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Worst Cases
University of Chicago Press

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How 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.