The usefulness of small disasters

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In reflecting on some minor glitches in these past few weeks, it can be a good thing to reflect on the usefulness of these very glitches (sometimes called small disasters when you are in the thick of things).  Of course, it isn’t fun to have to deal with a wonky computer and email, a broken vehicle or flat tire, small financial losses, and so on, but these events can prove beneficial in the long run, if only to reinforce the idea that we should never get too comfortable.   If you’ve ever changed a flat tire at night and in the rain, you know that not having a flashlight or rainjacket can be the difference between an inconvenience and a miserable experience.  Small disasters give us reminders that a bit of preparation or work ahead of time can prevent them from becoming larger ones.  Small disasters and glitches are good reminders that Mr. Murphy lurks in all human endeavors, and a bit of preparedness and firewalling of important elements in your life (and the life of communities and nations).

Some small “disasters” that have gone unheeded have more likely than not caused greater trouble down the road, and conversely, disasters that have made people pay attention have more likely than not helped prevent larger troubles.

In the category of unheeded small disasters, the incident at Three Mile Island and a host of other small nuclear accidents should have been a telling indicator that nuclear power (as implemented) was an is unsafe in its current form, and that we should either get serious about how we use nuclear power, or abandon it completely.  Of course, most of the world hasn’t, and incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima have continued, getting worse as time goes on.

In the category of ‘heeded’ small disasters (and some of those disaster weren’t so small), the abolition of chemical warfare (mostly heeded by major powers) after World War One, and the elimination of CFCs that were destroying the ozone seem like things that had enough impetus to reverse course, or at least put a large damper on certain developments.  The examples are numerous on both sides, and you can find them everywhere.

The sad part about the inevitable ignoring small disasters (or not accepting smaller amounts of pain) is that the inevitable bigger shock that comes along when not accepting or permitting small amounts of pain is likely to feel worse.  Also, handling larger disasters can sometimes be impossible, as the problem can be too big to solve.

There are a few examples of this that haven’t yet born fruit, but my suspicion is that these unheeded and “underhandled” situations are going to make life really miserable for many people quite soon.

One is the decision by the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates artificially low for so long.   Interest rates (the risk free interest rate, most specifically) is one of the key elements in a financial system, and by artificially keeping it low, the Fed has blown multiple asset bubbles of immense proportions.  Money is incredibly cheap, and as interest rates are low, too much money is chasing crazy ideas and projects.  The bubbles in real estate and stocks are still being inflated, and when these bubbles pop, it is going to be tough sledding for many folks (who thought housing prices, even in metro areas, only ‘went up’).   If we had accepted the true pain and mis-allocation in 1999, 2008, rather than propping things up, yes, things would have been hard. But now, that things have gone so out of whack, the resulting crash will hurt a lot more.  A few small disasters might have made people wise up.

The second is the issue about Peak Oil itself, and our society’s inability to come to grips with the energy issue.  After a few oil embargoes, and a few wars in the Middle East, the United States and others should have seen the signs, and actually gotten its act together regarding energy policy, and its dependence on foreign oil.  Yes, things might have cost more, but in the long run, we might have been in better shape.  Now, it is to too late to change course, and the end result will be a bit of a mess.

The odd thing is, these sorts of mini-disasters happen to individual people all the time.  People can learn from these mini disasters (ask the folks who survived Katrina or Sandy), but it seems larger institutions rarely do so.  Folks in places such as the Fed still think they are omniscient, and that they can control the levers which make the economy hum along, even when disasters have started to oscillate to the point of being out of control, or too big to correct.

Kinda sad, but that is the problem with not handling small disasters, and letting them grow to larger ones.   You may that ignoring a problem turns it into a much larger one down the road!

Questions:

  • Personally, have small disasters made you wise up?  Does the disaster have to really hit you hard, or can you pay attention after a ‘close call’?
  • How big does a disaster have to be before one ‘wises up’?  How do you even measure such a thing (personally)?
  • Why do we still have this disconnect (avoidance behavior) in our philosophical worldview?
  • What tragedies and disasters have been ignored by society?  Which ones have been illuminated, and tamed?
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