the cover to buy
do we imagine the worst that can happen? What happens
when our leaders fail to imagine worst cases? Why
is disaster sometimes good for society? Why should
we doing more worst case thinking? These are the
central questions that I answer in Worst Cases.
The usual view about danger and catastrophe is that
it's irrational to worry about low probability events:
airplane crashes and nuclear power meltdowns are
good examples. That's probabilistic thinking and
in modern times it is equated with reason itself.
Worst case thinking is different. It emphasizes
consequences over probabilities: what if terrorists
commandeer four airplanes simultaneously, what happens
if the power-grid goes down for six months, how
many might die if a chemical plant explodes? Conceptions
of "the worst" permit exploration of how
culture and society shape the imagination. Designations
of the worst involve both prospective and retrospective
viewpoints. As such they tell us about people's
orientations toward the past and the future, as
well as toward self, others, and society. Disasters,
even worst cases, are normal parts of life. They
are prosaic. The rules that govern social life in
non-disastrous situations are reproduced in disastrous
ones, because disasters are not special. We can
lead safer and more interesting lives by coming
to grips with living and dying in a worst case world.
Calamity is with us as never before. But we are
poorly prepared for it. Too much disaster policy
continues to take a command-and-control stance.
And there's been insufficient preparation where
disasters really happen-at the local level: in
offices, schools, trains, and the like. Adopting
a strategy of preemptive resilience to foster
response abilities before catastrophe strikes
would mark a much needed change in how we approach
disaster. What might get us closer to preemptive
resilience? An increase in the frequency and intensity
of disasters could prompt a reorientation in thinking.
So could an emphasis on worst cases.
We are at greater risk for worst-case disasters
today than in the past, even in wealthy societies.
This is because of hubris, interdependence, and
population concentration. An example of hubris
is the attempts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
to control the Mississippi River, actions that
in part set the conditions for the Great Flood
of 1993. The dangers of interdependence are apparent
in the SARS outbreak, which is significant more
for its spread-rate than its morality-rate. The
issue of concentration is demonstrated by Airbus
Industries' new A380, a four-aisle, two-story
behemoth that will carry 555 people. The first
time one CFITs (controlled flight into terrain)
into a mountain, we'll call it a worst case.
Thinking about worst cases is fundamentally an
exercise in thinking about the social organization
of imagination. It concerns the categories and
processes people use to look forward, and backward,
to envision the worst. There's theoretical and
practical payoff for focusing on worst cases.
But this is decidedly contrary to the approach
that's come to be equated with rationality itself:
probabilism. Yet probabilism is not the only way
to be rational. Worst case thinking is possibilistic
thinking, and we need it as a complement to probabilistic
thinking. We also need to start seeing disasters
as normal, ordinary.