Catastrophe: Risk and Response

Richard Posner (Oxford University Press)

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Jared Diamond (Viking)

We humans don’t do catastrophe well until one hits us, if then. After all, our ancestors didn’t survive by planning a century ahead; they survived by spotting predators fast and stretching one harvest until the next. Times have changed, say two prolific polymaths–Judge Richard Posner of the federal court of appeals in Chicago and best-selling uberhistorian Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel)–and we need to change too.

Posner worries mostly that we’re ignoring low-probability but high-damage events, from asteroid strikes to scientific experiments gone wrong. His cost-benefit calculations about them make for good policy, dry reading, and the occasional unexpected chuckle. Diamond too thinks we’re ignoring problems, but he’s focused on a dozen imminent environmental threats that could do us in if not attended to. He tells how and why other societies collapsed after ignoring similar problems, and over and over again he makes you wonder, what were they thinking?

Take one spring in Greenland in the middle 1300s, for instance. The last Norse in the western settlement there thought that their lives had come down to which would run out first, fuel or food. With no future left, they ate their cows, their new calves, their dogs, and finally small birds–all while their Inuit neighbors thrived.

Neither a liberal nor a professional scaremonger, Posner says Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake inspired him to write Catastrophe: Risk and Response. What, if anything, he asks, should society do to prevent potential catastrophes like an asteroid strike, a bioterrorist attack, or abrupt global warming, in which warming releases additional greenhouse gases that rapidly accelerate the process?

“If anything” is pure Posner. We can’t possibly prepare for every imaginable calamity, so we need to rank them somehow. How likely is each, and how bad would things get if it happened? Crudely put, the impact equals the probability times the cost. There’s said to be a 1 percent chance that an asteroid a kilometer wide will hit the earth every millennium, and such a hit would kill about a billion people. Multiplying one-thousandth of 1 percent times one billion, Posner comes up with an “expected annual death rate” of 10,000. Where do other potential catastrophes rank relative to that? Unfortunately he has to guess. Nobody knows the probability of abrupt global warming or what it might cost, and bioterrorist attacks are even harder to gauge.

Yet Posner doesn’t think ranking disasters is enough. We also need to weigh the benefits of forestalling each one against the cost of doing so. This sober task gets a little goofy when he considers the minute (perhaps zero) chance that nanotech or high-energy physics experiments might turn the earth into a “gray goo” or a hyperdense sphere 100 meters in diameter. He coolly concludes, “I think that the downside of extinction probably does outweigh the upside of faster scientific progress”–a sentence that could have been composed only in Hyde Park.

And yet, stripped of the dogged attempt to quantify the unquantifiable, the book makes sense. Posner acknowledges difficulties and suggests ways around them. We’re not spending enough to deal with abrupt global warming and asteroid strikes, he argues, and it would be OK to shut down some experiments for a few years until we can better judge what risks they pose. And since many of the problems he discusses are global in nature, he proposes creating an international EPA with the power to enforce treaties.

Such recommendations will dismay Posner’s libertarian and conservative fans. He torches their claims that global warming (a) isn’t happening, (b) isn’t our fault, and (c) can be managed without inconveniencing anyone. He’s no climatologist, but as a veteran of many judicial expert wars, he analyzed a random sample of recent articles from the 20 most influential peer-reviewed atmospheric-sciences journals. He observes that of 55 articles, only 2 expressed any doubt that human-caused global warming is real and will have adverse consequences.

Having pointed out in the nicest possible way that his ideological soul mates are using pseudoscience to promote bad policy, Posner goes on to offend liberals and civil libertarians. He contends that the government may have to curtail some civil liberties in order to minimize bioterror threats, by, for example, monitoring biologists in potentially dangerous specialties–in other words, by treating thousands of scientists and technicians as potential terrorists, much as if they were air travelers. Employing his favorite logic, he implores civil libertarians to think ahead and to weigh the costs and benefits. “If moderate curtailment of those liberties today will prevent terrorist attacks tomorrow, the total curtailment may be much less than if a no-curtailment policy allows such an attack to occur.”

In short, he concludes that most people are parroting ideology without thinking. “Conservatives seize on the existence of doubt about the magnitude or causality of global warming to oppose emissions controls,” he writes, “while liberals seize on doubt concerning the likelihood of bioterrorism to oppose limitations on granting visas to foreigners to do research on lethal pathogens. In neither case is the existence of doubt a valid ground for rejecting expert opinion.”

