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Suppressing volatility makes the world more dangerous

It's counterintuitive that suppressing volatility in human affairs would actually make the world a more dangerous place. But that is precisely the thesis of a recent article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth which appeared in Foreign Affairs.

Taleb, a former Wall Street trader, achieved fame with his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. In it he was concerned with so-called "Black Swan events," rare, unforeseen, high-impact events that shape human history. His focus has been on markets though he has always tried to make the case that Black Swan events occur in nearly all fields of human endeavor. Now Taleb and his fellow author, Blyth, are extending this analysis to the so-called Arab Spring.

They point out that government policy is often explicitly designed to smooth out fluctuations. We prefer central bank intervention, fiscal stimulus and bailouts to sharp recessions. And likewise, in foreign policy America and Europe have preferred the seeming stability of dictators in the Arab world to the vagaries of democratic governance. But both the world economy and Arab society have now been shaken by events that were not supposed to happen, an economic crash and grassroots uprisings which deposed regime after regime.

Taleb has said again and again that suppressing volatility in markets and in society in general may work for a time. But instead of moderating volatility, it creates rigid systems that prove catastrophically unstable like dams which seem sound until they break.

We humans wrongly believe that by preventing frequent small setbacks, we will avoid any major setbacks. But, just the opposite has turned out to be true. By trying to avoid minor, but frequent recessions and by trying to avoid political unrest and gradual reform in the Arab world, we have unleashed major events that may yet prove far more damaging to our tranquility than if we had allowed more frequent, but smaller upsets.

I have summarized the reasoning in the previously cited Foreign Affairs article because I want to apply it much more broadly. Let's take agriculture. It has enabled humans to store food in large quantities and thus manage difficult times due to such events as a poor harvest or a war. But by smoothing out volatility in the food supply in this way, we have invited famines that result from heavy reliance on a few or even just one crop. That is, we've avoided small frequent failures by designing a system that will break down catastrophically once in a great while.

Modern farming has doubled down on this strategy by increasing yields tremendously at the cost of degrading soil, increasing monoculture farming based on fewer and fewer crops (meaning less genetic diversity to avoid disease), and heavy reliance on a far-flung complex supply chain for the necessary inputs of fertilizer and herbicides.

All the while, the very fossil-based fuels that make modern farming possible--to run the machinery, fertilize the crops, kill the pests and weeds and transport the harvest--these fuels are changing the climate in ways that already threaten harvests and will threaten them even more as our climate careens further and further into volatility--turning suddenly too wet in some places and suddenly too dry in others.

In the area of public health, we have traded natural immunity to diseases for that provided by vaccines. From a moral point of view we can do no less than offer effective vaccines for deadly or debilitating diseases to as many people as possible. Consequently, deaths from infectious diseases have declined dramatically. The volatility in population has essentially been suppressed.

But modern transportation now makes it more and more difficult to isolate deadly pathogens which can travel across the world in a matter of hours in an airliner. Dense urban populations linked by road and air transport make the next deadly worldwide epidemic all but inevitable. And, we must acknowledge that the current population is no longer being selected by natural factors for robustness in the face of disease; that means we can expect that such an epidemic will hit hard, perhaps harder than the one in 1918.

Told that we must eliminate possible disease-causing germs from our immediate environments, we use antibacterial cleaners in our kitchens and our bathrooms and even on our bodies and in our mouths in the form of antibacterial soap and toothpaste respectively.

But it turns out that such agents don't kill all the bacteria and, in fact, eventually select out those that are most robust against our antibacterial agents. We are making matters worse.

In addition, children who grow up in sanitized environments may not be developing proper immune systems and therefore may be more vulnerable to infectious diseases and allergies as they age.

I am not arguing that humans should never attempt to reduce volatility in their lives. I am making the case that not all such attempts will prove advisable or effective. We can take our desire to reduce volatility to such extremes that we achieve the opposite result: even greater volatility.

If we keep this in mind, we can at least ask whether our next attempt to reduce volatility will actually work in the long run or whether we would be better off adjusting to a certain amount of volatility in our lives in exchange for avoiding catastrophic failures when the dam of low volatility breaks. In more concrete terms, can we judge ourselves prudent if we save ourselves from a hangnail every day only to experience the loss of an arm later on because of our actions?

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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