Oblivion. Part 2.

“We believe that if an event is historically significant – if it affects many, many people, if it changes the fate of countries in the world, if many people die from it, it will inevitably be remembered. That’s not at all how it works.

-Professor Guy Beiner, Historian

We go through earth-shattering disasters. Ones we can learn from. Afterwards, we forget the disasters and throw away the lessons. When the disaster happens again, we are flabbergasted. We throw our hands in the air. The word unprecedented issues incessantly from our stupid mouths. Millions of people die.

We need to learn from the pandemic. But the lesson of the pandemic is not to prepare for pandemics. I mean, that has to be part of it. We should harden our defences against rogue strands of RNA. Staff the labs. Stock up on swabs. But if all we learn is that, the most obvious point, we’re missing the big upside.

The opportunity here is to learn the pattern. The next major crisis probably won’t be a pandemic. It will be something else we’ve gone through before, swore we would never endure again and are busily forgetting.

An earthquake? A volcano? Floods? A financial crisis? A computer virus? Terrorism? Rising fascism? A big war?

Flood marker, Albury NSW

The incidence of these events comes in a Pareto distribution, as discussed in Part 1. Occasionally severe versions clump together and scare us senseless. Occasionally they disappear, lulling us into a state of complacency. We encounter a lot of the mild versions of each class of disaster – low floods, gentle earthquakes – and begin to see them as regular benign background events. But in a Pareto distribution a majority of the impact comes from a tiny fraction of the instances. Yes, the last computer virus hit a few hospitals who recovered quickly. The next will be small too. The one after that though? It could be the big one.

Disaster memory is a thrilling field to be learning about. I started thinking about how we remember disasters a couple of months ago. Before long, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and began looking for information. Often that’s a dead end. But in this case, boom. Loads of research! And it’s fresh. This is a major area of interest right now. The researchers are young, dynamic and they are active.

THE HOWLING WIND

I jumped on Skype last week with a guy from Cambridge called Dr Rory Walshe. He has done a ton of really amazing field work on cyclones in Mauritius. That’s right, his latest research required him to quit rainy England for a tropical island, so you know he’s a smart guy.

Walshe’s paper on that research was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction in 2020. Cyclones are a particularly important type of disaster to remember accurately. Because the eye of a cyclone is a trap. If you forget that a cyclone has a lull then returns with a vengeance, you can be a long way from safety when the wind returns.

Walshe’s research involved over 130 community interviews with citizens on what they remember about cyclones. It revealed, in some pockets, dangerous beliefs about the cyclone eye.

“If the rain stops and the wind goes away, it is safe to go outside, it never comes back,” said one respondent.

You might think old timers would know about the eye of the storm and kids would be ignorant.

But Walshe finds the picture is more complex:

“The results demonstrate that the dynamics of forgetting are not as simple as a steady demographic churn over time as eyewitnesses pass away. Cyclones (and other events) are not forgotten in a gradual, uniform or passive process over time, contrary to the statement; “the forgetting curve is logarithmic, the more time that has passed since an event, the weaker are the memories about it” (Fanta et al., 2019). Mauritius demonstrates several exceptions to this statement and those like it, which suggests that the creation and loss of memory is a complex process.”

It isn’t just time that kills memories. They don’t die of old age. We kill them. And the weapon of choice is narratives we create to explain the world as we experience it.

Throughout the history of Mauritius there were periods when we were cyclone free, and people attributed that to the island being deforested, [they said] cyclones will not come anymore.” – Mauritius expert interviewee, reported by Walshe.

Nothing could be more natural than for people to create narratives to explain their perceptions. Long quiet periods get explanations – perfect, simple and wrong – and those explanations, when the next disaster comes, are fatal. In Mauritius it has now been quite a long time between cyclones, and dangerous beliefs are rising.

“We have noticed climate change here; summer is very hot, and winter is very cold. that’s due to climate change, and its why we will not have the same kind of cyclones like we used to have,” – Mauritius community interviewee, reported by Walshe.

Hearing about how Mauritius explains away cyclones, I can’t help thinking about The Great Moderation. This once-popular theory on why recessions were so rare these days reached peak popularity in the 2000s …. just prior to the Global Financial Crisis. Among the anguished howls of the millions cast into enduring unemployment, if you listened closely, you could hear the embarrassed murmuring of the macroeconomists.

Lucas, you sweet summer child. This was published in 2003.

The belief recession risk had been moderated might even have been a contributing factor in regulators permitting all those crazy home loans. Speaking about dangerously glib explanations, we should also cast a side-eye at the Golden Arches Theory of Global Conflict, the very appealing claim that two countries with a McDonald’s have never gone to war. The implication is economic linkages reduce the risk of major global conflict. (Of course China and America seem to be fighting because of trade as much as anything.)

A medium Sprite and a side of global peace, thanks.

