“He’ll never catch up!” the Sicilian cried. “Inconceivable!”
“You keep using that word!” the Spaniard snapped. “I don’t think it means what you think it does.”
…”Inconceivable!” the Sicilian cried.
The Spaniard whirled on him. “Stop saying that word!” It was inconceivable that anyone could follow us, but when we looked behind, there was the man in black. It was inconceivable that anyone could sail as fast as we could sail, and yet he gained on us. Now this too is inconceivable, but look – look” and the Spaniard pointed down through the night. “See how he rises.”
The man in black was, indeed, rising. Somehow, in some almost miraculous way, his fingers were finding holds in the crevices, and he was now perhaps fifteen feet closer to the top, father from death.
The Sicilian advanced on the Spaniard now, his wild eyes glittering at the insubordination. “I have the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits.” he began, “so when I tell you something, it is not guesswork; it is fact! And the fact is that the man in black is not following us. A more logical explanation would be that he is simply an ordinary sailor who dabbles in mountain climbing as a hobby who happens to have the same general final destination as we do. ”
- William Goldman _The Princess Bride_
I fear that the Great Vizzini, of Goldman’s wonderfully brilliant and funny book (if you have only seen the movie, you are denying yourself a great pleasure) may actually have to give his title of “the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits” up now – there are just so many competitors emerging in the last decade or so, most of them bankers and politicians. Of course, it could just be that like Vizzini, they aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are – and we’re starting to get a good look at what a world planned and organized by the corrupt and not-terrifically-bright-in-any-useful-way looks like.
I keep thinking about the word “inconceivable” in relationship to the terrible events in Japan – the earthquake, now upgraded to a 9, the subsequent tsunami and the nuclear events. As Nicole Foss’s work has made clear, the Fukushima nuclear disaster is not a black swan – it follows on the heels of long warnings about the danger of building plants in such seismically sensitive places, and also after safety concerns within the plant itself. We know that the plant was not designed to handle such a major earthquake. There’s a good summation of the media coverage here, if you haven’t been following it as well.
Whatever else this teaches us, it may well be that the major message is that failures that seem unlikely are not, in fact, inconceivable, except in the deeply wrong sense that Vizzini uses it. In a warming world, for example, it becomes even more urgent to acknowledge that outer limits may be crossed, (I do not, of course, mean to imply any connection between earthquakes and global warming, merely noting the dramatic increase in natural disasters that is attributable to climate change) and that betting against the probability of events is a risky proposition.
At the same time, the costs of building levees to withstand category 5 hurricanes (and no, Katrina was not a category 5 hurricane) and deepwater drilling platforms with automatic shutoffs, and nuclear plants in safe zones to withstand higher earthquakes are enormous – at a time when the US alone has 3 trillion dollars worth of delayed infrastructure work that it has been putting off on everything from bridges to sewers to nuclear power plants to the electrical grid to everything else. That 3 trillion does not include the costs of bringing things up to code for more extreme events. We seem to be reaching a point where Joseph Tainter’s observations on the diminishing returns of complexity become strikingly obvious.
My own argument, which I’ve been making for some years, and which has come to have some little currency in at least some areas of agricultural planning, is that we should turn it around and presume failure. That is, we should ask ourselves “what strategies are most effective and least risky in failure situations…given that systems failures happen all the time.” In this model, distributed systems are less dangerous than centralized ones, and those that give partial return even if projects aren’t completed or if models break down are more valuable than those that give more but only if we front-load a huge investment to them. It creates, in the end a different way of looking at our world, and one, I would argue, we desperately need.
Why don’t we do that? The very idea of contingency planning, at least in the US comes with a taint of superstition – that ill luck will strike those of us who actually spend time thinking about what might go wrong. Despite the fact that many public policy agencies and military groups do scenario planning, those outcomes tend not to be taken seriously until we are forced to acknowledge them. The very fact that our culture’s only vision of someone who is prepared for difficult events is the survivalist curled up in a shack with his stash of guns suggests that we fundamentally think that preparation for negative outcomes is odd, unlikely and extreme. This leads us to actually radically underestimate how often things go badly wrong.
This leads to a painful reality – despite the fact that winter power outages happen out my way all the time, to give an example, we know for a fact that the extended outages in my region there will leave us with people who are freezing, and hungry, isolated and unable to cope. They won’t have the batteries for their flashlights, or any strategy for cooking or eating. At best, they will come out of this traumatized and miserable. At worst, some of them may actually die.
But we also know that these folks will be deemed normal, and their lack of preparation will be treated as normal. Just as people in California with no earthquake preparations or folks in Florida with no preparations for a Hurricane will be treated as normal. We treat a lack of preparedness, in our society, as completely reasonable and rational, even expected. Thus, if you are in line at a Red Cross shelter because you have no food and water, even if you were able to stay in your home 48 hours after a hurricane hit Gainesville, odds are no one will even raise an eyebrow and ask why in heck you don’t have any food. The same goes for upstate NY after a blizzard.
