The black swan is probably the most widely misunderstood philosophical term of this century. I tend to find it being thrown around to refer to anything surprising and negative. But that’s not how Taleb defined it.
Taleb defined it very simply as any high impact surprise event. Of course, the definition of surprise is relative to the observer. To the lunatics at the NYT who push bilge about continuing American primacy, a meteoric decline in America’s standing (probably emerging from some of the fragilities I have identified in the global economic fabric) would be a black swan. It would also be a black swan to the sorry swathes of individuals who believe what they hear in the mainstream media, and from the lips of politicians (both Romney and Obama have recently paid lip service to the idea that America is far from decline). Such an event would not really be a black swan to me; I believe America and her allies will at best be a solid second in the global pecking order — behind the ASEAN group — by 2025, simply because ASEAN make a giant swathe of what we consume (and not vice verse), and producers have a historical tendency to assert authority over consumers.
But black swans are not just events. They can also be non-events. To Harold Camping and his messianic followers who confidently predicted the apocalypse on the 21st of May 2011 (and every other true-believing false prophet) the non-event was a black swan. Surprising (to them at least) and high impact, because it surely changed the entire trajectory of their lives. (Camping still lives on Earth, rather than in Heaven as he supposedly expected).
To true-believing environmentalists who warn of Malthusian catastrophe (i.e. crises triggered by overpopulation or resource depletion), history is studded with these black swan non-events.
From the Economist:
Forecasters of scarcity and doom are not only invariably wrong, they think that being wrong proves them right.
In 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus inaugurated a grand tradition of environmentalism with his best-selling pamphlet on population. Malthus argued with impeccable logic but distinctly peccable premises that since population tended to increase geometrically (1,2,4,8 ) and food supply to increase arithmetically (1,2,3,4 ), the starvation of Great Britain was inevitable and imminent. Almost everybody thought he was right. He was wrong.
In 1865 an influential book by Stanley Jevons argued with equally good logic and equally flawed premises that Britain would run out of coal in a few short years’ time. In 1914, the United States Bureau of Mines predicted that American oil reserves would last ten years. In 1939 and again in 1951, the Department of the Interior said American oil would last 13 years. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.
Predictions of ecological doom, including recent ones, have such a terrible track record that people should take them with pinches of salt instead of lapping them up with relish. For reasons of their own, pressure groups, journalists and fame-seekers will no doubt continue to peddle ecological catastrophes at an undiminishing speed. These people, oddly, appear to think that having been invariably wrong in the past makes them more likely to be right in the future. The rest of us might do better to recall, when warned of the next doomsday, what ever became of the last one.
Critics will note that Malthusians only have to be right once to provoke dire consequences; deaths, famines, plagues. Of course, that is the same logic that has led governments to spend trillions, and trample the constitutional rights of millions of people in fighting amateurish jihadis, when in reality more Americans — yes including the deaths from 9/11 — are crushed to death by furniture than are killed by Islamic terrorism.
But it is true, the scope of the threat posed by Malthusian catastrophe is probably an order of magnitude greater than by jihadis with beards in caves. And of course, groups like the Club of Rome and individuals like Paul Ehrlich will keep spewing out projections of imminent catastrophe.
So what were the real threats to humanity following Malthus’ predictions? Was it overpopulation? Nope. Imperial warfare killed far, far more than any famine or resource crisis in the 20th Century. To the overwhelming majority of the population, World War I — both in its origins (the assassination of an obscure archduke), its scope, its death toll, and its final ramifications (i.e. the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Nazism and World War II) was the great black swan event, the great killer, the great menace.
Black swan events defined the 20th Century; the black swan non-events of Malthus did not. The true story of the early 20th Century was the decline of a heavily indebted, consumptive and overstretched imperial power (Britain), and the dangers to peace and international commerce as its productive and expansionistic rivals (especially Germany, but also America) rose and challenged her (in vastly different ways).
There are some real environmental concerns like the dangers posed by nuclear meltdowns, runaway global warming (although I believe a little global warming is probably a good thing, as it will keep us out of any prospective future ice age), tectonic activity, or an exotic solar event like an X-flare, but we have no clue what will hit us, when it will hit, and its branching tree of consequences. We don’t have a full view of the risks. In spite of what unsophisticated mathematician pseudo-scientists in the tradition of Galton and Quetelet may tell us, we cannot even model reality to the extent of being able to accurately foretell tomorrow’s weather.
But once again a heavily consumptive, indebted and overstretched imperial power (America) is coming to terms with the problem of decreasing power in the face of productive and expansionistic rivals (particularly China). That parallel tends to lead me to believe that imperialist warfare will be the greatest menace of the 21st Century, too. But that’s the problem with predicting the future: we simply don’t know what black swan events and non-events nature will deliver (although it would be wise not to place too much trust in politicians or the establishment media, who simply blow their own trumpet and hope for the best).
So what are we to do?
Well, I think it’s important that businesses, governments and individuals think about Malthusian concerns. Malthus’ incorrect theorising touched upon the most significant of human concerns. Quite simply, without food, water and energy we weak and fragile humans are imperilled. It’s important that governments (particularly of importer nations) devise strategies to cope with (for example) breakdowns in the international trade system. Individuals, families, businesses and communities should be aware of where their food, energy and water come from, and of alternatives in case the line of supply is cut. Keeping backups (e.g. solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, storable food and water) is a sensible precaution for all citizens. There will be shocks in the future, just as there have been in the past. We should be prepared for shocks, whatever they may be.
And we should learn to love such volatility. Nature will always deliver it. We evolved and developed with it. It is only in modernity that we have adopted systems procedures and methodologies to subdue volatility. And — as we are slowly learning via the disastrous consequences of every single failed experiment in central planning — volatility suppressed is like a coiled spring.