Modern life is fragile

Fintan O’Toole

The chance of six specific Irish horses winning at Cheltenham on the same day last week was 1.5 million to one. But it happened.


The probability of the results of the Euro 2012 qualifiers being exactly as they will turn out to be is extremely low. But it will happen.


If you had correctly put an accumulator on this years election results being exactly as they were (seat by seat), you’d have made a fortune.

So events, which have a low probability of occurring, can occur. But given that few gamblers wind up billionaires, we know it is extremely difficult to select in advance which low probability events will occur.

If we continue to build, and extensively use, a lot of gas pipelines, nuclear power stations, bridges, dams, airplanes, ships or other things capable of spectacular destruction – some of them will destruct spectacularly.

Nassim Taleb, an expert on risk, styles the modern world ‘extremistan’ – the lack of redundancy in the system and the interconnectedness of everything makes our world fragile rather than robust (see note 142 here on the Japanese nuclear problem). Vulnerable to large scale asymmetric shocks (low probability / high impact events) that can derail our financial, economic, energy and food systems. Elsewhere, Jared Diamond has documented the stratospheric rise and fall of many civilisations, often peaking just before outright collapse.

Modern life is dangerous and fragile, but we probably couldn’t support the planet’s 7 billion inhabitants without abundant energy supplies and other risky infrastructure. The large asymmetric risks associated with these are real. If we are uncomfortable with this, do we want to take our chances in the stone age, or is that we just want other people to take these risks for us?

  • Greenflag

    ‘do we want to take our chances in the stone age,’

    I don’t have any confidence in stone age dentistry nor heart surgery so until such time as a practical cost effective energy alternative is available on balance I’ll take a chance on nuclear power stations to provide enough power to stop humanity from going ‘cannibal ‘ when the fossil fuels run out as it surely will by the end of this century . There is nothing more certain than the fact that 7 billion inhabitants of the planet will not be able to achieve the current living standards of the west consuming the same amount of resources without fossil fuels reaching thousands of dollars a barrel -a price which will trigger off even more resource wars both between competing powers and within societies between those with and without access to the motor juice.Who wants to have to walk 20 miles to work and back or ride a donkey from Galway to O’Connell St ?

    Ironically the Japanese are on the brink of developing robotics technologies which should put an end to the risk of ‘radiation’ for power station employees who have to get close when there is a malfunction .

    Also because of the pressures of the NIMBY crowd and the anti nuclear power lobbies ( coal and gas ) it has become very costly to build nuclear powered plants and run them at a profit thus the increasing use of natural gas in some countries to run power stations and coal in others . The latter will if the trend continues simply increase CO2 emissions thus adding to global warning and perhaps triggering off ocean changes which could bring grape growing and sunny beaches to Ireland shortly before delivering a mile high Glacier on top of us courtesy of another Ice Age . Climate experts have predicted another !$ ice ages over the next two million or was it billion years before the Earth gets a really warm non ice age period of about 1 billion years which runs out just before Sol goes for the big red one and expands to gobble up all the inner planets including the Earth as a Red Giant . What happens after that I don’t know but St Patrick did predict we Irish would be saved having our rear ends more than toasted by a benevolent and gratefull God who will hey presto merely submerge the island beneath the ocean seven years prior to the Big R Day , Many out there will of course write off such predictions as nonsense and will instead prepare themselves for the eh ‘Rapture ‘ which is coming sooner than you think 🙂

    Recent ‘environmental ‘ evidence from the Chernobyl area around the perimeter of the radiated area seems to show that almost 25 years after the ‘wild ‘ life has not been affected and shows few or no signs of significant genetic harmful mutations several ‘animal ‘ generations later .

    Jared Diamond’s historical analysis is pertinent to this issue although even he suggests that the only defence we have if for our societies to survive ‘corporate ‘predation killing the planet in an excess of greed and power mania- is for individuals to vote with their ‘euros ‘ and ‘dollars’ and ‘pounds’ against those forces who just like we have seen with the financial services sector this past two decades -don’t give a monkey’s about any future other than the quarterly shareholders reports and dividends .

    Those who retain faith in the ability of what I would call ‘anarchic ‘ capitalism USA style to ‘save ‘ the planet of their own ‘anarchic ‘ choice are betting on odds in excess of 1.5 million to one 🙁

  • Greenflag

    error above should read

    Climate experts have predicted another 14 ice ages 🙁

  • abucs

    I have pretty much always been in favour of nuclear power but the ‘unforeseen’ effects of the Japanese Tsunami have made me question where i stand. It’s a difficult one.

  • Rory Carr

    Given that miniturisation of new technologies are the key to their popularity (think cellphones etc.) I eagerly await the introduction of the nuclear-powered cigarette lighter.

  • Greenflag

    @ Rory,

    The little white cancer sticks kill multiple times more people around the world every month than were killed at Hiroshima and Nagaski combined . In China alone some 3 million die of tobacco related lung cancer every year . No Government not even the one in the ‘people’s republic ‘ of authoritarian capitalism have deigned to make tobacco growing or cigarette manufacture ‘criminal ‘ enterprises as yet . The fact that nicotine has now been proven to be more addictive than heroin has hardly reached the front pages of newspapers .


    Ireland’s economy is probably the most exposed and least prepared economy in the EU to the the havoc that would be caused by an oil price hike . On top of the present banksters and government /regulatory criminal neglect would be added hundreds of millions more for fuel costs .

    And our Government in particular the previous administration hardly even addressed the issue of energy dependence on oil.

    Of course it would be ‘wonderful ‘ if all of the alternative energy sources could supply all our needs in the next couple of decades during which oil WILL reach double it’s present price if not more – but then the motto of Irish governments for the past few decades has been ‘Be Unprepared’

    BTW- Had a similar Japanese earthquake and tsunami taken place 100 years ago before any nuclear power station had even been dreamt of , the death toll would have been in the hundreds of thousands .