Nassim Taleb has been on the rampage lately, clashing with economists and other finance types on Twitter, accusing them of hypocrisy and making the world a more fragile place.
But here’s an interaction with the famous author that’s actually pretty interesting and edifying.
Musician Brian Eno, a member of the glam rock band Roxy Music, has written an open letter to Nassim Taleb that raises some interesting questions about concepts like safety, fragility, and robustness, which are all popular Taleb topics.
Eno’s thoughts key off the 2011 nuclear tragedy at Fukushima.
As he frames it, there’s been an incredible geographical expansion of human caring. People in the US now worry, for example, about the fate of people in Tsunami-ravaged Japan. And yet at the same time as we’ve gotten more big picture in our geographical thinking, we’ve gotten more short-term in our thinking (Eno advocates nuclear power, and thinks it will be a big long-term environmental mistake to stop investing in nuclear).
Indeed our geographical ‘circle of empathy’ grows decade on decade: a hundred years ago it would have been impossible to imagine millions of people raising hundreds of millions of pounds for tsunami victims on the other side of the world – people they didn’t know and would almost certainly never meet. In terms of geography, we inhabit a much bigger picture than we used to, and we sense our interconnectedness within it.
In terms of time, however, the picture seems to be narrowing. Public attention is increasingly focused on very near futures: businesses live in terror of the bottom line and the quarterly results, while politicians quake at tomorrow’s opinion polls and formulate policy in terms of them. We’ve heard tales of farmers planting olive trees or vineyards for their grandchildren to harvest, or of foresters cultivating groves of oaks to replace a chapel roof hundreds of years in the future, but by and large, we don’t do that anymore. We have less active engagement with our future than our ancestors did.
To illustrate this, think about nuclear power. Start with FUKUSHIMA, that dread word. As a result of over-excited media reporting (‘great story!’ I heard one journalist say) that single word has probably condemned nuclear power for another generation, when in fact the accident produced no radiation-related deaths (and it’s doubtful that it will produce a discernable statistical blip in cancers in the future). In a conspiracy which seems almost dishonest, most Green groups failed to acknowledge this – it was too good as propaganda for them to let the facts get in the way – and of course the press never returned to the subject with any correctional follow-up. It became one of those little nuggets of received, and totally incorrect, wisdom: Nuclear=Fukushima=Catastrophe.
That received non-wisdom has persuaded Green Germany to begin decommissioning its nuclear reactors – which means more coal-fired plants. Japan too will probably turn back to coal. Coal is – even Greenpeace would agree – the worst option, though they’d claim that the gap can be filled by renewables. It can’t, not now and probably not for decades. In the meantime – and it may be a long, mean time – we’ll use coal. It’s cheap and very, very dirty.
So the real catastrophe of Fukushima is in the future, waiting for us in the form of vastly increased atmospheric CO2.
Eno then concludes:
The nuclear issue – which I’ve used as an example in this letter – is only one of many I could have chosen. The fact is, we’re facing a lot of complex and interrelated problems which demand that we take positions now. To some extent, that position is going to have to be ‘let’s improvise’ because there’s a distinct limit to how well we can make predictions. The de facto nuclear storage arrangements currently in use in America are examples of ‘let’s improvise’ and in this case seem to be a not-too-bad arrangement. But ‘let’s improvise’ has its limitations: in fact it’s sort of what got us where we are now, in a place that’s both wondrous and problematic. We might need some other intellectual weapons in our arsenals, no matter how good we become at jamming.
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