Prediction when complex is as simple as it gets

–Let’s insist today’s rotten core is modernity—international capital, American consumerism, fossil fuel, global urbanization, the Enlightenment Project—while in the same breadth insist all this is best understood in the very terms of that modernity: Anything and everything is at risk; all thinkable risks are warnings; any can be catastrophic.

In short, it’s hard enough to predict the present, let alone the future. It appears sovereignty is even a poor predictor of the present. Nor should it be surprising that a species constantly recasting its past finds it constantly difficult to predict its future. We might as well be trying to predict the next poem from the poet’s body of work.

–Think of sustainability less as ensuring resources for future generations than as increasing the opportunities of this generation to respond to unpredictable change without killing ourselves in the process.

–An estimate of risk must never be confused with being a prediction. You can’t assume that, if risk is left unattended, failure is a matter of time. The efficacy of prediction depends on how detailed the the failure scenario is. Risk is the product of the probability and consequences associated with a specific failure scenario. Without the scenario, you cannot assume more uncertainty means more risk; rather, it may mean only more uncertainty over estimated risks in the absence of details in the with-respect-to scenario.

–First itemize a few of apocalyptic predictions that have failed to materialize over the past five decades: global nuclear war, communist world hegemony, global starvation, oil depletion, nuclear winter, a prolonged night/new ice age, and the international meltdown because of the millennium computer bug.

Now itemize—again an arbitrary few—crises we have actually lived through in the last three decades or so: the banking crisis of the early 1990s, the Mexican near-default in early 1996, the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Long Term Capital Management collapse in 1998; the bursting of the dot.com/stock market bubble in 2000, the terrorist attacks of September 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the breakdown in the Doha round of multilateral trade talks, the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession, the default of Greece, the resurgence in Western populism and nativism. . .(and don’t forgot the Argentine default of 2001 and the world fisheries collapse. . .)

And yet, the habitual response: “But, but it still could get worse, much worse. Just wait long enough!” Well, yes, it could happen that way. Or not.

–One better question to ask is: What are we getting from this psychological habituation to it-always-could-get-very-very-much-worse? One answer: Doing so saves us all the trouble and worry of having to figure out the details.

Here’s an example, this excerpt being from a letter to the editor of the TLS:

Sir, – Unless a substantial proportion of the world’s scientists are deluded and are (innocently) deluding us, articles that blithely project a long-term future extrapolated from a continuing present need to be challenged. . .Or rather the publishing of them. To make predictions based on the present could be an act of climate catastrophe denial, an act that recursively makes the catastrophe more likely. . .Even the most sophisticated actuarial programs would struggle to tell me my grandchildren’s life expectancy, but I’d bet it’s shrinking by the day. A more useful challenge for philosophers would be to ask why environmental and social collapse are increasingly inevitable now, why we don’t care, and perhaps why we seem not to care that we don’t care. Are we incapable of seeing the world as real?

No details here about all those other very real existential threats! But not to worry, we have the intimidating standard of certainty in rebuke and disdain set by the author. It implies that if he and like thinkers are found to be in gross exaggeration, then certainly humiliate, shame and mortify them so publicly that they will now have something more important about which to worry. Nothing complex about that.

Principal sources

Previous blog entries: “Predicting the future,” “To do’s in the Anthropocene,” and “The shame of it all”

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