Oblivion Part 4: Learning from Stories

How do we remember? Stories. Since forever. Long before TV. Long before books. Humanity is hard-wired to LOVE stories, and pay attention to them.

In recent history, one story stands out. An epic narrative that gripped the west, the English speaking world in particular. Including parts of the world that have, incidentally, done a terrible job of handling the pandemic. Game of Thrones.

George R R Martin has sold around 100 million copies of his book series A Song of Ice and Fire. The television adaptation – Game of Thrones – drew up to 20 million viewers. That’s for each episode, when it was shown live. Total viewership would be in the billions. This narrative had reach, it had impact, it was celebrated: The TV show won more Emmy awards than any TV drama ever and regularly tops the list of best TV shows of all time. In the decade preceding the pandemic, it was the dominant piece of popular culture.

So what does this very long story have at its heart? A forgotten disaster.

Now, why did we need this again?

The fictional world of A Game of Thrones is centered on Westeros, a land with a big wall at its north. A wall – 200 metres high – separates the kingdom from badlands beyond. The story opens “beyond the wall,” where we discover a terrifying enemy is rising. An invasion force this society faced before, but to which it now pays scant heed.

Has the society of Westeros been investing in its defences? Oh no it has not. Once upon a time the wall boasted an enormous force, no longer. The wall has nineteen fortresses and towers but these days only three are staffed. Furthermore, the recruits into the force – known as the  Night’s Watch – are the dregs of society, supposedly criminals given the opportunity to join instead of being sentenced to death. 

This is the set-up. Thousands of pages of gripping narrative ensue, dozens of hours of extremely expensive premium television, lovingly shot on location. And the tension that illuminates the whole damn thing is that of a pantomime:

The frustration where the crowd yells “He’s behind you!!” and the actor looks over the wrong shoulder? Not seeing the threat that is totally obvious? This iswhat powers the book series A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV series A Game of Thrones.

The kingdom of Westeros lavishes attention on power plays and assassinations – and gives thousands of lives to internecine wars – while vigorously ignoring desperate warnings that an existential threat is building.

Palace intrigue. Oooh Shiny!

The watchers on the wall are out of sight and out of mind for the decision makers, who live at the opposite end of the kingdom. Few powerful people have ever visited the wall. When one does, it is a surprise. That happens right at the start of the story, and notably the powerful person who makes that visit, (Tyrion Lannister, brother of the Queen) becomes a hero of the book.

The Night’s Watch use the surprise visit to make a request for additional help. Which is ignored. Its inability to raise much in the way of manpower is a consistent theme of the story. Even the organisation itself seems to have experienced strategic drift. It is now focused on repelling attacks by humans who live on the far side of the wall. The folly of this is apparent to the reader, but eventually, deep in the narrative, in book forty-four or something, Martin also spells it out:

The Night’s Watch has forgotten its true purpose …. You don’t build a wall seven hundred feet high to keep savages in skins from stealing women.

Which is to say: there’s a bigger threat than the one we are focusing on. What’s interesting about the White Walkers – this invasion force that is building, is the parallels with disease. They share similarities with zombies and can easily be read as a metaphor for infection.

So Game of Thrones is about a society that ignores its own history and warnings. Of course, it is about our society too, our petty spats and pathetic attention spans that mean we forget what matters and focus on what excites us. We run down our defences until it is almost too late. We take the bearers of warnings, and laugh at them.  We let a pandemic run riot.


There is one clan in the book that warns of impending doom. The Starks. Their motto: Winter is Coming. They’re the main heroes of the book, and – I hope I won’t spoil the story too much here –  few Starks get to have an especially lovely time of it.

Stark, adj. providing no shelter or sustenance. “A stark landscape.”

Now, what’s clever about the fictional world author George RR Martin has created is that winter is unpredictable. It comes when it pleases, lasts for an unknown amount of time. Winters are frightening. Some are brief,  few are harsh. A pareto distribution. Then every so often – just like quakes and fires and floods, volcanoes and recessions – a really big one comes.

Thousands of years ago, there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts; and women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept, and felt the tears freeze on their cheeks… In that darkness the White Walkers came for the first time. They swept through cities and kingdoms, riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders big as hounds.

This story is told by a character named Old Nan. She’s a fulltime childcarer. She has no status, meets with no powerful people. But this story – not told by anyone else – is one of the most important warnings in the entire narrative.

Her story – a kind of oral history if you like – has apparently been passed down for thousands of years. Of course, truth is stranger than fiction. If you write a book about a society that has forgotten its history, you must put in hundreds of generations between the last disaster and the present to help readers believe it is forgotten.

But of course the last huge global pandemic was in some people’s lifetime. In real life, we apparently discard memories and lessons of the last disaster rather sooner.

“If we forget where we’ve been, what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. We’re just animals.” – Samwell Tarly, A Game of Thrones.

This is Part Four in the series on how we forget disasters. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here.

Oblivion, Part 3

A bit over ten years ago, the city of Brisbane flooded. It was a major event. I watched a lot of news that week, and they played and replayed this amazing video. It captures one perspective on the floods, from a town just outside Brisbane.

The 2011 flood was the costliest flood in Queensland history – but not the biggest. A flood in 1974 had brought higher water levels. The incredible urban growth in the intervening years, however, meant 2011 was a bigger deal, affecting more people.

We learn a couple of surprising things about memory from this event.

