We face so many threats, like pandemics. Let’s prepare.

Summary: We think of national defense too narrowly. Let’s defend ourselves against the broad range of threats, instead of picking a few and ignoring the others. The 21st century might be unkind to such a foolish people, despite all our wealth and power.

There are worse threats than pandemics. It will happen again, eventually.

NASA-asteroid-impact - D. Davis-NASA
Graphic from the 2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference. By D. Davis-NASA.

So many dangers!

We spend most unimaginable sums on our military machines. Super-carriers, submarines, strategic bombers, stealth fighters, and now hypersonic weapons get almost unlimited funding – with mind-blowing profits to contractors. Fighting climate change offers a lavish range of opportunities for our elites to gain more power and profit. Other serious threats are ignored. I have often written about these ignored dangers, such as our dying oceans. Current events remind us of other warnings, such as this from the NYT.

Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded.
“Government exercises, including one last year, made clear that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic like the coronavirus. But little was done.”

I (and many others) have written about this risk in posts such as these. Nobody cared.

We face many threats, as humanity always has. Unlike in the past, we have great ability to prepare to some degree for most threads (but perfect security comes only after death). But the daily bombardment of doomsday warnings leaves people feeling helpless, with the natural result of ignoring all warnings. So we allocate funds on the basis of propaganda. Which is determined by money and power. Which threats most benefit our elites.  This is nuts, but it is our way. We might not be able to afford it with the larger challenges that lie in our future.

COVID-19 is not the Black Death, but it provides a warning. We can do better.

“Apocalyptic and misanthropic environmental narratives, as Clive Hamilton represents them, have had an important role in stirring up the public. But they have also contributed to widespread resignation and cynicism. So far, they have fallen short of mobilizing enough people to bring about real political change.”

NYT Journalist Andy Revkin.

A supernova would bad news if it explodes within 50 light years of us.

Supernova Explosion - NASA

The coming certain dooms

“If current trends continue by the year 2000 the United Kingdom will simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people, of little or no concern to the other 5-7 billion inhabitants of a sick world. …If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
— Paul R. Ehrlich speaking in London at the Institute of Biology in Autumn 1969. From “In Praise of Prophets” by Bernard Dixon in the New Scientist, 16 September 1971.

The New Yorker warns about a doomed region: “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker – “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”

That’s topped by James Hansen and 15 other climate scientists predicting (in the Huff Post’s words) “Catastrophic Rise In Sea Levels”, with “sea levels rising as much as 10 feet in the next 50 years” (wildly above anything the IPCC’s reports consider likely). That’s topped by this press release from the U of GA:  “Earth’s ‘battery’ draining too fast to sustain life” – “Unless humans slow the destruction of Earth’s declining supply of plant life, civilization like it is now may become completely unsustainable.”

Limits To Growth
The doomsters’ bible. Available at Amazon.

We face a world full of foes, from terrorist sleeper cells in your town to great powers bent on world conquest (China and Russia). But even our foes will go broke as the world’s resources are exhausted: peak oil, peak fresh water, even peak phosphorous.

At least the collapse of the world economy and the wars that follow will remove our ability to further wreck the biosphere. No overpopulation. But underpopulation will be terrible. Of course, we will still suffer the effects of past chemical pollution (and subtle ones, like impotence from hormones in the water). Too bad about the coming mass species extinction; we’ll miss the animals (unless we build a space ark, as in the film “Silent Running“).

While we suffer from these ills, we will bake amidst the floods, droughts, and storms from climate change. These will distract us from the natural disasters wrecking the world: the reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, mega-tsunamis that scour away the cities on our coasts (more here), and super-volcano eruptions (like Yellowstone).

For variety, the sun will hit us with another solar storm like the Carrington Event of 1859; the National Academy’s warning is terrifying (read the summary). This will knock out the world’s electronics, so we will not see the asteroid or comet that will destroy a continent (“The odds that a potentially devastating space rock will hit Earth this century may be as high as one in 10“).

Now for the bad news: as a result of all these things we will be too weak to deal with the coming super-plagues (in addition to the disease of the week, dozens of them, each afflicting 5% – 10% or more of the population).

A super-volcano will erupt again, eventually.

A super-volcano will erupt again.

Doom fatigue

The result of this barrage is public apathy. So many threats, of different kinds and different magnitudes and probabilities over different time horizons. Are we doomed? That’s a commonplace expression in posts and comments mentioning climate change. There are so many different kinds of doom in our future, often presented as certainties. Worse, the remedies are costly and of uncertain effectiveness. Why bother doing anything to avoid them?

Plus, older adults remember past forecasts of certain doom. By now the world should have been wrecked by nuclear war, famine from over-population, resource exhaustion, poisonous pollution, bankruptcy of the government, satanic cults, and global cooling (science by press release in the 1970s). Those apocalypses passed us as surely as the Christian end-of-the-world predictions. Perhaps today’s forecasts of doom will prove false as well.

