Let’s not focus on the elimination of risk

Excerpts from the book

Confronting Complexity

X-Events, Resilience, and Human Progress


John L. Casti

Roger D. Jones

Michael J. Pennock



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In his book The Edge of Disaster, security expert Stephen Flynn speaks of a panoply of threats to our safety and well-being: a breakdown in the power grid, stoppages in the global food supply chain, a chemical accident in a major urban area, damage to urban water supplies, and so forth. In Flynn’s world of terror, the most likely threat is a terrorist attack that pushes panicked legislators to overreact by doing something stupid, such as tearing up the Bill of Rights!

Flynn notes that the tendency in government, especially in the post World War II era, has been to try to eliminate such threats. But the historical record for the past 60 years does not look too kindly on the approach of reducing risk to zero. No amount of science, money, or energy has managed to win the wars on cancer, drugs, poverty, crime, terrorism, or any other existential threat to humankind. What’s needed instead, Flynn argues, is not to try to do the impossible and reduce risk to zero. Rather, go the other direction and make American society more robust, so that it’s able to absorb these shocks and keep on running. He notes that a very big part of this approach is the reorientation of people’s attitudes toward risk. Society must take in the message that there’s no such thing as a risk-free world. As we put it a moment ago, you can’t buy insurance against everything. Stuff happens. What you need to do is to accept that as an operating principle and be ready to roll with the punches and come back fighting. Resilience is the core element for this program.


Implementing a resilience-based program won’t be easy, though. Most government officials, particularly those in the security end of things, regard the whole idea of resilience as “defeatist.” Flynn remarks, “They believe our job is to prevent these things from happening. What we have seen is that we keep having big events that are profoundly disruptive and that we are woefully underprepared to deal with.” Like a lot of other lessons that are “obvious,” there’s little, if any, hope of converting such officials to a new way of viewing the world. They have too much at stake in protecting the old ways to even consider a change of such magnitude. Rather, one has to begin the process by educating those whose minds are not already cast in concrete. Enter Thomas Homer-Dixon.

Homer-Dixon is a professor of international affairs at the University of Waterloo in Canada and a keen observer of the way complexity has entered into the way the world now works. He says that when he lectures to audiences of even educated people—businessmen, civil servants, and social scientists—the audience has a tendency to believe that systems always tend toward an equilibrium and that small causes give rise to only small effects. This is the very type of thinking that comes from classical physics, a la Newton. It is also the type of thinking that the world is just risky, not inherently uncertain. To combat this view of the way things work, we require a sea change in attitudes and teaching of the principles of complex systems early on in the academic curriculum.

If you’re going to think big like Homer-Dixon, then you may as well go all the way. And he does just that. His program for resilience is organized around the ”creative destruction” ideas of the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter. We will say more about that a bit later. But for now it suffices just to note that Homer-Dixon argues that the very source of resilience rests in the process of creative destruction. Our political and economic systems are resilient then because they operate on the basis of the Schumpeterian principle by undergoing constant cycles of ruin and reinvention. So it is this process itself that gives rise to resilience; the resilience comes from systems that have reinvented themselves continually over a long period of time, learning in the process how to survive in the face of unknown—and probably unknowable— adversities.


In terms of our Four As concept of resilience sketched earlier, this before- the-fact planning corresponds to the first two As: Awareness and Assimilation. Now let’s go to the other side of the coin and examine the after-the-fact rebuilding of the system once the X-event has run its course. How should we prepare to take advantage of the X-event, not be destroyed by it?

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