Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

The Health of Nations

Image Source:  UNICEF Pacific/AFPGetty Images

Image Source: UNICEF Pacific/AFPGetty Images

The strong cyclone that swept through the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu yesterday occurred at the same time that government representatives, including the President of Vanuatu and the head of Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office, were meeting at a UN conference in Japan to devise a new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters such as this one.  According to media reports, Vanuatu has prepared for cyclones but not for one of this intensity.  There are reports that even the National Disaster Management Office’s emergency communications systems have been disrupted by the storm.  In a statement today, Oxfam Australia said that up to 90% of the housing in the capital of Port Vila  had reportedly been seriously damaged.  An Oxfam official said that this “is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific.”

Although communications reportedly have been reestablished in the capital city, the extent of the devastation in Vanuatu, a country of 267,000 people spread out across 65 low-lying islands, is not yet clear, according to media reports.  The convergence of the cyclone and the UN conference on disaster risk reduction in the same weekend seems to underscore both a growing global reality of more frequent extreme weather events and increasing global recognition of the need for formal mechanisms to help societies prepare for the unexpected–whether from extreme weather events, disease outbreaks, or conflicts.

Illustration: Conte crayon by Black Elephant Blog author modeled upon "Rider and Fallen Foe" by Titian

Illustration: Conte crayon by Black Elephant Blog author modeled upon “Rider and Fallen Foe” by Titian

As we have seen when regions undergo recurrent stresses and shocks, the health and well-being (or security) of any people’s “homeland” must unavoidably concern us all.  It turns out that resilience is a local issue with global consequences–with effects that eventually come home to roost. Ignoring what is happening on the other side of the world is not a viable option. Taking a larger view of the challenges is necessary–and may help with acquiring a larger perspective on possible responses.  We have much material and experience, as well as creativity, imagination, and resourcefulness to draw into the viewfinders.  The UN Secretary General has similarly observed that the rebuilding effort of Sendai, Japan, four years after it was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami, is a reminder that “we must turn all of the painful lessons of disasters into new policies for a better future.”

What the officials at the UN meeting in Sendai, Japan have concluded is that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, powerful storms in the Asia-Pacific region and ongoing conflicts around the world are compelling reminders that “health and stronger health system capacities must be central to the new framework for managing disaster risk,” as reported by U.N. health agency officials today.  Public health is interconnected with, and a foundational requirement for, the ability to withstand disasters of all kinds. In whatever language it is conveyed, this message is relevant to all people of the world…  Threats and unwelcome surprises come in many forms; traditional means of defense, including walls and barricades, may no longer suffice. Different thinking and relationships may be needed.

Illustration:  Graphite on paper by Black Elephant Blog author after "Group of Figures" sketch by Luca Cambiaso circa 1560s

Illustration: Graphite on paper by Black Elephant Blog author after “Group of Figures” sketch by Luca Cambiaso circa 1560s

As we have just completed a session on “Resilience” in the class I am co-teaching, for which we relied on some excellent materials from varied sources, my next blog post will assemble some notes in one place regarding some of the latest thinking and practices related to “resilience,” including what it is, and some of its characteristics.  How is resilience different from other sorts of preparedness and who needs to be involved?  How do we know when we are “resilient” enough in an age of high-impact, unknown probability risks?  Perhaps these notes–which draw from, among other sources, the helpful new book by Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, The Resilience Dividend–will be as useful to someone else as they have been to me recently!  As our class continues to explore:  Understanding more about resilience is important not only for island nations but for the health of nations generally.


Hippo Paradoxes

We return to the book, How We Got to Now,  (discussed in “The Hummingbird Effect” blog post) sooner than expected!   A reader of the last post asked if Johnson addressed at all in his book whether the “hummingbird effect” ever led to negative consequences.  Well, he did, as a matter of fact, and this leads straight to the topic of today’s blog.  But first, by way of explanation, a bit more on How We Got to Now.

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

At the outset of his latest book, Johnson maintains that this book will be “resolutely agnostic on these questions of value”; i.e., whether the ripple effects of innovations represent change for the better or worse.  For instance, the invention of air-conditioning allows us to live in deserts, “but at what cost to our water supplies?,” he writes.  He explains that his emphasis in writing the book is primarily to gain insights into how changes come about in the first place.  While acknowledging that we need a value system to decide which “strains” of innovation to encourage, he says he has tried to spell out the range of consequences, good and bad, in his book.  He cites, for instance, the fact that the invention of the vacuum tube helped bring jazz to a mass audience, [but] “it also helped amplify the Nuremberg rallies.”  How one considers the values of different innovations depends on “your own belief systems about politics and social change,” he writes.

