Monday, April 16, 2012


The re-release of Titanic, in 3D, along with the hundred year anniversary of the event, has been in the news lately, for better or worse, and it goes to show that we are still always up for letting a good tragedy capture the imagination, as long as we're not personally involved. I've been interested for some time in the ongoing obsession people have with disaster movies, from Armageddon to Melancholia, and how much of a role it plays in shaping the narrative of the human world. The disconnect between the disaster movie narrative on one hand, and the real risks of disasters is also interesting to explore. We like to go see a movie like Twister, but then are somehow surprised when Mother Nature drops an EF-4 on top of our house. We watch a movie like Outbreak, but then go open door handles just the same on a daily basis. Maybe at some point, we're experiencing a sort of impulse to engage in a mythological retelling of a future narrative, something that is so great, but yet becomes so remote, that we don't really comprehend it as being anything but a narrative.

In fairness, the non-event of the Swine Flu did prompt people to think a little about their precautions, but it also illustrated some points about disasters and disaster planning -- no matter how much we want to plan and prepare, there is a point where we cannot or will not alter our basic lifestyle in order to accomodate these possibilities. Is that a bad thing? Are we willing to risk dying from a virus just to enjoy a day at the ball park or shopping mall? And what would be the litmus test for most people, when they would no longer set foot out the front door?

More drastic disasters, such as the 2004 Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, etc, are all things which are beyond our ability to really accept in the scale of our lifetimes. Or, if we give a thought to them, we realize there's not a lot we can personally do about the situation. Worried about the ocean and want to move to higher ground? Yellowstone Park sits on top of a supervolcano that is supposed to blow every 600,000 or so years. In spite of hurricanes, more people than ever have moved to the coast, accepting the price that they pay is the risk of a twenty-five foot storm surge or a harried flight inland.

The other end of the spectrum is the planet-ending event, something as unlikely as a rogue planet dropping in to say "Hi!" Not a whole lot you can do about that sort of thing, except realize that if our industrial civilization still has the capacity to do so, we should probably ramp up our space exploration and colonization efforts before something like that would ever happen (see the essay in Foreign Affairs).

What we miss in all of this is that our sense of vulnerability has become so personal and decided on an individual basis. Risk evaluation becomes something of an arbitrary thing on a personal life, an abstract one on a national level. A person who is tasked, for example, with planning how to handle an outbreak of a deadly virus is going to clinically examine available resources for dealing with the epidemic, as well as mechanisms of social control, infrastructure, supply, and so on. Do they also factor in the notion that people do not behave like a machine, but an unpredictable swarm of locusts? An accident on the other side of a highway causes both sides to clog up. Or traffic jams may occur for no apparent reason of all. What happens to someone's planning when people tasked with controlling the perimeter of an outbreak fall prey to the same fears and doubts that we all suffer from?

Or, with another example, say that an asteroid large enough to wipe out a city, or perhaps a state, is predicted to impact the earth? There is no certain way of knowing where it's going to hit. How long do we expect people to play hymns or pop songs on the deck of the Titanic? Do we seriously expect there to be much in the way of social fabric being preserved at that point? We think of long-term events, with time to adjust, like Peak Oil or other resource depletion, but seldom think of things like plagues or devastating wars simply because the ball can bounce in lots of unpredictable ways.

In the end, there's really not a lot we can do or expect to do about some of these things, on a macro-level. On a micro-level, there's plenty. Be able to be responsible for yourself and your family, have a game plan in mind whatever you're doing, be it setting foot on a trans-Atlantic liner, or just getting in your car for the morning commute. Put enough aside, like our paleolithic ancestors did, to take care of yourself if the grocery isn't there the next day. Relearn the basic skills that people took for granted even as little as a hundred years ago, when life didn't come in a shrink-wrap package, then pass these skills on to people around you. Last, as always, remember to put aside some pieces of our collective knowledge so that we have a reason to dig out and clean up if The Big One ever indeed does hit.


  1. It comes back down to basic assumption. I have been exploring the depth of the micro/macro scale relationship at the Zone. There are several caveats that have to break one way or another and the sequence of events matters.

    I agree that we will have to eat and have water access. Do we get to have electricity or does the EMP fry all the circuits. It's begs a question that is very pertinent - do we rely on books? How much of what is written as gospel is imagination?

    Too much. Plus, we have a populace which thinks it is more well read than it actually is. The depth vs. breadth issues have made people into geniuses in their micro-arena and idiots in the compassion/common sense micro-arenas.

    How many people have actually read Machiavelli's The Prince? Very interesting how the man has been labelled evil - read the book and you find something completely different.

    1. Doc,

      Another point about Machiavelli was that he was writing in the context of his times, too. People tend to glom onto one nugget of information and then ignore the big picture surrounding it. It's like with economic bad news...people focus on the little facts and ignore the fact that the entire system is inherently flawed and hitting the rocks now because of those flaws (overconsumption to a ridiculous excess, reliance on a finite resource, etc).

      As you point out, too, people rely on a lot of hearsay about things and very little hard information. They then take that hearsay and build an entire worldview around it. A good example was hysteria over terrorists using chemical weapons in an attack, in the post-9/11 panic party. I read a very good article written by a retired Army sergeant who was an NBC specialist who pointed out that it was unlikely that such an attack would ever occur in America, or that it would be successful if it did. Made me feel better after reading it, even if it probably never penetrated the public consciousness. Not that we don't have plenty to worry about already...


  2. Oh look, here is another Stuart Standiford post about how (some) people are busy building the robots that will eventually replace (alI) people as a species:

    I have to admit I'm not that interested in disaster scenarios, also including the nuclear war, epidemic, asteroid, and environmental mass extinction ones for the simple reason that there is absolutely nothing I can do to prevent them (I don't control the nuclear weapons or robots, or coal fired factories in China), or survive them if they are big enough. I actually do think that the world population is increasing to the point where it is starting to hit some very hard Malthusian limit, but I'm going to be too busy trying to survive to my "natural" lifespan to worry about exactly what form the limit will take.

    1. Wasn't there a sci-fi series done once about robots taking over...? ;)

      I think there's a subtle point here that people miss when talking about disasters and collapse -- we're living through collapse right now. There are tens of millions of people unemployed in this country, with no hope of getting another job, much less the kind of job they once had. It's because we've overshot our carrying capacity, while also in turn reducing the overall carrying capacity.

      A friend of mine pointed out a while back that people expect an apocalyptic event to big dramatic and visible, but the reality is that people are already living in there own post-apocalyptic reality but are generally invisible to those people who haven't yet experienced it. Lose your job, your unemployment runs out. What happens when the dollar collapses in a couple of years (because it also has overshot our economic carrying capacity) and those programs vanish as well?


  3. Excellent article and comments. Many thanks.