There are tools to help us put our risks in a useful operational context, allowing us to manage our fears and rationally allocated funds amongst them. Nothing will happen so long as special interest groups, each touting their own cause, dominate the news – and funding rewards the most successful fear-mongers. We’re all losers from their competition.

Fear: Sinatra

A first step to a better world

What is the cost of minimum prevention or mitigation of the “plausible worst case” for all these risks? Probably a lot more than we will spend. Perhaps more than we can afford to spend.

The precautionary principle provides answers for individual threats, such as climate change. It gives us no guidance for allocation of funds across the full universe of risks. The finance industry copes with this problem every day. Each security in a portfolio has its own range of risk exposures, but risk can be meaningfully assessed only at the portfolio level when compared to a risk budget. This is different than the risks a nation (or world) faces, but offers some useful ideas for coping.

To provide Congress and the public with recommendations, the government could create a Commission (with staff, amply funded) to assess all the individual risks (consulting subject matter experts as needed), with a brief analysis of each. Then they can apply a common analytical framework to rate each risk in terms of probability and impact. The results would provide a basis for discussion and further analysis, liberating us from the narrow perspectives of the special interest activists.

Justing having the list, and its information about magnitude and probabilities, will change the public’s perceptions of risk. Now, journalists write about individual risks – with each story describing the One and Only Threat. The list will put each threat in a larger context.

Most importantly, with this analysis we can begin to rationally allocate our funds to best protect ourselves. It will allow risk budgeting, making better use of our limited funds.

Let’s start today. List in the comments what you consider the most serious risks facing America, ranked high to low. Also, you might list the dollars per year you’d allocate to the mitigation of risks. US GDP is almost $18 trillion per year. (This was suggested by Tony B. “ClimateReason” in a comment at Climate Etc.)

Or we can continue with our propaganda-based strategy, so that the risk with the most irrational campaign “wins.” This is planning to fail.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a powerful and disturbing story about “Birth of a Man of Steel …for the Soviet Union.

Too learn more about this, see the website of the Society for Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty (DMDU). It is “a multi-disciplinary association of professionals working to improve processes, methods, and tools for decision making under deep uncertainty, facilitate their use in practice, and foster effective and responsible decision making in our rapidly changing world.”

Eminent climate scientist Judith Curry has written several useful posts about risks and uncertainty, such as these…

It’s easy to follow the COVID-19 story.

The World Health Organization provides daily information, from highly technical information to news for the general public. These are the best sources of information.

Also, see the wealth of information at the CDC website, especially their situation reports.

Posts about effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

See all my posts about the pandemic, and especially these…

  1. See the ugly cost of the next big flu pandemic. We can do more to prepare.
  2. Stratfor: The superbugs are coming. We have time to prepare.
  3. Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2009 swine flu in America.
  4. Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2015 ebola epidemic in America.
  5. Important: A vaccine against the fears that make us weak.

He predicted 9/11 and COVID-19

In his 1994 novel Debt of Honor, Tom Clancy described how a loaded civilian jetliner could become a powerful weapon – crashing down to destroy a giant building. In his 1996 novel Executive Orders, he describes how a president responds to early signs of a massive epidemic – a highly infectious form of Ebola. This is far worse than COVID-19, but illustrates a national application of the policies China used to contain the COVID-19 to Hubei Province.

Executive Orders
Available at Amazon.

“Therefore containment is the only option,” General Pickett went on.

“How do you contain a whole country?” said Cliff Rutledge, Assistant Secretary of State for Policy.

“That’s the problem we face,” President Ryan said. “The only way to contain the epidemic is to shut down all places of assembly – theaters, shopping malls, sports stadia, business offices, everything – and interstate travel. To the best of our information, at least 30 states are so far untouched by this disease. We would do well to keep it that way. We can accomplish that by preventing all interstate travel until such time as we have a handle on the severity of the disease we are facing, and then we can come up with less severe countermeasures.”

“Mr Presdient, that’s unconstitutional,” Pat Martin (representing DoJ) sid at once. Travel is a constitutionally protect right. … {But} Mr. President, I do not see that we have much of a choice here. …The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” …

“Thank you” Ryan said, checking his watch. “I am calling the issue on the table.”

Defense, Treasury, Justice, and Commerce voted aye. All the rest voted no. Ryan looked at them for a long few seconds. “The ayes have it,” the President said coldly. …This has absolute nad unconditional priority over any other matter.”

16 thoughts on “We face so many threats, like pandemics. Let’s prepare.”

  1. I thought we spent trillions after 9/11 to ramp up homeland security? All those classes we had to take. Dirty bombs, bio weapons, temps, and this is the response we got?

    1. Sven,

      Most of the money went to hardware. There were stories about rural sheriffs getting armored personal carriers, Apache helicopters and such. A boondoggle for defense contractors. Which is the point of this post.

  2. Off-topic: Larry, you were right and we should close the stock market. The rest of New York is shutting down and the stock market has been reduced to being an echo chamber of rumor and innuendo.

