“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.
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?
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.
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.)
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!