PINING FOR THE CALDERAS

When I spoke to Walshe, he felt a bit cloistered by the pandemic. Supposed to be in South America right now learning how societies respond to the threat of volcanic eruptions he is instead trapped in a flat somewhere in the UK. About six times during our conversation he expressed his desire to be in Patagonia instead of at home!

Rory was a delight to speak to, well-informed, insightful, generous with his time. He apologised afterwards for being “off his game” having had the AstraZeneca vaccine the day before our chat and suffering through a sleepless feverish night. I hadn’t noticed he was off his game, but the fact of his vaccination brought to the forefront the reason for my inquiries: the pandemic.

We began to forget the Spanish Flu almost as soon as it had ended. What other events are out there, ignored by history, waiting to come back and bite us?

This is Part 2 of the Series. Part 1 is here.

Part 3 coming soon, with some excellent new discoveries!

Oblivion: How Society Forgets

I’m cross. All around me I see people learning the wrong lessons. If we waste 2020, if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it, that will be a worse disaster than the pandemic itself.

The world was ill-prepared for the pandemic. Terribly ill-prepared. Cast your mind back to March or April 2020. The shortages, the confusion, the awful and irreversible policy failures – they were not evenly distributed across the world.

Early success in battling the virus was seen in some countries. Taiwan did well. Mongolia had almost no coronavirus for about a year. China cracked down hard and has kept SARS-nCov-2019 from circulating for most of the past 12 months. Australia, despite some big blunders, did well too.

The countries that did better are mostly in Asia. Recent experience with SARS made these countries far more pandemic-aware and left them far better placed to fight the virus. They had not forgotten the risk of plague. How did they remember? Not because of something that makes their societies more cohesive. Simply because of recent experience. Little time had passed since they last faced a deadly contagious disease.

RECENCY

The importance of recent disaster experience is plain for me. I remember Black Saturday vividly. Black Saturday was a day of death. On 7 February 2009 the temperature reached forty-six-degrees (115oF) in Melbourne, Australia, the city where I live. By nightfall that day 173 people had burned to death in a series of enormous, linked infernos that turned the land into a hell where fleeing the fires was likely to leave you dead in your car, and staying still would leave you in the merciless path of enormous flames

Haze choked the sky. I remember checking the Bureau of Meteorology’s rain radar that day and looking at the strange patterns the radar identified as heavy rain. These were not rain, but smoke. Enough particles of plant, of animal and of person were lifted into the sky by the blazes as to leave a huge radar signature. Those fires were enormous and they made a tremendous mark in our memories.

Eleven years later, in the summer of 2019-20, intense bush fires raged again in Australia. This time instead of one very bad day, they lasted for over a month. The fires burned 40 times as much land as the Black Saturday fires. By almost every count, the fires were worse – every day was a state of emergency. The smoke cloud travelled around the world. And yet the fatality count was far lower, at 34 deaths. The living memory of Black Saturday is a huge reason why. We all knew how many people had died in Black Saturday, and we knew how they had died – by not evacuating early enough. The fresh collective memory of tragedy prevented the recurrence from being even worse.

UN-PRECEDENTED

Throughout the pandemic I have become absolutely fed up with this word: “unprecedented”. You hear it everywhere, usually on the lips of people who ought to know much better, people whose copy of the OED will tell them what that word means. The world has experienced pandemic before. Often. Ebola raged in West Africa within the last few years. SARS hit China in 2003. MERS was a small but even more recent zoonotic respiratory virus, hitting in 2012 with a fatality rate of one in three.

In 2003, on a train, at the Mongolian-Chinese border. They didn’t swab me, so far as I recall, but they did read my temperature.

The big reason we should have been ready for a big pandemic is not those serious yet contained outbreaks confined to a handful of countries. It is the fact that just 103 years ago – practically within living memory – the world experienced the Spanish Flu. The 1918 pandemic killed 50 million people. FIFTY MILLION! In a global population that was then much smaller, perhaps 25 per cent of what it is now. What’s more, that flu virus was “atypically fatal to those aged 20–40 years.”

How is it that the memory of this enormous tragedy is not carried forth, memorialised publicly, and even more importantly, embodied in extremely good pandemic preparation practice?

Compared to Spanish Flu, we’ve gotten off lightly for our ill-preparedness. Covid-19 has killed almost 3 million so far, and has mostly spared the young from death. We could have had it much worse, and the reason for a better result this time is, emphatically, not our careful tending to the lessons of history.

DOOMED TO REPEAT IT

The Spanish Flu was not part of our mainstream discourse on risk. They called it “The Forgotten Pandemic.” In 1924, Encyclopedia Brittanica published an enormous compendium on the preceding quarter century of history, titled “These Eventful Years: The Twentieth Century in the Making, as Told by Many of Its Makers; Being the Dramatic Story of All that Has Happened Throughout the World During the Most Momentous Period in All History.” I sounds like a good read, containing a chapter by Marie Curie on radium and a chapter by Sigmund Freud on pscyhoanalysis. However, it mentions Spanish Flu not even once. A search for the term “pandemic” in its pages reveals no mentions.

