Fragility

The more we learn, the more we learn how fragile our lives are. Risks of catastrophe are everywhere.

The Yellowstone Supervolcano could again cover North America in ash, as it has done periodically for millions of years, rendering our continent instantly unlivable, and pitching the rest of the world into long years of winter. An asteroid could smash into our planet, killing most large, warm-blooded creatures, as one did the dinosaurs and large mammals of an earlier era. Given modern transportation, mankind is ever-more susceptible to pandemics – avian flu or Ebola, perhaps – that could kill hundreds of millions, or even billions. A Carrington Event (narrowly missed just a year ago, apparently) or an EMP attack by some mad Iranian or North Korean could destroy the electrical grid, returning our part of the world to the nineteenth century overnight; few indeed would survive the resulting chaos for long.

None of these disaster scenarios is unlikely; in some measure they are all pretty likely, sooner or later – it’s more a question of when, and degree of morbidity, than whether they will happen.

The customary catastrophes – small wars, the threat of big ones – are a constant. The world has largely been held in balance since World War II by the Pax Americana that seems now to be drawing to a close. An aging, deeply indebted America is much diminished, and cannot afford to be the world’s policeman; there is no remotely plausible substitute. As a more aggressive China bullies its neighbors, a resurgent Islam inflames the Middle East and a pugnacious Russia grabs its neighbors’ lands, will we see a replay of the great power rivalries and miscalculations that led to the carnage of the World Wars?

It would be unwise to bet against that outcome; nobody thought the Civil War, or the World Wars would be a fraction as bloody as they proved to be, and I am not one who believes that political leaders and diplomats today are any more competent than were their counterparts of yesteryear.

The End of History? I think not.

Even in the absence of a global catastrophe, we know that sooner or later each of us will awaken (or not) to terrible personal news. It may involve ourselves, or those whom we love. Eventually, both. As we age, terrible news about loved ones becomes ever more frequent an occurrence; for those who are fortunate enough to make it to old folks’ homes, it becomes commonplace.

It is knowledge of our mortality that spurs us:

“Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her
“Alone shall come fulfillment of our dreams”

wrote the incomparable Wallace Stevens.

On a far more prosaic level, in one of my better posts, A Paean to Risk, I explored the necessarily symbiotic relationship between failure (our willingness to risk it/our ability to learn from it) and progress, in all its forms: in business, as in life, the enemy is entropy. We cannot freeze time or circumstances, and should not try.

We err if we live in fear that bad things might happen; they will, get over it. There’s too much to be done, and too much joy to be had from doing it, for us to allow fear to inhibit us.

Many policy mistakes flow from an increasing risk aversion in American society. Our legal system seems to think that whenever bad things happen, somebody must be at fault, and liable – resulting in costs that weigh down both business and medecine. The FDA prevents new and experimental drugs from being tried by the dying, for fear that – they might die? Shouldn’t people be free to make such decisions for themselves, with their doctors? Some read so much risk into the tea leaves of computer models (that, of late, don’t seem to be very successful at predicting) that they would strangle economic growth, the poor be damned; that’s not how I would bet.

Bad things can happen, and certainly will. And many, many good things might happen, while our luck holds, if we make them happen. Love might happen, and other accomplishments benefitting both ourselves and others; these involve risk and require considerable effort. And most of the fun is in making them happen.

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