Thus, in his chapter on the evolution of the concept of “clean,” which traces the creation of the first comprehensive sewer system in America, Johnson highlights the fact that the idea of bathing at all is a relatively modern idea. Attitudes began to shift in the U.S. and in England early in the 19th century, he said, as the availability of soap and showers helped lay the groundwork for a new paradigm:  the “germ theory of disease.”   With the cleaning business today worth about $80 billion, according to Johnson, another ripple effect of the discovery of clean technologies was the creation of an advertising industry to promote the benefits of cleaning products, such as chlorox.

But all this happened in the short span of the last two centuries and has had many unanticipated consequences, including  booming rates of urbanization. (An article in the December 6 issue of The Economist magazine refers to this phenomenon as “suburbanization.”) From a world of cities of no more than two million people, cities grew to accommodate tens of millions of residents, including the “megacities” of today.  In some cities, the benefits of the paradigm shift embracing cleanliness are evident in lower mortality rates and nearly nonexistent epidemic disease, Johnson writes. But around the world, there are still more than three billion people who lack access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation systems: “in absolute numbers, [therefore], we have gone backward as a species.”

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

Johnson asks whether there has not yet been sufficient innovation to enable the developing world to bypass the big-engineering phase of the developed world that involved building massive public infrastructure to filter and pump water.  So, in this chapter, it’s clear that acceptance of the concept of “clean” has led to benefits even as it has enabled urban sprawl in countries where there are inadequate sanitation facilitations and access to potable water.  Such tensions and paradoxes lead to new requirements for innovation.

  • To step back for a moment from the book, it is clear today that failures to adapt in the largest, poorest of cities–even if they are a half a world away from us–can bring us full-circle, paradoxically: back to dealing with viruses and bacteria against which we have little or no defense.  We need look no further than the front pages of any major newspaper to see that this is the case.  Which brings us to:

“HIPPO Paradoxes”

Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s most prominent naturalists and biologists, addresses the concept of “HIPPO” (actually an mnemonic, rather than a metaphor) in his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence.  In order of relative importance, the letters in this acronym (which is one well-known to those in Wilson’s fields but was new to me) represent aspects of the human impact on biodiversity, as in:

H = “Habitat loss”, which he defines as the reduction of habitable area by deforestation, conversion of grassland, and climate change.

I =   “Invasive species,” which refers to alien animals, plants, and even fungi that cause damage to humans or the environment or both when they travel, or are transported, into areas where they are not native.

P =  “Pollution,” which Wilson writes has inflicted most of its damage on fish and other life in freshwater systems but also is the cause of more than four hundred anoxic “dead zones” in marine waters “that receive contaminated water from upstream agricultural land.”

P = “Population growth,” which Wilson writes is “actually a catalytic force of all the other factors.”  He continues:  “Damage will not be so much from the growth itself, which is expected to peak by the end of the century, but rather from the rapid and unstoppable ascent in per capita consumption worldwide as economies improve.”

O = “Overharvesting,” which, Wilson writes, “is best illustrated by the percentage of global decline in the catch of various species of marine pelagic fishes such as tuna and swordfish from the mid-1850s to the present: 96 to 99 percent.  Not only are these species scarcer, but the individual fish caught are on average also smaller.”

In this latest book, Wilson reissues his warning (familiar but no less sobering to readers of his earlier work) that the “remainder of the century will be a bottleneck of growing human impact on the environment and diminishment of biodiversity.”  Wilson is a scientist.  He writes that science “builds and tests competitive hypotheses from partial evidence and imagination in order to generate real knowledge about the world.”  “It is totally committed to fact…[and] cuts paths through the fever swamp of human existence,” he writes.

But, this book is a warning about the limitations of science and technology-driven paths to the future.  Wilson calls for reuniting the humanities with the sciences as the way forward.  He envisions a future where science and technology will be the same almost everywhere–“for every civilized culture, subculture, and person.”  But, “what will continue to evolve and diversify most definitely are the humanities.”  And only by fusing science and the humanities, Wilson suggests, can mankind deal with the coming onslaught of biology-based and technologically-enabled challenges to the “human nature we have inherited.”

Current technological and biological trends create “a dilemma of volitional evolution,” he writes.  In Wilson’s view, the choices ahead require nothing less than re-visting what it means to be human.  “Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technologies by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior?”   More knowledge doesn’t always equal more understanding or situational awareness; for boosting the latter, Wilson states that the humanities are “all-important.”  This is a powerful (if also controversial–can something be powerful without controversy?) book from a lifelong and keen observer of natural life from its most microscopic to (potentially) galactic scales.  It is rich with reminders of the many creative paradoxes of human and natural existence.  We are simply bound to be surprised.