Heads in the Sand: Why We Fail to Foresee and Contain Catastrophe
We are living in a time of crisis. From the immediate challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic to the looming existential threat of climate change, the world is grappling with massive global dangers—to say nothing of countless problems within countries, such as inequality, cyberattacks, unemployment, systemic racism, and obesity. In any given crisis, the right response is often clear. Wear a mask and keep away from other people. Burn less fossil fuel. Redistribute income. Protect digital infrastructure. The answers are out there. What’s lacking are governments that can translate them into actual policy. As a result, the crises continue. The death toll from the pandemic skyrockets, and the world makes dangerously slow progress on climate change, and so on.
It’s no secret how governments should react in times of crisis. First, they need to be nimble. Nimble means moving quickly, because problems often grow at exponential rates: a contagious virus, for example, or greenhouse gas emissions. That makes early action crucial and procrastination disastrous. Nimble also means adaptive. Policymakers need to continuously adjust their responses to crises as they learn from their own experience and from the work of scientists. Second, governments need to act wisely. That means incorporating the full range of scientific knowledge available about the problem at hand. It means embracing uncertainty, rather than willfully ignoring it. And it means thinking in terms of a long time horizon, rather than merely until the next election. But so often, policymakers are anything but nimble and wise. They are slow, inflexible, uninformed, overconfident, and myopic.
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