Nassim Nicholas Taleb has become famous for his Black Swan theory: “A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three principle characteristics: it is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after it occurs, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random and more predictable than it was. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and the inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world.”
It’s worth checking out Taleb’s website for a sense of his energy, intelligence and impatience – he is not constrained by humility. And it’s worth reading his books, particularly The Black Swan (2007 or the recent 2010 edition)
Black Swans have occurred frequently during this past decade: 9/11, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the current rebellions in North Africa are reminders of how little control we have over political and cultural affairs.
The many natural disasters of the decade are also Black Swans: the fires of British Columbia and Russia, the floods of Pakistan and Queensland, the earthquakes in China, Haiti, and Chile, the tsunami of 2004, hurricanes or cyclones like Katrina, and now the triple impact of earthquake, tsunami and partial nuclear meltdown at the Daiichi facility in Japan. Amazingly, there are still some who try to explain the occurrence of such events as divine punishment for human transgressions.
With more and more people living everywhere, the impact of each major Black Swan is felt by increasing numbers of people. With economic globalization, and the ever expanding Internet, each has the potential to impact the world.
But not all seemingly unexpected massive events are Black Swans. Taleb points out forcefully that the economic meltdown of 2008 was not a Black Swan, but that instead it was the unavoidable outcome of the extraordinary greed of the banks and other financial institutions: bankers might want to convince us that it was a Black Swan, but in fact they were responsible.
Our current global climate change can also look a Black Swan the size of our entire planet, and in many ways we behave as if it is, acting as if it is an improbable, random event with a massive impact whose causes are the natural cycles of the planet that are beyond our control.
But now we know that’s wrong. Current climate change isn’t random and improbable. It is the unavoidable outcome of our uncontrolled carbon emissions. We know how and when it started, how it has developed, and considering our collective unwillingness to do much about it, we know in general terms where it may take us. We know we caused it. Like the economic meltdown, but vastly greater in impact, this is no Black Swan.
We need another metaphor, something to identify a massive catastrophic event that we have made unavoidable because of our own deficiencies.