My point is not to pick on anyone (and yes, I know that there are some people who don’t have enough food access to have a reserve, but that hardly describes everyone) – in fact, I think the reason that we look upon the lack of personal contingency plans as so reasonable is that it isn’t just personal – our society as a whole has very few contingency plans – much less strategies for adapting to failure.
We regard planning for anything bad as a sign of an unhealthy focus on the negative. We feel it is so unhealthy that we find that at every level of our culture – from the purely personal question of whether we have a strategy for dealing with common disasters like job loss or disability to the international policy level where no one seems to have ever asked any questions about what might go wrong on a host of subjects (consider the UN’s most recent report on food which only implicitly acknowledge energy supply issues or the strong connection between food and energy prices) – we have no contingency plans. Not only do we not have them, but we dismiss and deride anyone who suggests we make them.
All of which suggests that we have a very troubled relationship to the idea of failure. Speaking as someone whose entire body of work could probably be summarized as “Ummm…have you thought about what happens if something goes wrong?” I’m acutely aware of how unpleasant and frightening most of us find the idea of failure – and because we find it unpleasant and frightening, we are likely to dramatically underestimate its likelihood and frequency, and be truly shocked when failures happen. But in fact, we shouldn’t be shocked – failure is far more routine and normal than we expect. Not only is it normal, but treating it as normal might actually reduce the likelihood of disaster.
For example, for a good bit more than a decade now, a large number of voices have responded to the idea of globalization with fears that the creation of a global economy might eliminate protections for the most economically vulnerable members of the world’s economies, concentrate wealth in the hands of an increasingly tiny elite, erase valuable cultural differences, lead to political hegemony and environmental rape, and also make economies more vulnerable to difficulties that once wouldn’t have concerned them much.
It turns out that anti-globalization activists were right in just about every particular. Globalization did screw quite a lot of the world’s poor, to put it bluntly, and the collapse of globalization seems poised to screw billions more. Tying our economies together is starting to look like it wasn’t such a hot idea for a lot of folks. Oops! Globalization did result in unprecedented ecological damage – which we now have to live with – consider China’s recent acknowledgement that its own economic growth cannot continue because of the ecological damage it creates. It turns out that the depressing people who kept saying “umm…don’t we need a back up plan just in case this doesn’t work the way you hope it will” and “shouldn’t we maybe reconsider something that works even if things don’t go well?” were right.
There have been similar groups speaking out about energy issues for decades, or asking whether it might not be safer not to degrade the ecology in the first place than to rely on our ability to fix it when problems become evident. And they to have been accorded precisely the amount of respect you’d expect – not much. And they too, turn out to have been right. It turns out that we may be spending 1/5 of global GDP (according to the Stern Report) addressing the consequences of catastrophic climate change, unless we can stop it – which means that if we fail in the almost unbelievable challenage of arresting climate change, we’re facing a potentially permanent Depression. No economy can bear that burden. Our economy may well be permanently impacted by declines in available energy supplies, and our failure to invest in renewable energies. Ooops. It turns out that a lot of folks pointing out overarching problems were, well, right.
But along with the “Oops” and the enormous chorus of voices calling our current crisis unforseeable, even as Goldman’s wonderful villain Vizzini would say, “Inconceivable!” and they talk of Black Swans and unpredictability. None of it is, however, actually inconceivable, as a large number of people who di the work of conceiving pretty much what was happening can attest. As Yeats put it, things fall apart. And they do it, not once in a great while, but rather often, even when the falling apart is something we do not choose to conceive.
Thus, the war to end all wars built the ground for the next one, and the end mechanism of the subsequent war left us with the massive and presently insoluble problem of nuclear arms. Similarly, as Jared Diamond observes, all of our most intractable present problems have been caused by the solutions we’ve sought to other problems – peak oil and climate change aren’t just bad things that are happening to us, they are the logical consequences of our solutions to other problems – standard of living, transportation and food issues.
In many cases, social problems follow the same course – the urbanization, for example, of Southern rural African-Americans during and after World War II really did free a lot of poor southern workers from poorly paid domestic and agricultural labor, and offer short term increases in wages. They also destroyed cultural networks, stripped farmers of land and access to natural resources, and resulted in an urban poverty arguably may have been more destructive than the rural poverty that preceeded it.
Now it would be false to suggest that the problems that we were solving weren’t real – and that for a time, the solutions didn’t seem better to some people. For many a Chinese peasant, eating meat twice a week is better than twice a month before globalization. From the perspective of someone who values the Great Northeastern Forest, the replacement of coal and wood for heating by natural gas and heating oil was a real improvement over the old options.
The problem is that the period of “solution” was brief and the new dependencies and destructions make the fall back much harsher – so, for example, the peasant who left the land to work on the periphery of the big city now no longer has his job, nor his land – or if he can get the land, climate change and pollution mean that it cannot support him any longer. Now the American Northeasterner is completely unprepared for disruptions in price or supply of their energy – and adaptation is likely to cause even greater deforestation than before. That things look different through different lenses is inevitable – but each layer of solution and complexity seems to have more dissenters, and put us in line for a bigger fall.
