Illustration by Damien Correll
Illustration by Damien Correll

Complacency is baked into our species. We can’t resist thinking that recent experience defines the future. Give us a run of good luck, and we are apt to turn that into an implicit expectation that our luck will continue -- even that we are entitled to it.

This kind of thinking was instrumental in the run-up to the financial crash of 2008. Too many private and public institutions assumed that an extraordinary run in prosperity, particularly in the real estate market, was just normal. It didn’t occur to them that things could go so wrong. Even when token stress testing or risk assessment was done, it largely excluded the possibility of a bad shock or a protracted slump. Risk wasn’t systematically measured; it was ignored.

It’s easy to write this off to greed or foolishness on the part of Wall Street. But the truth is, our entire civilization rests on a foundation just as shaky. We assume that the very Earth is static and will always be as it is now, or as we remember it.

Yet geophysics tells us that is emphatically not the case. Bad things happen. In the past couple of years alone, we have witnessed a litany of horrific natural disasters. Early last year, Haiti, already one of the most impoverished places in the world, was slammed by a magnitude 7 earthquake that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, both directly and as the result of a cholera epidemic that occurred 10 months later during the recovery effort.

Flights Cancelled

In Iceland last year, a long-dormant volcano erupted, necessitating the cancellation of more than 100,000 flights, and causing an estimated $1.8 billion in losses across Europe (but no deaths). Just a few months ago, Japan was savaged by the fourth-most-powerful earthquake ever caught on seismographs and an ensuing tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people, brought down almost 200,000 buildings and (unfairly) tarnished the image of nuclear energy worldwide. This was only seven years after a tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed at least a quarter-million people.

When the Earth itself isn’t tormenting us, the weather is. Within the past few months, the U.S. has been wracked by drought, wildfires and record-breaking flooding and tornadoes; the damage bill will total more than $32 billion. Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Joplin, Missouri; and, more surprisingly, Monson, Massachusetts, were flattened by tornadoes, which have taken more American lives this tornado season than in any year since 1927.

A Restive Earth

What’s behind all this terrestrial unrest? The answer may not be comforting, but it is simple: A run of bad events like this is completely normal. Nature contains many phenomena that are usually benign but sometimes turn vicious. The probability that really bad things will happen is low -- but it isn’t zero. Its rarity only lulls people into a false sense of security.

As a result, natural disasters are almost always compounded by human error. The buildings in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, were poorly constructed. That most of them would collapse in a severe earthquake, leading to enormous loss of life, was easily predictable. Worsening the situation, United Nations aid officials staffed the relief effort with personnel from Nepal, where there was an ongoing cholera epidemic. Unsurprisingly, those workers brought the disease with them, and so began an outbreak that is thought to have so far killed at least 4,700 Haitians.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of poor response when it occurs in Haiti, which has an infamously ineffective government. But a mortifying degree of incompetence was also on display after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, and again this year when the Japanese tsunami swamped four reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear-power plant.

Bad Decisions

Someone there had decided it would be safe to build the reactors behind a 16-foot (5-meter) sea wall in an area that experienced 125-foot tsunamis as recently as 1896. Then, in the crucial hours and days following the event, a string of bad decisions caused most of the problems -- the nuclear-plant operators just didn’t know what to do.

Mistakes are common in big natural disasters. If such events happened frequently, response teams and the people who direct them would have practice, as trauma teams in hospital emergency rooms have. Unfortunately, responders rarely get the opportunity to rehearse large-scale disasters. When the inevitable finally occurs, and a tsunami hits a nuclear reactor, or an earthquake reduces much of a major city to rubble, the people in charge often are caught napping and react ineptly.

Lucky History

None of these catastrophes came entirely out of the blue. To the contrary, geologic history tells us that we’ve actually gotten off lucky. In 1783, the Laki volcano in Iceland erupted so violently that it killed perhaps a quarter of the country’s population. That volcano put enough ash into the sky to change the weather in the entire Northern Hemisphere, causing crop failures and famines across Europe, India, Japan, Egypt and North America that pushed the total death toll to 6 million. It took almost a decade for the weather to recover.

Laki isn’t even the worst Icelandic volcano on record -- far larger was the six-year eruption of Eldgja that began in 934.

One could recount many such examples, but people’s eyes tend to glaze over when you talk about something that last occurred in 1783, much less 934. Surely things are different now, they say. The unfortunate truth is quite the opposite -- a millennium ago was yesterday as far as the Earth is concerned, and the relevant phenomena operate as vigorously as ever. Proud as we are of the many technological achievements of modern society, we are actually more vulnerable than ever because we live more densely, within a complex and sometimes fragile web of buildings, roads, bridges and the like.

No War Games

The military uses war games to prepare for unforeseen contingencies, but there seem to be few civilian equivalents. Unfortunately, people just aren’t built to think about danger that way. A few rare risks -- such as dying in an airplane accident -- loom larger in our imaginations than statistics suggest they should. But we discount other low-probability perils straight to zero.

The lesson is simple to state, but hard to follow: Risks with heavy consequences must be taken seriously even if the probability of their happening tomorrow is low. That means incurring small, but real, costs in the here and now to mitigate the damage from some disaster that may lie far in the future -- even though “far” means beyond the present budget cycle, after the current chief executive officer has retired, or after the current politicians have left office. Only by thinking and training in anticipation of the inevitable can authorities avoid getting blindsided.

(Nathan Myhrvold is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the author of this column: Nathan Myhrvold at Nathan.Myhrvold@intven.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mary Duenwald mduenwald@bloomberg.net.