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Disastrous Floods as Indicators of Systemic Risk Neglect (Part #13)


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The tragic incompetence in the management of flooding by water, as exemplified by developed countries such as the USA, the UK, France or Australia, serves to illustrate the less evident incompetence in the management of other forms of "flooding" -- whether in the financial markets, the commodity markets, or otherwise (Emergence of a Global Misleadership Council: misleading as vital to governance of the future? 2007). The challenge for developing countries is necessarily all the greater.

Overpopulation: Implicit in the above argument is the challenge for individual countries, and for the planet as a whole, of "flooding" by people -- namely the implications of overpopulation on a resource-constrained planet. The point has recently been succinctly expressed with respect to the classic "IPAT" formula by Richard Black (H for 'human': The missing climate link? BBC News, 21 January 2011). I=PAT is the lettering of the formula put forward to describe the impact of human activity on the environment: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. As noted by Black:

In fact, virtually no government intends to restrict the P in the equation, and certainly none wants to curb the A.

With respect to "P", this conclusion has been noted in relation to the Kaya Identity as separately discussed (Uncritical Strategic Dependence on Little-known Metrics: the Gaussian Copula, the Kaya Identity, and what else? 2009) with respect to a conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report:

The challenge - an absolute reduction of global GHG emissions - is daunting. It presupposes a reduction of energy and carbon intensities at a faster rate than income and population growth taken together. Admittedly, there are many possible combinations of the four Kaya identity components, but with the scope and legitimacy of population control subject to ongoing debate, the remaining two technology-oriented factors, energy and carbon intensities, have to bear the main burden.... [emphasis added]

The inability of governments to come to grips with any form of "flooding" is therefore well-exemplified by the inability to come to grips with "P". Hence the merit of reframing the challenge in terms of psychoactive parameters. Expressed otherwise, if the intelligence community has been encouraged to think differently following 9/11, as noted above with respect to the work of Josh Kerbel (2008). "Rethinking thinking" is now appropriate with respect to China (Josh Kerbel, Thinking Straight: cognitive bias in the US Debate about China -- Rethinking Thinking. Studies in Intelligence (CIA), 48, 2007, 3). It would then seem to be appropriate to "rethink" risks associated with engagement with issues of increasing population. Ironically it is now China that is perceived as "flooding the market" with a variety of goods, as previously done by the USA with both goods and cultural products.

Acts of God: There is a curious irony to the manner in which humanity continues to attribute responsibility for many forms of disastrous flooding to a deity regarding whose existence there is far from universal consensus. This "deity" is however embodied in the provisions of the insurance industry for "Acts of God", as separately explored (Acts of God vs Acts of al-Qaida: Hurricane Katrina as a message to Bible Belt America? 2005). It is of course the case that "flooding" in many cultures is associated with tales of mythical flooding as a form of divine retribution for humanity's failures. The disastrous nature of flooding of whatever kind may well play into unconscious anticipation of further retribution (Spontaneous Initiation of Armageddon -- a heartfelt response to systemic negligence, 2004).

This semi-conscious neglectful tendency can be fruitfully framed as an effort to design comprehensive global strategies whilst "inadvertently" neglecting core issues, as discussed separately (Lipoproblems: Developing a Strategy Omitting a Key Problem, 2009).

Given recognition of a collective unconscious -- consistent with the global implications of the argument of John Ralston Saul (The Unconscious Civilization, 1999) -- a global knowledge society may even be subject to the climatic "chaos" induced by a systemic analogue to the El Niño Southern Oscillation. The psychocultural implications of any form of widespread "flooding" may well be reflected in those myths regarding great floods. This might even be understood as a form of psychological flooding, now recognized in a context of remedial behaviour therapy.

Terrorism: The global preoccupation with terrorism, and the management of its associated risks, has been variously associated with preoccupation with other forms of extremism (Norms in the Global Struggle against Extremism: rooting for normalization vs. rooting out extremism? 2005; Varieties of Terrorism: extended to the experience of the terrorized, 2004). Mismanagement resulting in any form of disastrous flooding can, in such terms, be understood as perpetuating a form of terrorism. Such mismanagement of risk can therefore be seen as a form of terrorism, subject to legal provisions where extremism is recognized as endangering the population. The case has been made with respect to the extremes of speculation which triggered the disastrous financial crisis affecting the livelihoods of thousands, if not millions (Extreme Financial Risk-taking as Extremism: subject to anti-terrorism legislation?, 2009).

With respect to flooding by water, and specifically the example of Australia, it may be asked whether the forms of risks taken with the lives and livelihoods of the population should be considered as a form of terrorism. Does this merit testing in the courts through a class action suit against those responsible for that systemic negligence -- and currently attempting to attribute their risk management failures to Acts of God?

