a risk budget. This is different than the risks a nation (or world) faces, but offers some useful ideas for coping.

To provide Congress and the public with recommendations, the government could create a Commission (with staff, amply funded) to assess all the individual risks (consulting subject matter experts as needed), with a brief analysis of each. Then they can apply a common analytical framework to rate each risk in terms of probability and impact. The results would provide a basis for discussion and further analysis, liberating us from the narrow perspectives of the special interest activists.

Justing having the list, and its information about magnitude and probabilities, will change the public’s perceptions of risk. Now, journalists write about individual risks – with each story describing the One and Only Threat. The list will put each threat in a larger context.

Most importantly, with this analysis we can begin to rationally allocate our funds to best protect ourselves. It will allow risk budgeting, making better use of our limited funds.

Let’s start today. List in the comments what you consider the most serious risks facing America, ranked high to low. Also, you might list the dollars per year you’d allocate to the mitigation of risks. US GDP is almost $18 trillion per year.  (This was suggested by Tony B. “ClimateReason” in a comment at Climate Etc.)

Or we can continue with our propaganda-based strategy, so that the risk with the most irrational campaign “wins.” This is planning to fail.