First, the 1974 floods helped save Brisbane from even worse in 2011. One of the good things about the flood was the small amount of warning authorities were able to provide of imminent rising waters. (Albeit not enough to save the cars in the above video!)

Before the flood peaked, news media was able to warn local residents. An episode of current affairs program 7.30 aired before the waters peaked. Presenter Leigh Sales: ‘Even with the emergency response in full-swing, some experts in disaster management believe it’s not too late to learn lessons from the devastating floods of 1974’. The segment interviewed a survivor of 1974, and others.

I thought whether or not an event is publicly and widely remembered would be set in stone at the time of the next disaster. But that is not the case. So long as records exist somewhere, so long as memories are held by private citizens, they can be flushed out and made into public memories Another example: the ABC in Brisbane got people to send in photos of flood markers and flood memorials from the 1974 event – many of which were unobtrusive, mousy little things you’d easily miss – and collated them on a digital map in Brisbane.

One of the tenets of disaster memory is that memory of old events is re-activated by new events. You can see this in the very blog you’re reading – the obvious reason I’ve become focused on memories of Spanish Flu is the current pandemic!

This Google Trends data shows the same thing – Spanish Flu emerged from obscurity to become suddenly a scorching hot topic in 2020.

The historian whose work I’ve relied on for understanding the Brisbane Floods is Scott McKinnon. His paper “Remembering and forgetting 1974: the 2011 Brisbane floods and memories of an earlier disaster” is brilliant. Here’s a great quote from it:

“Sally and her partner, Jane, for example, lived in the ground floor flat of a two-storey and two-home dwelling. Their actions in the flood were largely determined by the memories of a neighbour.

“A lady across the road, Margaret, was in the ‘74 flood and she came over and said, “If it’s going to be worse than ’74, you girls have to get out, or else be up top and get everything you can up”.”

Sally and Jane were shocked into action, and despite being trapped, survived.

Eagle Street Brisbane, 2011. Photo: Andrew Kesper.
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Memory matters. It helps determine how we respond to the next disaster. We can reactivate memories. This is why it’s so important to understand how we forgot the Spanish Flu. But as McKinnon points out, our memories are not always helpful.


You’ve probably heard the expression. This – it turns out – is true not only of wars but, in a strange way, of disasters too. History is written by survivors. In Brisbane, the memory of the floods is of triumph over adversity.

“I want us to remember who we are. We are Queenslanders. We’re the people that they breed tough, north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down, and we get up again.” Queensland Premier Anna Bligh.

McKinnon’s whole bit is digging out the memories that are excluded by this way of looking at history. The marginalised communities. The people who died. The ones who got PTSD.

This really speaks to me because I am fascinated and appalled by war stories that involve a narrator who survives against terrible odds. I have been since I read about Roald Dahl’s ludicrous run of good luck that led him to survive World War 2 and go on to be an author.

His story is survivorship bias at its most obvious, but it is there in every war story. Actually, all the stories we hear are survivor stories. People who die in wars, people who die in disasters, they don’t get to tell a story. Their story can be told by someone else, but we never hear their perspective

“It was horrible, but somehow we survived,” people say. Somehow the city survived, somehow the country survived. The thing that survived is abstract – but lots of very real things didn’t survive at all. The “somehow we pulled through” narrative emphasises what endured.

This statue in Lisbon honours King Joseph I’s response to the Great Earthquake of 1755, which opened up 5-metre wide cracks in the earth and killed 30,000-40,000 people.

McKinnon cites renowned memory researcher Astrid Erll: “Things are remembered which correspond to the self-image and the interests of the group’. This is the second major lesson of the Brisbane Floods.

We make public memories that make us feel comfortable and reassured, ones that don’t make waves.

I never imagined this when I dived into learning about disaster memory. It’s not just time that kills memories, such that they die off slowly over time, it’s not just convenient narratives either. It’s power. Oh shit.

“What should we remember about ourselves?” is arguably the question that sparks the culture wars. Once you start thinking about this, it is strange how memory is at the forefront of culture war topics. It could be pulling down statues, or re-naming parks. It could be a Prime Minister objecting to a “black armband view of history”. It could be a major journalistic effort like the 1619 project, which aimed to give new perspective on the history of the USA.

In a way I’m horrified by this – I wanted to write about volcanoes, not the bloody culture wars! But the more I look at it the more I can’t deny our identity is formed by remembering certain bits of the past and forgetting others. Which is affected by who has power. It’s not the only factor but you can’t address collective memory without thinking about it.

When we make collective memories about disasters we need to be aware of the fact that they are also affected by these powerful forces. Even in the context of something seemingly apolitical, like a flood, this happens. The ten-year memorial video made by the ABC, for example, focuses on the rescuers – the heroes – and concludes with a rescue technician talking about a letter he got from someone he rescued. “That’s probably one of the things I cherish as a memory of that day,” he says.

It’s a nice note to end a video on. But is the rescuer the most important thing to remember about the floods? Is it the sort of memory that will make us change? Or is it just a memory that makes us feel safe and comfortable? As McKinnon puts it, one of the way we create memories of disasters is as “successfully negotiated moments securely located in the past.”

It’s over, it’s finished, we handled it, we don’t need to worry about it.

Such memories discourage people from rocking the boat. Which is exactly the way of thinking that meant we weren’t ready for Covid-19.

This is part 3 of the series. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.