WikiLeaks: In this context there is a curious irony to the position of the Federal Attorney-General of Australia, Robert McClelland, with regard to the release of the "flood" of documents by WikiLeaks, founded by Australian citizen Julian Assange (Joseph Krauss, Wikileaks unleashes flood of confidential US cables, TimesLive, 28 November 2010) -- a metaphor widely used in the media. But, as stated by McClelland in an interview on ABC Local Radio on that occasion (Queensland, 30 November 2010; and reproduced on the website of the Attorney-General):

All I can say is that the publication of this material is very, very serious. It has the possibility of literally affecting the safety, prejudicing the safety of people referred to in the documentation, and most certainly it has the potential to effect the national security interests of the United States and its allies including Australia. So the action is grossly irresponsible and can't be justified in any way shape or form, so you would like a dose of reality, common-sense, if not the absence of recklessness to come into this fellow's mind.

One might then appropriately ask what is the position of the Attorney-General with regard to actions markedly increasing the vulnerability to flooding in Australia and the extent to which these might themselves be understood as "grossly irresponsible" -- given their demonstrably disastrous impacts on lives and livelihoods. This is surely to be seen as undermining "national security" (if not homeland security as understood by Australia's principal ally). The irony is all the greater in that the river waters might be said to have transgressed the conventional boundaries established for them by planning arrangements -- much as WikiLeaks flooded (leaked) over the boundaries of diplomatic convention. The mindset which enabled such planning decisions surely "can't be justified in any way shape or form". Australians would surely "like a dose of reality, common-sense, if not the absence of recklessness" to come into the minds of those responsible.

Give the ambiguous statements made by Australian authorities regarding their intended treatment of Julian Assange, extending to the possibility of legal proceedings, there is a further irony regarding use of the term "bail" in his case and with respect to flood damage in Australia. Whilst Australian authorities made no effort to assist in enabling bail for Assange in the UK (despite the legal costs to which he is exposed), every effort has been made to "bail out" those affected by the floods -- presumably including those whose corporate initiatives so irresponsibly facilitated them (as in the clearing of forest areas which would otherwise have partially contained the unusual rainfall). This can readily be seen as another surreptitious diversion of taxpayer resources to those implicated in the origin of the problem -- whether or not, "too big to fail".

The Attorney-General also argues that a degree of confidentiality is essential to the functioning of relations between countries -- thereby highlighting the mindset which considers it essential to the functioning of the network of authorities within countries. At what point, however, does the argument against transparency -- in favour of withholding information -- reinforce complicity in the "gross irresponsibility" in relations between countries rendered apparent by WikiLeaks? Similarly at what point does the case made for nontransparency within a country reinforce gross irresponsibility, as was demonstrated post facto by flooding the financial market with toxic assets -- and potentially to be demonstrated in the case of river flooding in Australia, should the Attorney-General choose to focus on the matter?

Collective learning: There is however every indication that very little will be collectively learnt from disastrous flooding of any kind. As previously explored, there is very little ability to focus on remedial capacity beyond the political pledges -- which might appropriately be said to be "written on water" (Remedial Capacity Indicators versus Performance Indicators, 1981). It might even be said that it is in terms of the "boundaries" to action that any "flooding" takes place (Recognizing the Psychosocial Boundaries of Remedial Action, 2009).

The dramatic Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010 illustrates the challenges to eliciting collective intelligence in a timely manner (Enabling Collective Intelligence in Response to Emergencies, 2010). The continuing emergence of "surprises" of global significance -- as documented by Taleb (2007) and Cerulo (2006) -- suggests that the modelling predictions for the mid-21st century regarding population and resources are dangerously naive in their failure to allow for the unexpected, including new forms of "flooding". At the time of writing, research suggests that the Amazon forest may no longer be able to mitigate rising greenhouse gas emissions of which it may itself become a source (Damian Carrington, Mass tree deaths prompt fears of Amazon 'climate tipping point', The Guardian, 3 February 2011). The risks for future food production resulting from the colony collapse disorder of bees offer another current example.

Future surprises: The extreme certainty with which the problematic consequences of overpopulation (as predicted by some) are declared to be ill-informed (by others) bodes ill for the future. Despite the unpredicted global financial crisis of 2008-2009, the mindset is exemplified at the time of writing by the extreme surprise and horror at the disastrous flooding in Queensland. If flooding in Queensland constitutes a surprise, the modelling of population stabilization, in which so much confidence is notably invested by economists, may be undermined by other unforeseen events. Given that the insurance industry is faced with mitigating such levels of risk, potentially associated with "Acts of God", perhaps greater attention should be given to the role of the reinsurance industry as a means of appropriately reassuring the population.

As noted above, James Lovelock (The Vanishing Face of Gaia: a final warning: Enjoy It While You Can, 2009) makes the point that it is already too late. However his fruitful systemic reference to Gaia focuses primarily on her "cosmetic" appearance to humanity. The "Acts of God", with which disaster is so intimately associated, point to the continuing remedial capacity of Gaia -- effectively a "governor of last resort", once the credibility of humanity's global management capacity finally evaporates. The many biblical references to weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth will then indeed be appropriate.


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