The Perfect Storm and Black Swan Theory

The BP oil crisis in the Mexican gulf, deadly heat waves in Russia, earthquakes in Haiti (7.0 Mw) and Chile (8.8 Mw) and flooding in Australia caused almost 300.000 deaths from natural disasters in 2010 (1).

A few months into 2011 New Zealand is hit by a 6.3 Mw earthquake followed by the Japan 9.0 Mw earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The situation in Libya, Syria and many other Arabic and African countries adds uncertainty to global stability. The complexity of the situation demands a new approach to early warning systems for natural disasters and reduction of global systemic risk.

The underlying problem of any foresight activity is the fear of certain futures and self censorship of worst case scenarios. Inconvenient wild cards and critical security issues are not paid enough attention. The Japan earthquake released a tsunami 10 meter high but the tsunami protection at the Fukushima nuclear plant was designed for 2 meter high waves. TEPCO, the owners, lost 80% of its market valuation and will decommission the plants. The cascading economic effect has led the Japanese economy to the edge of recession (2).

Preparing and planning for worst case scenarios is the domain of disaster response and emergency management organizations (3). Futurists and science fiction writers also dwell in the realms of hypothetical catastrophe. In the light of the current global unrest I propose an increased collaboration between established organizations and the futures thinking community.

The Black Swan Theory is a metaphor for the unexpected and hard to predict event of a large magnitude with far reaching consequences (4). The phrase was originally developed by Juvenal in the 16th century as a statement of impossibility. All recorded natural history spoke of white swans, therefore black swans didn’t exist. When explorers discovered black swans in Australia the term implied that a perceived impossibility might later be disproven.

The Perfect Storm (5) is an expression for catastrophic events caused by a rare combination of circumstances that aggravate the situation drastically. The interrelationships and dependencies in large scale catastrophes require a coordinated analysis across many scientific disciplines. We need to categorize the effects of worst case scenarios of: climate change, increasing frequency and magnitude of natural disaster, financial turmoil, looming resource and energy crisis and destabilizing political unrest in large parts of the world. Combinations of these events will inspire entirely new worst case scenarios.

Modern urban infrastructure was built for half the populations it now supports. The multiplying effect of worn out infrastructure was tragically demonstrated in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The impact of disasters in densely populated areas need serious attention from urban planners and government agencies. We have much to learn from Japan.

Hypothetically the human race faces extinction every day. We need coordinated efforts from all academic disciplines to be able to survive the complex future facing our planet. These are strange days of interesting times in a mad world.

1. Killer year caps deadly decade – reducing disaster impact is “critical” says top UN disaster official – UNISDR.
2. Japan ‘on edge of recession’ after quake – Telegraph.
3. Emergency Management – Wikipedia.
4. Black Swan Theory – Wikipedia.
5. Perfect Storm – Wikipedia.