Throughout the aftermath of Irene, I’ve been reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by the Lebanese author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a somewhat heady take on complexity and randomness, with many economic insights, and is filled with maxims such as: “People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.” Or “ Do not give children dynamite sticks even if they come with a warning label.” And, “Make an omelet with the broken eggs.”
What’s a “black swan”? Something unpredictable but real (there actually are black swans, it turns out) that lies outside the realm of our regular expectations. An “outlier.” (Take 9-11 for example.) Black swans carry an extreme impact and like Irene, we try to explain it after the fact, but we didn’t know it would occur. Black Swans carry massive consequences in their wake.
Who would have thought a tropical storm earlier masquerading as a hurricane, would hit the middle of Vermont with such vengeance? Highly Improbable! Still, that much rain can fall anywhere, any time, now that we realize (well most of use realize) that we’re in what many call not just climate change, but climate chaos.
A month later, we look at each other and say, “Now what?” Now that the flurry of volunteers with shovels have waded through, now that clothing donations pile up, now that most of the people have registered with FEMA and are waiting to hear from their insurance agencies, now that the “heroic” life saving stuff has been done, what now? Some of us have experienced community cohesion—“we were a community of strangers,” as one volunteer coordinator put it, “and now we’ve grown to know each other better,” but will it last? Empty promises pile up; the charlatans move in. How do we deal with fatigue, disillusionment, anger and frustration?
No disaster is like any other disaster, but experts tell us it’s normal that now we’re entering into the predictable “loss of reliance and hope” phase. All those problems families used to have are compounded now if they’re living with friends and relatives who are thinking, “How much longer will this go on?” Many people I talk to simply don’t know where they’ll be living come winter. So we’re all thinking, “What now?” Will we again become communities of strangers or have we learned an important lesson about how to rebuild? Can we vision new ways of building communities that might be sustainable?
The Black Swan author talks about the incompleteness of our knowledge and our systems that are built on ignorance. We watch, through the lenses of our hubris, and witness economies crumble around us. Politicians stick to pat answers and advocate ways forward they have always touted. And none of them seem to be working. Neither they, nor we, are willing or even able to look beneath the waters on which both the white swans and the black swans are paddling. We’re NOT in control!
Today I saw streams that leaped over their beds and carved new pathways to the ocean. Someone found one of our local propane tanks in the Long Island Sound. Flooding tentacles have a far reach. But so do stories of hope. Black Swans will still appear—but so will all the graceful white ones.
"Sofly Gliding" from an original watercolor by Julia Blackbourn
Taleb ends his book with a reminder that the Roman teacher and writer, Seneca, always ended his essays with the word vale. It has the same root as “value” and “valor.” It means “be strong. Be robust. Be worthy.” Vale!