This might seem an argument primarily for contingency and scenario planning, and at a minimum, it should be. I’d like to suggest something more fundamental, however, something that works at the personal level, and at the level of societal planning. What if we assumed failure? What if, instead of no contingencies, or simply having a mostly unfamiliar background plan for when things go wrong, we insisted that our society work not just when things are going well, but that the very solutions we choose operate to serve us even when they fail in reasonably likely ways?
My family uses this model in our planning for the reasonable contingencies of our lives – we have no – no bomb shelter, no SETI system to keep out alien invasion, and if the world goes into a sudden ice age, I’m woefully short on Mammoth repellent. But we’re pretty good when we talk about things like ice storms knocking out the power – it happens nearly every winter. And because of that, my house works pretty well without power. I have solar lanterns, rechargeable batteries and solar chargers, a couple of oil lamps, a manual water pump for when the well goes out, a wood cookstove, a solar oven and a composting toilet and a spare battery for the laptop so I don’t lose too much work. Our house works great during the vast majority of times when we have power – if the power goes out, well, we flip on a few battery lights, put dinner on the cookstove to simmer and go out and bathe standing in the tub with a solar shower bag filled with water that warmed on the cookstove.
Now you could argue that getting my home ready to function this way took money, time and energy, and you’d be right. So is it really worth it? Sure – and this is why. The very tools that I use to ensure that I’m comfortable in a power outage also serve me when the power is on. The solar battery charger works great for my son’s nighlight, and the flashlights. The down comforters that keep us warm when the only heat is coming from the woodstove also work great when we just don’t want to burn fuel or spend money on heating oil. The solar lantern goes out to the barn with me, the cookstove allows me to use the wood that the ice storm is going to provide us with in fallen tree limbs. The solar shower bags are wonderful for that outdoor sluice-off in the summer when I’m covered with garden mud.
Now these adaptations could operate as contingency plans – and then they would be costly and energy absorbing. Having a wood cookstove that you use only when the heat or cooking facilities are out is certainly better than nothing, but it is an awfully expensive way to deal with a crisis. I certainly couldn’t blame those who are contingency planning for saying it might not be worth it. On the other hand, a cookstove that makes use of downed wood, cuts your energy bills and also gives you an emergency backup, well, that’s not a bad solution. By working not from the assumption that I ought to have an emergency plan for an unlikely contingency, but from the assumption that complex systems fail regularly *and* that the best system is to build infrastructure that assumes failure but also functions well without it, I get the best of both worlds – it actually doesn’t cost me very much to adapt.
How would this work on a world policy scale? Well, let’s take energy as an example. Let’s assume that more than 30 years ago, during the first energy shocks, we’d recognize that both absolute oil supplies (as characterized by the peaking of North American oil) and foreign supplies (as characterized by the OPEC cuts) were unstable, and subject to failure. How would that have changed our energy and economic policy over the last 30 years? It is very difficult to me to imagine a scenario in which we did not begin seriously building out renewable energies then – or one that did not offer
improvement over our present situation.
Simply assuming that the oil supply might fail might well have reduced our overall economic growth (although that is by no means a given) compared to what we later had fueled by cheap oil. But among the economists I know, I cannot find one who thinks that even the very short-term economic impact would have been negative enough to offset the advantages – and many doubt the impact would have been negative at all. Similar scenarios are devisable if, for example, we were to have taken the information about global warming available to us in 1979 (copious, actually) and said “it seems pretty likely that continuing to burn fossil fuels would be a bad idea, so let’s begin a gradual phase out.”
But, of course, hindsight is always 20-20 – what would such a policy look like right now? Well, in economic terms, having a policy that planned for failure would mean assuming that the economy is not going to rebound thoroughly, and that our investments in infrastructure must be concentrated on mitigating the suffering of people who are going to be poorer, not shoring up financial institutions bound to failure. Thus, we’d be putting our billions into small businesses, not huge ones, into basic things like food and insulation, instead of big luxury items that bring in profits in good times, but are useless in bad ones.
But the funny thing about this is that just like the example of the energy build-out 30 years ago, I think there’s a compelling case to make that we would be richer in the long run. There is little doubt we’d be better off if it took only a little energy to heat our homes, if we didn’t have to buy health care and if we invested in small scale agriculture. I’m not going to sit down and make it point by point today – but I’d suggest historically speaking, the boom and bust cycle doesn’t necessarily result in net improvements over a more stable model – there’s a detailed analysis of this in Thomas Princen’s marvellous book _The Logic of Sufficiency_ that is a superb starting point for this case, and I will write more about it.
Japan’s present disaster may or may not be transformative, but what it will be is a reminder of how often failure comes, and with consequences we should expect, but do not. I wonder if it is possible to imagine a world in which failure is normalized, part of the narrative, expected and in which we choose our strategies to return positively even when things, as they say, fall apart.