The End of the World is Nigh

The world we live in has had its fair share of natural disasters: earthquakes, floods, cyclones, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, droughts, famines, avalanches. The list goes on and on. Since the dawn of mankind, natural hazards affecting the environment and leading to losses in life have been the norm rather than the exception. Religions have grappled with, and thrived as a consequence of, the seemingly “malevolent” behaviour of nature and the randomness with which it strikes down upon humanity with blind, deadly fury. Given this long history of exposure to unexpected natural events, one would have thought that by now humanity would have come around to treating these events for what they are: unexpected natural events. Especially so in our age of science and reason.

VolcanoAnd yet, that is not the case. It seems that the further man comes along the curve of knowledge and technology, the more superstitious and fearful he becomes. We live in an era in which we allow our imagination to magnify every problem involving uncertainty and risk, often elevating it to cataclysmic, calamitous proportions. Natural events are dramatised to a point where they become existential threats. The end of the world is nigh!

Take the weather. When we were kids (not that long ago), hardly anyone paid attention to the weather forecast. So what if there’s a heavy storm coming, possibly with large amounts of snow? It will be over in a few hours, or days, and we might even get to miss school or work because of it. Yay! Nowadays, with the advances in weather forecasting technologies, we are being constantly bombarded with dramatic coverage of “extreme weather” and warned – sometimes days in advance – to take appropriate precautions, lest we get swooped up by an unexpected tornado or drowned by an inordinate amount of rain. More often that not, the “extreme weather” forecast turns out to be, well… just another rainy/windy day.

Or take swine flu. Less than a year ago one couldn’t open a newspaper or switch on the TV on without being exposed to catastrophic predictions: half of the population will be struck down by N1H1! Entire economies will grind to a halt! Or the most recent example: the volcanic ash cloud over Europe. Governments rushed to shut down air traffic for days, until the airlines daringly (?) flew test flights to prove that planes will not fall out of the sky, thus forcing the embarrassed authorities to gradually relent and allow people to fly.

So what is it that drives us to make decisions based on the “worst case” scenario, rather than embrace logical and rigorous risk assessments before making panicky decisions? Why do we let speculation, rather than evidence, determine our course of action? “Better safe than sorry”, you might argue. Well, that argument is valid, but only up to a point. “Worst case” scenario decisions – like closing schools down in fear of a coming snow storm, or shutting down an entire continent’s air space in fear of possible (but unverified) damage to jet engines – are decisions that impact our lives to such a scale, as to render the “better safe than sorry” argument irrelevant. The economic damage and the enormous disruption to life these decisions cause us, are outcomes that cannot be ignored and must be factored in before the decision is taken.

We should use the knowledge accumulated by humanity, especially since the scientific revolution, to transform uncertain situations into calculable risk. Probabilistic models should be taken into consideration more often than “possibilistic” theories. We cannot allow fear to become the key factor in determining how we go about our lives, as this breeds a sense of insecurity, confusion and powerlessness. Surely we can do better than that.

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