We can’t afford to spend trillions of dollars on everything that (ought to) scare us.
One thing that has perturbed Harrumpf greatly about the present mass neurosis, otherwise known as the Covid crisis, is the extent to which our ability to evaluate hazard has been corrupted by the orgy of performative anxiety in which so many of us have indulged for the past 18 months. Because although the subconscious urge to propitiate the Gods may in part explain the madness to which we have succumbed, the fact that we have treated a moderately nasty disease as though it was a biblical plague is no guarantee against genuinely nasty things befalling us. Always bearing in mind that it’s the unforeseeable catastrophes that tend to be the nastiest, I thought a post outlining a few of the events we know are on the cards might be a useful contribution to the recalibration of our risk-assessment faculties which we so badly need.
So I began to make a list of nasty stuff, starting with solar storm, and – oh, the irony, or at least, oh, the coincidence – it turns out that we’re in the middle of just such an event! On 8th Oct last, the sun had a major burp, something it quite frequently does. However, this one is headed straight for our planet. So far, the indications are that the present event will do little damage, but a repeat of the mid-19th century Carrington Event, named after the British astronomer who was the only scientist then taking an interest in, and therefore observing, sunspots, would do trillions of dollars-worth of damage to communications equipment, imperilling power grids and telecommunications, and knocking satellites off station, thus rendering GPS useless, or, indeed, worse than useless for any devices programmed to operate automatically under their guidance. Given the reliance placed on automation and electronic communications, the loss of life from such an event, if not literally incalculable, is certainly beyond Harrumpf’s ability to calculate. Suffice to say that it would be likely to dwarf the body count for Covid. The original Carrington Event disrupted the embryonic telegraph systems of the day. In 1921, an event of comparable intensity occurred. By 1921 telephony was a vital element of the economy, and the disruption far more severe.
The threat posed by a Carrington Event is well understood, and a range of protective measures is in place such that the disruption, while severe, would not necessarily be catastrophic. But even a Carrington Event is far from the worst our sun has thrown in our direction. These events cause a spike in the prevalence of Carbon14 in atmospheric CO2, and this is recorded in the tree ring for the year in which it occurs. Dendrochronology reveals solar storms of an intensity an order of magnitude greater than the Carrington Event in 994AD and 775AD, while ice cores reveal similar events in pre-history. Any of these would be catastrophic in today’s technology-dependent world, making Covid 19 look like a mere inconvenience.
So much to the threat from outer space – what about ‘inner space’? Major seismic and volcanic events, like solar storms, come with little warning. The eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815 was the largest in recorded history. It threw so much debris into the atmosphere that the following year was known as the Year Without a Summer, and the resulting crop failures caused crop failures right around the Northern Hemisphere. Estimates of the death toll range as high as 150,000, which in today’s terms equates to about 3 million worldwide. However, there is, so far as I know, no theoretical upper limit to the intensity of a volcanic eruption.
Natural disasters which could eclipse Covid are not limited to solar weather and volcanoes. There’s always the possibility of another virus – a really nasty one, though, like the bubonic plague, or even the 1919-21 influenza, with which, in its early days, Covid was erroneously compared. And it isn’t just viruses – the arrival of a truly antibiotic-resistant bacterium is an event considered by many clinicians to be highly probable.
That’s just three threats to life as we know it – indeed to life itself. As I said at the outset, there is no doubt a galaxy of other dangers to humanity that I haven’t thought of, indeed that nobody has thought of. And I’m equally sure that if the world was prepared to chuck enough money at them – the ones we’ve thought of, obviously – we could reduce them to the point where we could convince ourselves that they no longer pose a threat to us.
But there are a couple of problems with that. Firstly, fear of these threats would have to become as widespread and obsessive as our fear of Covid, and we simply don’t have the bandwidth.
Secondly, we’ve spent several trillion dollars on our present obsession. The UN’s trade and development agency, UNCTAD, estimates that the world’s economy has been depleted by a trillion dollars loss of business confidence alone. And that’s before we get to the direct costs – the subsidies, the support payments, the job-keepers, the job-savers – the euphemisms are endless. We simply can’t spend trillions of dollars on every moderately nasty thing that comes along to inconvenience us.
And even if we did, that would still leave us lathered in angst on account of all the threats we haven’t thought of, but are quite sure must be out there, ready to get us.
The only option is the doona.