Are we facing ‘apocalypse’ of ‘black swan’ events?

The government has been accused of triggering disaster through a decade of “inaction” as the UK is hit by the fuel and energy crisis, the global pandemic and the climate change emergency.

Former Labour leader and shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband told his party’s annual conference yesterday that the “energy price crisis is a disaster made in Downing Street” during the Tories’ years in power.   

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps later shrugged off the accusation, telling The Andrew Marr Show that there was “plenty of petrol in the country” and that the fuel crisis was “nothing new”. But The Telegraph has warned that Britain is in a “race against time to fight off multiple ‘black swan’ events”.

Black swans explained 

The term was coined by Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese-American statistician and risk analyst, in his 2007 book The Black Swan.

In an excerpt published in The New York Times following the book’s release, Taleb explained that before the discovery of Australia, “people in the old world were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence”. All they needed was a single sighting of a black swan to highlight the fragility of their knowledge.

A black swan event is therefore something that is very rare, has extreme impact and – only in retrospect – becomes explainable and predictable. Taleb pointed to the 9/11 terror attacks and the Pacific tsunami of December 2004 as examples. 

Sudden flock of events

Black swan events are “not supposed to come all at once”, said The Telegraph. “Yet in the past year, the world has faced a multitude of ‘historic’ shocks amid the worst pandemic since 1918.”

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The UK is facing “severe disruptions” to gas and CO2 supplies, along with shortages of the labour and fuel needed to keep supermarkets, factories and farms in operation, the paper continued. And further afield, “once-in-a-millennium” flooding has hit countries including Germany and Belgium, while wildfires have ravaged other parts of the world.

Amid these “multiple ‘black swan’ events”, an Oxford academic last week tweeted: “What’s the collective noun for black swans?”

“An apocalypse,” another Twitter user fired back.

Bird-brained planning

According to Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor of major programme management at Oxford University’s Said Business School, people are generally prone to “black swan blindness”, because “our brains are not well suited for detecting extreme risks”.

But such events are coming more frequently as the world becomes more interconnected, he told The Telegraph. “The walls are coming down between natural and human systems, with humans impacting nature at a global scale for the first time in history,” Flyvbjerg said.

The problem is that planners do not understand that a more extreme version of past events “will eventually occur”, he warned.

The paper points to the example of “the sea wall at the Fukushima nuclear power station, which “was only built high enough to protect against the previous worst tsunami. By the same token, Covid-19 will not be the worst pandemic we ever face.”

The real deal?

Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at Western University in Canada, has warned against hurrying to class events as black swans.

“The danger of making an occurrence like the Covid-19 outbreak appear to be astronomically rare is that we will treat it as such and fail to prepare for the next pandemic,” he wrote in an article on The Conversation last year. “What’s more, those accountable for this preparation will dismiss their blatant failures because of the perceived exceptional nature of the event.”

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McGillivray pointed out that hundreds of health experts had warned of the possibility of a pandemic in the years leading up to the Covid outbreak. 

But Flyvbjerg noted in The Telegraph that planners commonly make the mistake of “letting down one’s guard because a risk has not materialised for a while”.

Indeed, Taleb said last year that the pandemic was wholly predictable, “a white swan if ever there was one”, reported The New Yorker.

Governments “did not want to spend pennies in January, now they are going to spend trillions”, he said in April 2020. Taleb recalled: “We issued our warning that, effectively, you should kill it in the egg.”

Black swans or white swans, “there are signs ministers realise the UK’s disaster planning is inadequate”, said The Telegraph, which reported that a consultation led by the Cabinet Office to draw up a new “National Resilience Strategy” was due to close this week.

Dr Toby Ord, a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, told the paper: “As Covid-19 has shown, the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable, and we need to be prepared.”


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