How Do We Protect Against Rare Threats?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami disaster, pundits have offered a standard array of panaceas. One of the most common calls has been for improved warning systems so “this sort of thing never happens again.”

The first thing we can do is to abandon the illusion that we can prevent any kind of disaster from ever happening again. Improved warning systems are a great idea and will certainly reduce the risk of a repeat of this disaster, but we can be absolutely certain that this kind of disaster will happen again, somewhere, sometime, regardless of what we do.

The principal force behind the “never happen again” mentality is a desire to find some permanent fix for problems so we can go back to living our lives on cruise control. Nothing is harder than maintaining a state of vigilance when things are monotonously quiet. Just ask any soldier who ever pulled guard duty. But eternal vigilance isn't just the price of liberty - it's the price of everything. A tsunami warning system will save lives if a tsunami happens again in a few decades. But will the system still be in place if nothing happens for 500 years?

A lot of what passes for theology in the wake of disasters is also merely a desire to go back on cruise control. Of the people who are criticizing God for not supernaturally intervening in plate tectonics, it would be interesting to know how many have bothered to write a check for tsunami relief. When people ask how a good God could permit such a disaster to happen, most of them are really asking “How could a good God create a universe that forces me to get personally involved? How could a good God confront me with difficult questions? How could a good God disturb my peace and quiet?”

Another widely proposed remedy is better public education. Recognizing the signs of an approaching tsunami would have saved many lives, but a lot of the victims were European tourists who got an education as good as any American student. They were blind-sided as badly as the locals. Over the years I’ve had over 2,500 students in my physical geology class, and every one – those that came to class anyway – has heard about the mysterious withdrawal of the water that often precedes a tsunami. Certainly many of the European victims got the same information. Why didn’t it help?

Education is only a quarter of the solution. First, people have to learn the facts. Second, they have to make a personal commitment to retaining them. Third, they have to think through the implications of the facts and their connections to everything else, and finally, they must be able to recall them and act on them on demand. No education system can help unless the individuals being educated make a total personal commitment to internalizing what they learn, then keeping it current by constantly connecting it to everything else in their lives. No modern society any longer can afford a popular culture that views learning as merely an option, that accepts it as normal that people forget what they learned in school. We can no longer afford to view "Don't Know Much About History" as anything other than a badge of shame. No doubt many of the better educated victims of the tsunami had an earth science class that described tsunamis, but dismissed it with “I’ll never need to know this.” One European survivor specifically mentioned being baffled by seeing the sea suddenly withdraw, a classic illustration of the Air Force dictum “what you don’t know won’t hurt you, it will kill you.”

At least tsunamis are somewhat predictable. Terrorist acts are not merely rare, but specifically calculated to defeat attempts to predict them. So how do we protect ourselves? After 9-11, a common complaint was “They tell us to be alert, but they don’t tell us what to watch out for.” So here it is. You notice everything, all the time, so you can spot anything out of the ordinary.

The only real protection against rare threats is for as many people as possible to know as much as possible, and be continually aware of their environment. One person on the beach who recognized the warning signs of a tsunami could have saved hundreds of lives (one person who actually did was a ten-year old British schoolgirl who had recently learned about tsunamis in her geography class). The only thing that can protect us against rare dangers is a widespread belief that all learning is relevant, all the time, and that the principal obligation of all people, all the time, is learning more about the world around them.

Can we really remember everything we learn, and spend all our waking hours learning new information? No. You can’t run 100 miles an hour, either, but you can bet every runner tries. The one guarantee you have of a fighting chance when a rare threat materializes is that you personally know what is happening and how to react to ensure your survival.


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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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