Posner holds the world at arm’s length. Jared Diamond, in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, hugs the planet close, even as he places the stories of at least 15 different societies on a vast historical canvas. A physiologist turned anthropologist turned historian, he seems to have friends everywhere he goes. Some of the societies he describes failed long ago, often because they ignored environmental problems. Some saved themselves, and some are still teetering on the brink. In Norse Greenland failure meant that everybody died; in other times and places, it meant that many died, leaving a few behind to scrape out a living.

Diamond writes, “Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning, and willingness to reconsider core values.” He acknowledges–in the teeth of his subtitle–that the right choices are rarely obvious. “One often can’t be certain that clinging to core values will be fatal, or (conversely) that abandoning them will ensure survival.” Yet there are some clues.

Failed societies, he observes, were often led by wealthy elites who were isolated from their communities. Mayan kings “sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster,” while the peasant agriculture on which they depended was foundering. Successful societies tended to be more equitable and better able to change their ways. On the isolated two-mile-square island of Tikopia, the Polynesian inhabitants’ highly valued pigs ate ten pounds of vegetables to make one pound of pork and kept rooting up gardens in doing so. Around 1600 the Tikopians made what must have been a wrenching decision: they killed all the pigs and began eating fish, clams, and turtles instead. When Europeans showed up 200 years later the islanders were doing fine: they’d deliberately kept their population at around 1,200 people and had planted every square inch of the pig-free island in a multistory orchard and garden.

Long as Diamond’s book is, there are some stories he doesn’t tell, presumably because they don’t teach the lesson he has in mind. British economist W. Stanley Jevons warned in 1865 that his country was running out of coal and would have to choose either a brief golden age followed by a crash or long-term mediocrity. Neither happened. Britain’s imperial power and standard of living survived this “crisis,” but not because people started conserving or rethought their basic values. Instead they were saved by the serendipitous discovery of oil, which in many cases could be substituted for coal.

There was no such unanticipated salvation for the Easter Islanders once they’d cut down all their trees–a tale Diamond does include. So is today’s world society more like 19th-century Britain or Easter Island? How could we tell? Diamond has trouble addressing these questions because he never goes beyond dogmatically asserting that science and technology are causing more problems than they solve.

Diamond lacks Posner’s ruthless integrity. He presents a strong case that several wolves are at our door. But people like his friend Paul Ehrlich have been crying wolf for a generation–Ehrlich predicted catastrophic worldwide famines for the 1970s and now just keeps moving the date back. Diamond makes excuses for such false or overhyped alarms, without acknowledging that they may encourage people to stop believing in wolves altogether.

Still, Diamond’s book has a staying power that Posner’s lacks. Readers will remember that technology may not save us, because it didn’t save the Easter Islanders. They’ll remember that people can collectively change basic values without turning into a Soviet Union, because Tikopia and Tokugawa Japan did. Both books encourage us to rethink what we’re doing, but a good example is worth a thousand cost-benefit calculations.

One of Diamond’s best examples is Greenland, where about 5,000 Norse lived for more than 400 years–longer than there’ve been English-speaking settlers in North America. Their beef-eating, farming, hunting, eye-for-an-eye Christian culture kept them together for ages, even though it ultimately contributed to their demise.

When they first arrived the Norse burned trees to clear pasture. But Greenland wasn’t like Norway. The trees grew back slowly when they grew back at all, leaving the Norse short of fuel and building materials. Later on they spent precious summers hunting walruses for ivory, which they traded to Europe for religious icons instead of desperately needed wood and iron.

The Inuit first appeared in Greenland in the 1200s. The Norse called the newcomers “skraelings,” or wretches, and refused to consort with them, except on the battlefield. For unknown reasons the Norse apparently refused to eat the fish the Inuit ate, narrowing their margin of error–especially as the Little Ice Age shortened the growing season and clogged their fjords with ice floes, cutting them off from Europe.

At that point, writes Diamond, they in effect decided that they were prepared to die as Christian farmers rather than live as Inuit. What were they thinking? Couldn’t they just change?

According to both Diamond and Posner, the price of our survival is change. We’ll have to plan ahead, and we’ll have to pay higher prices and taxes to do so, even though some of the things we plan for might not happen. We’ll have to buy and use less stuff (Diamond) and learn to get along with fewer freedoms (Posner). How many Americans will be willing to make those changes? Who’s blindly clinging to the status quo now?

So maybe we do know what the Norse Greenlanders were thinking–when the going gets tough, the tough stay the course.