Clem Sunter

A smack from Mother Nature

2010-04-21 12:35

A year before Donald Rumsfeld made the term famous, Chantell Ilbury and I introduced the concept of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” in our book The Mind of a Fox. We were trying to get across that no matter how hard you try to capture the uncertainties that will upset your game (things you know you don’t know), there will always be some that elude you completely (things you don’t know you don’t know).

The eruption of a volcano in Iceland bringing air traffic in Europe to a halt falls into the latter category. I doubt whether any strategic planner working in any airline anywhere in the world played this scenario to the executive team of the company. Certainly no travellers and no insurance company saw this one coming in advance.

It proves the point which we have made all along that many elements of the future are unpredictable and beyond your control. The only thing that counts is the speed and effectiveness of your response. If you have the swift reaction of a fox, you survive in better shape than your competitors.

What this incident does demonstrate is just how influential a player Mother Nature is. We live in a highly populated, interdependent world where the magnitude of the havoc caused is much greater than it would have been a couple of centuries ago. This volcano last erupted between 1821 and 1823. A much larger volcano next door to it in Iceland subsequently erupted, but I reckon neither event was felt by anybody who was not living in close proximity to the volcanoes. Aircraft did not exist in those days.

It goes to show that if you are a futurist now, you have to be a systems analyst. In other words, you have to be capable of identifying trigger events at the beginning of a causal chain and then all subsequent ramifications from those trigger events. We call the trigger events flags and subsequent ramifications the scenarios.

Slow triggers are much more difficult to warn people about than fast triggers. The DNA of the human race means that we are a species for whom in-your-face incidents, where we have to choose between fight or flight, register more deeply than threats that creep up on us. Earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions lead us to take steps to minimise the consequences of the shock, the next time it occurs.

Global warming, on the other hand, is slow and lethal because it cannot be conclusively proved. The meeting in Copenhagen at the end of last year, with hurried communiqués being produced over cups of coffee in the canteen, showed just how shallow our response is to the gradual stuff. Immediately afterwards, every nation was back to pursuing its selfish interests as though the meeting had never taken place. Global what?

Maybe this is why Mother Nature chose this moment to register her displeasure by leaving a volcanic handprint on the backside of mankind. You spoilt children! Don’t you understand that I have only given you one world to live in? If you mess it up, you don’t get a second chance. You all think you can go on multiplying and exploiting my generosity. You take me for granted.

Well, I’ve got news for you. Smack! There are limits. Smack! And if you don’t change your behaviour, you will live to regret it.

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