Thursday, December 30, 2004

Risk Aversion and Cumbre Vieja

My friend Bravus published the following comments on his blog about the political consequences of risk avoidance:

I linked this story, Can governments save us from disasters?, as a comment to Fragile, below, but thought it was an interesting enough discussion to get into on its own. This issue was kind of a subtext in what I wrote there, but I was concerned more with honoring the dead and their families in that post than with trying to understand the issues.

…in the open global society now emerging, people are demanding more economic and individual freedom but are willing to live with less personal risk. In Australia this can be loosely measured by the inverse relationship between the rate of economic deregulation over recent decades and the rate of social regulation.

In the 1970s, Australians had to go cap in hand to the bank manager to beg for a housing loan but could smoke while doing so. They would pay up to 125 per cent duty on an imported car but not be overly concerned if the children’s seatbelts were undone.

Gregory Hywood’s article wavers around the point a bit, and ends with a whimper rather than a bang, but the point is an important one: for perhaps the past decade and a half, and accelerating since the end of 2001, the global political climate has essentially been about who is seen as being able to shield us from risk. The risks associated with terrorism have been cited as the justification for almost everything in politics, in one way or another.

What this earthquake and the resulting tsunamis reminds us of is that life is dangerous, and all the preparation in the world can’t make you perfectly safe. The best you can do is prepare to react, and prepare to rebuild. Of course we want to make ourselves and our families as safe as possible, but letting go of the assumption that perfect safety (zero risk) is even possible can help us make much better choices about how much risk we’re willing to tolerate, and the cost/benefit analysis of the things we’re willing to give up to reduce risk.

I happened to be reading (again; it's kind of old news) about the western flank of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palmain the Canaries and the potential for the aforementioned flank to slide into the sea crating a mega tsunami: a tsunami big enough to wipe out the entire East coast of the US and Canada and seriously fuck up parts of Europe and Africa.

Back to the issue of risk, what would you do even if you know such an event was imminent? About this Gwynne Dyer wrote:

But hold on a minute. Haven't we heard about this threat before? What's new this time? Nothing, except that there hasn't been a stampede to cover La Palma with seismometers. Now, why do you think that is?

Suppose that the governments whose coastlines are at risk, from Morocco to the US, did get a warning that Cumbre Vieja was waking up again. What would they do with the warning? Evacuate one or two hundred million people from the low-lying lands indefinitely?

They don't know if there is really going to be an eruption (seismology is not that precise), or how big it will be, or whether this will be the one that finally shakes the side of the mountain loose. It could happen in the next eruption, but it might not happen for a thousand years.

No national leader wants to evacuate the entire coast for an indefinite period of time, causing an economic and refugee crisis on the scale of a world war, for what might be a false alarm. But nobody wants to ignore a warning, and perhaps be responsible for tens of millions of deaths. From a political standpoint, it's better not to have the warning at all.

Bravus made the point that a more rational culture than ours at present would more selectively prepare for imminent threats instead of the more ephemeral, ephemeral from a risk-preparedness standpoint, ones of terrorism. Some risks - like the very real possibility of a mega tsunami or a near earth object impact - may be simply too devastating no matter how well we prepare. In that case what little preparation is possible becomes as unthinkable as the disaster is unimaginable.

And, yes, I know: it's small comfort to the victims of the disaster in South Asia.


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