    This cannot end well and there is nothing useful to be gained until the pandemic runs its course.

  3. Larry, I’d say that “Doom Fatigue” is behind our slow response to COVID-19. Many people saw it as just another alarmist invention.

    What about taking a concept from climate change adaptation and focus on “no regret” solutions, i.e. those that are still useful even if the disaster doesn’t happen? E.g. a strong healthcare system is useful even if we don’t have another pandemic in the near future.

    1. JP,

      The problem is that you are looking at this as an exercise in rational decision-making. It’s rather an exercise in building up the grifter economy.

      We already spend I same amounts in health care. If we decide to improve the system’s resilience, they’ll just hear “wow, more money.”

      I believe we have to break the system in order to fix it.

  4. Larry, interesting article. Did you make the assumption that what you prescribe hadn’t/hasn’t been performed? I find your laundry list of high/high risks to be overwhelming, in and of itself. Coronavirus, considering other modern coronavirus outbreaks, would have barely made it to medium/high against some of the other items referenced. It’s not enough to identify risks in terms of probability and impact. Maybe, just maybe, this was an identified risk. Maybe, we’re witnessing the response strategy that was determined from that analysis. From the options available for a response; ignore, accept, avoid, mitigate, or transfer, a case can be made for accept.

    1. Jim,

      “Coronavirus, considering other modern coronavirus outbreaks, would have barely made it to medium/high against some of the other items referenced.”

      The protective measures are not against anything so specific as a coronavirus – there are against epidemics (including biological attacks). The protocols and preparations are generic.

      ” Maybe, we’re witnessing the response strategy that was determined from that analysis.”

      That’s missing the essential point. In epidemics as in war, time is everything! The planning being done now should have been done in January (February at the latest). If the govt had taken the warnings seriously, they would have been in the “can” and automatically activated in early January (when CDC and WHO began their alerts). We would be in far better shape today if that had been done.

      “From the options available for a response; ignore, accept, avoid, mitigate, or transfer, a case can be made for accept.”

      If we get a depression, check back with us on your belief that “accept” was a great choice.

      1. Larry, Thank you. I didn’t realize the article was meant to place blame. Duly noted. I read it as an intellectual construct for risk identification and disaster planning, execution, and remediation.

        I agree completely, the response was not as intellectuals designed it in their constructs. My bad, I was applying the pragmatism of Disaster Management, which I can no longer say in the circles I operate, to the practice of Risk Management, as it relates to the epidemic/pandemic situation you presented, and we’re facing.

        “In epidemics as in war, time is everything! The planning being done now should have been done in January (February at the latest).”

        I’d argue, the plan should have been built, minimally, after the Ebola situation in our recent past. The plan you suggest we should have built, should have in fact been exercised frequently, even if only scenario-based, across all states and government agencies, since Ebola. Critical supply chain analysis hadn’t even been considered, let alone identified and mitigated.

        My input, was simply, maybe we’re executing the plan that was “accepted”, assuming of course the required analysis and planning had actually been executed and that a “executable plan”, tactical or strategic, actually exists.

        “If we get a depression, check back with us on your belief that “accept” was a great choice.”

        I wasn’t advocating for the response selection of ‘Accept’, I was reversing engineering outcome, hindsight, to what an “accept” response strategy would have provided. Quantification under the practices of risk management would have provided the proper response strategy, not me. Root cause and corrective measures from other epidemics would have addressed the need for plans.

        I’ll go away. I thought this was a discussion blog.

  5. One of my jobs these past couple years has been to help build a plan to mitigate the effects of the coming subduction zone quake on the potable water system for a small Oregon city.
    There is no doubt the quake will happen as this area of North America needs to move about 6 feet West, it’s more a question of when. The longer it goes without moving, the more it will move when it goes (about a foot every hundred years). Right now it would be about a 9.2 earthquake and would generate about a 10 foot tsunami. In 900 years it would be about 9.7 with about a 60 foot tsunami (give or take).
    The cost for my town of about 25,000 people and some light industrial, about 40 miles inland, will be close to 120 Million over the next fifty years. That should harden the core water infrastructure to the point where there would enough water for drinking, cooking, and extinguishing ignitions until the potable water infrastructure returned to a relatively normal condition in about 3 to 6 months.
    That is one small assessment but you might be able extrapolate it out to the West coast from Vancouver Island to about LA.

    1. Brian,

      Thank you for that great comment. It’s a weakness of the “shockwaves” paradigm. Many of these are inevitable, predictable over long periods of time – but uncertain as to when. These quite madly tend to wind up on the bottom of the planning pile.

      1. Love the website. I like that the liberals think it’s too conservative and the conservatives think it’s too liberal. I don’t trust either political side.

      2. Brian,

        “I don’t trust either political side.”

        You are far ahead of the pack, imo. One of the big themes here is that both Left and Right have turned against us. With good reason, unfortunately.

  6. An insightful article, but what I don’t understand is why governments are caught in a cycle of recrimination when humanity faces a common threat.

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