But why? Spanish Flu was not so long ago for its history to be written on shards of papyrus that crumble when we touch them. Colour photography had been invented. The New York Times was operating then. The Times of London too. There are people wearing masks in nursing homes right now who were alive during the last big pandemic. We say Lest We Forget when it comes to the big war that ended in 1918, but when it comes to memories of the pandemic – which killed more people than the war, mind you – it’s more a case of … forget what? It languished in the shadow of World War One and was forgotten even as soon as it began.

That forgetting meant the chance of us being ready for coronavirus was slight. And then a century passed.

By 2019, as coronavirus began to mutate, and spread from a rogue pangolin to the first humans, the west was standing down its viral defences. in 2018 The Trump administration cut the programs designed to defend the United States of America from a virus, and its top experts quit.

What limited pandemic war-gaming that did take place in the United States revealed the country to be woefully ill-prepared. America was hardly alone, it is simply held up as an example of a country that *should* have had the resources to defend against the threat. Bill Gates tried to warn them, after all, as this 2015 video shows.

The UK tried to do better and still failed. Horribly.

Now, vaccine technology is helping some countries make up for their monstrous early errors. The efforts of the scientists are heroic and should be applauded. But they are not reason to ignore the lesson, which is this:

We forget.

We really ought not to. We ought to know some disasters come around only rarely. But when time passes, and for certain other reasons, we let some events fade into oblivion.

Letting disaster memory erode like the half-life of some isotope is not good enough if we want to protect society. But some events recur in a way that makes us blasé. Earthquakes, viral outbreaks, volcanoes, tsunamis, recessions, terrorist attacks, even wars. All have apocalyptic versions that come rarely and irregularly, plus mild regular versions that wear down our will to maintain vigilance. This is the perfect recipe for society to forget.

THE BIG ONE

They say 80 per cent of the insights come from 20 per cent of the philosophers. 19th century Italian mathematician Vilfredo Pareto is found firmly in the small but important group on whom we depend.

Pareto lends his name to several key ideas in maths and the social sciences, but what is most important for our purposes is the pareto distribution. Pareto distributions are the ones that surprise us. They differ from normal distributions, or bell curves. In a pareto distribution, the tail of the distribution is responsible for the extreme majority of its impact.

For example, a tiny minority of the earthquakes in any time period account for the large part of the seismic energy released, as the next graph depicts. Earthquakes over 6.5 in scale are in yellow, those over 5.3 in green.

LDEO observatory, Columbia University.

Similarly, the average pop band gets most of its Spotify spins from a minority of its songs, the average company makes most of its money from a handful of its products, 90 per cent of the salary cap for your favourite sports team goes to a minority of players, Most of the people in Australia live in a handful of cities, etc.

The pareto distribution is everywhere – even in disasters. A minority of the cyclones do most of the damage, a few tsunamis are much worse than the rest put together, the largest terrorist attack in history has a death count several fold higher than the second largest, etc.

This matters, because when pareto distributions happen over time, the interval between serious events will be random, and potentially large. Look back at that earthquake graph above. Until the magnitude 9.1 Indian Ocean quake in 2004, there was no sign of a quake of anything like that size in the preceding 30 years.

That means two things:

IN the aftermath of a rare and major disaster, we will usually castigate ourselves for not understanding it was possible, zero in on only the disaster that just happened, and prepare, quite specifically, for it to happen again. Even though it is no more likely to happen again.

Later, when a great deal of time has passed, we will conclude that we overreacted. We will dismantle the institutions we built, reduce our defences, make savings, forget what really happened, and become overexposed. That is when the severe risk emerges. (However the simple passage of time is not the only cause of forgetting. More on that in a future post).

Big White Swans

Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term Black Swans to describe unforeseen events that do great damage. The idea behind the coinage is that nobody had seen a Black Swan before, only white swans, and nobody ever expected black swans were even possible.

It’s not his fault the idea went viral. It’s our fault for believing it, for not seeing it as the ego-massage that it is. We are exceedingly complimentary to ourselves by imagining only black swans can screw us up, that only the unforeseen can assails us. This is conceit, it is arrogance, and it is part of the problem.

The more I learn about disasters and forgetting, the more I come to realise society suffers regular and devastating attacks by plain white swans. “HOLY HELL WHERE DID THAT THING COME FROM?” we ask as the swan’s pointy beak tears at our flesh.

How can we be expected to prepare for that which we’ve never seen before, when we can’t even properly prepare for what we have seen time and again?

More to come in PART 2 soon.