Blog 44. Big consequences of singular events

As suggested in the previous two blogs, the magnitude of a social calamity (or good fortune) that arises from a single event depends on how we react to the event,  more than on the event itself.  Now really, do I assert that the outcome of hurricane Sandy depended on our reactions more than the blast of wind and deluge of water?

No.  Hurricane Sandy directly affected the people hit, but not the society.  Sandy caused 159 fatalities and something like $65 billion in damage, but no fear or reaction spread through the rest of the nation. (Well, I hope a few regional planning bodies began asking whether they are prepared for the predicted major storms, temperatures, and drought.)

Blog 42 looked at cybersecurity—the danger of data and identity theft in electronic transactions—suggesting security must be applied in small ways at all levels, protecting against thousands of small attacks rather than attempting to prevent one improbable big digital Pearl Harbor.  If we ignore the multiple small attacks but fear to use credit cards or to purchase online, our reaction amplifies  the problem.  Blog 43 continued the thought, noting that truly big social problems (big mountains) may grow from small initial events (molehills) if a large amplification exists in the social network, similar to a regional chain of electrical failures propagating from one small blown fuse.  Power grids are interconnected and interdependent, each potentially amplifying the failure of a neighbor.  People function the same way.

In contrast with Sandy, let’s picture the situation if a small, inefficient nuclear device exploded in New York, causing the same number of deaths and value of damage as Sandy.  As happened following the 9/11 attack, the nation might then easily be led into military adventures, amplifying the toll and cost of the initial event.  The word “nuclear” is an amplifier.  It initiates a paranoia in American society.  That’s why we have no nuclear fuel cycle, and why we politically terminated the depository for civilian nuclear wastes.  Furthermore, our fear of nuclear reactors makes us purchase medical isotopes abroad.  I’m not arguing here whether nuclear electric power is cleaner than coal or nicer than solar.  I’m pointing out that the consequences of events amplify, depending on our collective social attitudes.

Education and discussion reduce the social sensitivity to events.  If you can’t discuss something, you are powerless to alter it.  We don’t discuss calamities and consequences because such forthright talk is political poison.  We don’t discuss the fragility of investment trading based on the momentary rate-of-change of price (“derivatives”) rather than value, although derivatives were an amplifier in the economic collapse of 2008.  For comparison, I remember that during the 1950’s we discussed and built fallout shelters for nuclear attack.  The topic wasn’t taboo.

Honest discussion won’t hurt us, but ignoring unmentionable topics will.  Future storms may hurt us, more so because we fear to discuss climate, options for electric power, wastes of all kinds, resources, and the tensions of income disparity.  Perhaps you can add to this list of suppressed topics that contribute to social fragility.

I think it’s mostly the fear of facing facts that makes us fragile.