Swans of a Different Color
The advent of COVID-19 and the subsequent nation-wide lockdown amounts to a wake-up call of historical proportions. It has alerted us to the possibility of “black swans” swimming into our lives, or in the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his bestselling The Black Swan, our susceptibility to “the role of the exceptional event leading to the degradation of predictability.”
A “black swan” is characterized by three attributes: “it is a rarity,” “it causes an extreme impact,” and we come to understand it only “after the fact.” The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 was such a “black swan” -- a malign event we did not expect and plan for. At the same time, most beneficial discoveries and technologies did not come from design, planning or predictable outcomes but were rare events with positive implications; for example, Sir Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin. But what most concerns us is the negative “black swan,” with its destructive radius owing much of its malignity to the “built-in defect of conventional wisdom.”
Of course, the trope of the “black swan” is not Taleb’s invention but enjoys a long pedigree, going back to the Latin poet Juvenal’s sixth Satire against marriage, where the perfect wife is considered a disaster since she would be impossible to live with. In other words, something “good” = something “bad.”
Isn’t there a single one worthy of you, in all that vast flock?
Let her be lovely, gracious, rich, and fertile; let her exhibit her
Ancestors’ faces round her porticos; be more virginal than the
Sabine women, with tangled hair, who ended war with Rome;
A rare bird on this earth, in the very likeness of a black swan;
Who could stand a wife who embodied all of that?
But the reverse may also be true. Over the long haul, something “bad” may have “good” consequences, especially if the swan is not entirely black but gray. I would define a “grey swan” as a figurative bird that swims between the unlikely and the possible, an emblematic device that may not be predictable in its specificity and temporality but carries a penumbra of plausibility or contingency. Thus, we might say that a Black Swan prepares us for the prospect of a Gray Swan, which is close enough to “white” to be recognizable, close enough to “black” to be premonitory.
The likelihood of other lethal viruses emanating from China would be such a “gray swan.” The Wuhan lab was only one of many, no doubt with equally careless or fallible security protocols and poor equipment that could lead to a new pandemic, for which we would need to be prepared. China’s institutional structure across the board is defective and unequal to the challenge of ensuring safe and productive results. The ideal solution would be to quarantine China, to cast it out of “the family of nations,” forbidding all travel to and from. Since that cannot be done in the real world, we have no choice but to limit our contacts with China so far as such a measure is feasible, to reduce our dependency on Chinese imports and cheap labor, and to remain in a state of readiness for future epidemics.
There is another Black Swan on the horizon which needs to be acknowledged and, so to speak, rendered Gray. The name of this swan is EMP, or Electro-Magnetic Pulse (aka HEMP, or High Altitude EMP). The fear, uncertainty and hardship of COVID times that we are undergoing will dissipate, but it should prepare us for other “exceptional events” that would be far worse than what we are currently experiencing -- and by orders of magnitude. Wearing masks, self-isolating and hunting for toilet paper are as nothing compared to the devastation an EMP attack would unleash. Such an attack is not beyond the realm of possibility when we consider the existence of major state actors like China and Russia, who have developed EMP arsenals, and highly capable rogue state actors, such as North Korea and Iran.
As I pointed out in an earlier article, Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen warned us concerning the possibility of a high-altitude EMP attack over American territory, “There is a sword of Damocles over our heads. It is a threat that is real but has been all but ignored.” The accumulating death toll would be astronomical. German film director Wim Wenders’ film Until the End of the World, as well as William Forstchen’s novel, One Second After, depict in their different ways what such an event would entail. It is hard to assimilate so unthinkable a prospect, and inertia or dismissal is a natural response to the probability of cataclysms.
William R. Graham, chairman of the Congressional Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, testified that Iran has already conducted EMP missile tests from frigates in the Caspian Sea. Additionally, Graham draws attention to Iranian military writings that “explicitly discuss a nuclear EMP attack that would gravely harm the United States.” In today’s explosive world, and in the light of such developments, this is a realistic picture. We would be foolhardy to ignore it.
More recently, writing in The National Interest for December 15, 2019, National Security expert David Pyne argues that a threat of this nature “can’t be minimized.” In the event of an EMP attack on the U.S. homeland, “up to 90 percent of the U.S. population would die within a year due to a widespread breakdown of the food distribution system resulting in mass starvation and…related diseases and related adverse effects.” An EMP event would fry the electrical grid, shutting down almost every power source on the instant, communication networks would cease to exist, transport, delivery services, sanitation facilities, medical supplies, and financial institutions would be consigned to oblivion. The lights would go out in every sense of the term.
Fortunately, America has a pro-active Commander-in-Chief who refuses, as have former presidents, to take the threat lightly. There are skeptics galore who contend that the threat is pure science fiction, but it would be folly to discount as fable what may prove to be an event from which there is no recovery. It is past time to secure and harden the electrical grid, whether by moving overhead lines underground, shortening distances between structure poles, adding surge protecting filters and other mitigating factors. As Ariel Cohen writes in Forbes, “The Executive Order issued by the White House might be the next step needed to give vital guidance and leadership to this important issue – before it is too late.”
It is natural that most people and our national leaders are preoccupied with the present calamity, the former how to survive it and the latter how to exploit it. Neither has the leisure nor inclination to think of anything else. Many will insist, quite reasonably, that this is not a time for more dispiriting news; we have enough on our proverbial plate to deal with. Despite such pragmatic reluctance, I would propose that this is also a time to reflect on the future, which will shortly become our present with its own, say, covey of Black Swans. For that is the nature of the era we now inhabit.
Consequently, “novel coronavirus” should serve as an alarm bell to the potential immanence of Black Swans, whether pandemics to come or, as I argue here, the almost inconceivable yet possible cataclysm of a HEMP attack. As Taleb writes, “Black Swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant that what you do know… Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.” Unthinking confidence in current knowledge or assumptions about the world are a function of “manufactured stability” and “epistemic limitations” that need to be rendered suspect and controllable, enabling us to see a bird of different plumage and hue.
COVID has made it clear that we are at risk as we had not previously imagined. It has made it obvious to all but the unwary and the slumberous that we now live in a world of Black Swans. It is time to see them as Gray.
Photo credit: Sanjay Acharya