Nikiforuk - 7 Rules for Surviving Natural Disasters and Our Boneheaded Politicians


Climate catastrophes are coming on fast and furious these days spurring on our politicians to truly great achievements in platitudes. There's nothing they won't do for us, "nothing" being the operative word.

Andrew Nikiforuk rides to the rescue with 7 Rules for Surviving climate calamities and political dereliction.

Last week Mother Nature taught British Columbia another ugly lesson about the consequences of blah, blah, blah on climate change, unchecked energy use and globalization.

But denial is our society’s most politically powerful drug after fentanyl and Netflix.

Apparently, heat domes and an extended fire season followed by a predicted atmospheric river just didn’t make much of an impression on our woodenheaded political class. These folks just don’t understand that Normal, the name of our collective boat, now lies wrecked at the bottom of an acidifying and warming ocean brimming with more plastic than fish.

1. Complexity delivers diminishing returns.

Civilizations use energy to build complexity which results in what Edward Gibbon called “immoderate greatness.” At a certain point civilization can no longer afford to increase or maintain high levels of social and political complexity.

They run out of physical or moral energy. Entropy then reigns. The centre does not hold and things fall apart. Very few civilizations have opted to simplify their operations and lower their ambitions to avoid collapse. Can we?

2. Not acting early ups the eventual cost.

When faced with a steeply growing systemic threat, governments must act promptly or pay a mounting cost. Case in point, Covid-19. Enough said.

3. Growth equals emissions.

Governments still pretend that they can decouple emissions from economic and population growth and carry on as if this slow (and sometimes fast) moving avalanche called climate change did not exist.

...Societies that want to be prepared for the worst will invest in re-localizing their affairs, revitalizing local agriculture, powering down and simplifying their fragile supply chains. Which elected leader will tell us this?

4. Governments learn from punishments meted by voters, not nature.

Here’s a sardonic definition that makes a lot of sense at the current moment: “Experience” is making the same mistakes over and over again but with greater confidence.

Governments have been warned for years that logging should not be allowed in mountain headwaters because it changes the flow of water across vast landscapes. They have been told that wetlands, nature’s vital kidneys, should not be drained because they provide cheap reliable flood control. It is well known that destroying ancient forests dramatically changes precipitation patterns and creates deserts. 

...Ancient civilizations that didn’t heed these same messages failed. Egypt and the lowland Maya were small and localized empires. Our civilization, far more vast and complex, has heedlessly sacrificed its natural underpinnings. As a result, every year, as in an ever more ferocious battle, more and more infrastructure will be disabled or destroyed by fire, flood, wind storms, sea rises and heat domes. Nobody is asking how much we should repair. Or how long can we afford this war. It’s a question the political class, quaking in fear of being ousted, refuses to put before the voters.

5. The coming catastrophes will victimize those least powerful.

Climate change, just like the pandemic, illustrates the political bias of rare or extreme disasters. Let’s call it the Titantic factor: When that great feat of complex engineering hit an iceberg, 26 per cent of the first class passengers perished. In contrast 76 per cent of the steerage passengers drowned.

Disasters tend to proportionately affect ordinary people more than they do the rich who live in protected communities and wield outsized influence. The majority of people unsettled by B.C.’s flooding are not rich. Ordinary people are paying for the fatalism and inactivity of the well-off who primarily fund our political classes to ignore reality.

6.  Anti-fragility should be the new goal.

Governments can’t predict the catalysts for infrastructure failure but they sure can prepare for them.

B.C. politicians might start by reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s masterful book on risk: Antifragile. As he explains, say you have a bridge, a highway, a dike or dam that is fragile. It is a waste of time predicting what event might illustrate the fragility of the infrastructure. “Instead, you should look at the underlying fragility and try to modify it and make it more stable so we don’t have to predict why and when something will collapse.” Surveying our province, there are many places where this advice should apply. Take for example the Site C dam fiasco, where B.C. knowingly invests in geological fragility.

7. More data doesn’t lead to better decisions.

Society has pretended that more data will lead to better decision-making. It has not and cannot. In fact more data has led to the opposite. Or no decision-making at all.

This great hazard is multiplying. James Bridle, a brilliant critic of computational thinking, notes that civilization has now arrived at a dead end. “The primary method we have for evaluating the world — more data — is faltering. It is failing to account for complex, human-driven systems and its failure is becoming obvious... our current ways of thinking about the world can no more survive exposure to this totality of raw information than we can survive exposure to an atomic core.”

In other words data is no substitute for knowledge or wisdom. And knowledge and wisdom seem to be the scarcest of resources in modern Canada.

Do you get it? Our prime minister and premiers aren't solving our problems, they are contributing to them and ensuring we're ever more vulnerable to them.


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