What Good is Planning Ahead?

It is impossible to plan for the unknowable!

We knew it was coming. Pandemics, like many existential-level catastrophes, have been known for millennia. In fact, we know a LOT about pandemics, and even coronaviruses.  But, vaccines and treatments alike require specific knowledge of the biology of a virus, and because this one is new, there was no way to possibly be ready with either a vaccine or a mediating medicine.

What of the other threats? There are so many possibilities for our demise that it effectively is impossible to be prepared by Boy Scout standards.

We think that we “know” real risks. We spend nearly $700 billion each year, for example, to prepare for attacks from other humans – most of it thankfully wasted.

We also spend at least several hundred million dollars every year to protect against pandemics. It’s never been intended as more than a stopgap, something to buy time to ramp up production lines, develop treatments and, ultimately, manufacture and distribute a vaccine. That’s why failure to act meaningfully in February was so devastating to the current response.

So, are we destined to have to deal with an existential risk every 100 years or so?

Or, should we be assessing as many of the ‘unforeseeable’ risks as possible and at least have some preliminary plans on a shelf to be grabbed fast to at least know how to start?

What are those risks? More viruses. Galactic collisions. Dramatic increases or decreases in global temperatures. Rampant human insanity triggered by too little oxygen.

Let’s take one example to size and visualize what we are talking about.

A few thousand years ago the area of the globe we now call the Gulf of Mexico was largely a big hunk of land which one day IN AN INSTANT was hit by a large asteroid. We know quite a bit about what happened then and later. It took thousands and thousands of years. Dinosaurs gradually disappeared. And, we humans took over.

Just suppose something liked happened again with the target location being about St Louis.  Do we really want to bother for contingency plans for that?

Faced with a thousand threats, real and imagined, how do we prepare? I’d suggest as a starting point that we focus on those risks where human behavior can make a difference. So, planning for climate change? Yes. For pandemics? Absolutely!

As for wayward asteroids, the zombie apocalypse, and other readily-imagined but remote threats, why bother?

Our time as a species will most likely end at some point in the future. Knowing when might be worse than not knowing! If we give due credence to the threats we know about and understand – real, imminent, and avoidable – we may be able to at least forestall or manage that outcome for a while.

But, the exponential massive and unpredictable disasters like the Gulf of Mexico are beyond human intervention and we best not waste a lot of time and psychic energy on those disasters, which we know can happen ANY TIME.

In the meantime we should all be nicer to each other!


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