...a grey rhino or a black swan? An unprecedented choice.
I think the only thing about the word unprecedented that is true, is its use in everyday language. That word was Dictionary.com’s word of the year (2020), owing to civil unrest, the pandemic, US presidential elections, European politics, and climate events. Its life cycle may not be long, however, as it may soon join words like lethargic, friend, genius, literally, and talk that no longer mean anything at all. (Disaster might be in that list, too, if I keep using it to refer to a shift at work, a family meal, or attempts to make goose jerky). Yet, as it speeds towards retirement, it’s not there yet. For example, Alberta is currently experiencing an “unprecendented” wildfire season.
This is not to debate how unprecedented, unexpected, or unpredictable recent or historical events were or were not, but to suggest a paradigm for living in a complex world, gleaned from a few inspiring thinkers.
“...our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according our current knowledge)—and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated.”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The black swan: Impact of the highly improbable.
If it isn’t unprecedented, we’ll need to find a new word, because of course we haven’t seen the last disaster. There will always be another war, another hurricane, another earthquake, another (dare I say it, with the taste of COVID still lingering) pandemic. And there will always be one worse than the worst we’ve yet experienced.
Black swan may not yet be as overused as some (if you took the word literally out of whatever you just said, does it change its meaning at all? If you literally didn't say it?) but it has become a common concept since Taleb’s 2007 book of that name. And just so we’re on the same page, here’s my very crude summary of his metaphor: Swans are white. No one had ever seen a black swan so it was presumed they didn’t and could never exist. Until someone saw one. Then it was understood that they always could have existed.
In more accurate terms, a black swan event is defined by its unprecedented (uggh) nature, extreme impact, and predictability in retrospect.
Unprecedented, it is an outlier, “it lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility”.
Extreme impact, that one’s easy to see.
Retrospective predictability meaning that we “concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable”.
The theme is that we are blind to randomness and large deviations.
“Mostly, we need to stop being surprised,”
...Juliette Kayem suggests. She’s a US national security analyst, author of a great disaster preparedness book, The Devil never sleeps: Learning to live in an age of disasters. “Disasters and crises are not one-offs, random events, rare occurrences; they are standard operating procedure...Disasters are simply no longer random and rare. And once we can all accept this lived reality — that the devil never sleeps — then we can better prepare for when the next one comes because it will come, as will all the ones after that.”
So if black swans, previously unknown, are now popping up all over the place, maybe that’s not the metaphor that makes the most sense. Michelle Wucker, another brilliant social and political scientist, coined the phrase gray rhino to describe the impactful events that are stomping towards us, that are predictable and foreseeable, but that we ignore. The economic crises, the bridge collapses, the infectious disease outbreaks, and if not the events themselves certainly the effects of various events on vulnerable populations and infrastructures.
“Unforeseen—except for 60 years’ worth of warnings”
-Wucker referring to landslide in Washington state in 2014.
For those of us stuck in responder positions, this isn’t an easy pill to swallow. We don’t need anyone diminishing our already-stretched (or downright lacking) resources in favour of those other pillars of crisis management. But by investing in prevention, if black swans and gray rhinos both are expected and anticipated, we would be doing far less retrospective analysis of disasters. We could improve our response capability (relatively) by improving our recognition of threats and preparedness for foreseeable problems. “The best leaders act when the threat is still far away” (Wucker).
We know that prevention is better than response. This means speaking out when an incoming crisis is anticipated. And fighting against the perverse incentives that perpetuate disaster-prone systems. Wucker documents a few examples.
…I-35 bridge collapse (Minneapolis, MN 2007). $251 million to build, the collapse cost about $60 million over the next two years in expenses, the new bridge $234 million. Structural problems had been identified prior. This is not the only bridge collapse in recent American or global history, of course, but one of the more expensive. And it also won’t be the last. Some 75,000 bridges received the same “structurally deficient” classification, and some 8,000 are in need of remodeling.
…Africa road systems. The World Bank estimates that a $12 billion investment in road repair would save $48 billion.
…Ebola crisis (2014) cost West Africa about $32 billion, and 10,000 human lives lost. Advance preparations would have cost less than a half a percent of that. “This epidemic…was an avoidable crisis” (Citing Farrah, Pilot NEJM Oct 16, 2014).
Would you rather be confronted with a gray rhino or a black swan? Or would you rather call the next crisis a gray rhino or a black swan? Either way, seeing it ahead of us, instead of in after-action reports, will save dollars, lives, buildings, and bridges.
Imagine a world as we must now, where the risk there, always. To put it more directly: let’s stop trying to control probability when it comes to disasters and start trying to control the consequences. We spend so much time and energy on imagining we can predict with some precision what could happen when the more important realization is that it will. If that is the case, then the whole risk quadrant can be folded into a simple chart: low or high consequence. That’s all you need to know. The words unexpected, unanticipated, and unpredictable will cease to be helpful guides or excuses: they are so passive and often in error (Kayyem).
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. Vol. 2. Random House, 2007.
Wucker, Michele. The gray rhino: How to recognize and act on the obvious dangers we ignore. Macmillan, 2016.
Kayyem, Juliette (March 2022). The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters. PublicAffairs. ISBN 9781541700109.
Photo and illustration credits
Smoke: Giorgio Trovato, unsplash.com
Swans: Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/bird-couple-australia-black-56838/
Bridge: Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/architecture-autumn-blue-blue-sky-208684/