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Bad Bets: There is no will, at any governing level, to behave rationally.

I’ve been reading a lot about Vaclav Smil recently. For those of you who don’t remember, Vaclav is the man who’s tutoring Bill Gates on Energy and Food production.

Similar to Charlie Munger, Smil takes a very multidisciplinary approach to looking at problems.

Here is an excerpt of an article he wrote in 2005, entitled “Bad Bets.”

…Katrina’s aftermath proved in a most graphic fashion that the only remaining superpower is increasingly helpless to respond to any threats in any coherent way. And perhaps the deepest message of Katrina’s aftermath is how it exposed the frightening fragility of urban America and the increasingly Third-World nature of much of its urban environment and population: the world’s only remaining superpower is rotting from the inside.

Let me explain, just briefly. Predictability of Katrinas must be clear to any school child: they are a matter of recurrent when and not if, and any rational, risk-minimizing society (let alone the world’s richest one) should be taking constant systematic steps to minimize their impact. Hoping that a hurricane path will miss you, building levees to meet no more than the hurricane category 3 threats and permitting unlimited construction along the entire Gulf of Mexico coast are all state- and federally-sanctioned acts that are just asking for disasters to happen, a form of high-level gambling. Most gamblers, of course, lose.

Perfect defenses are impossible, near-perfect ones are exceedingly costly. A rational society with limited wealth to spare on any particular challenge would favor passive prevention and limited push-back. An easiest step to take, it would not allow any new permanent construction along any shoreline that could be swept by a massive storm surge. That is, after all, a matter of kindergarten physics: a cubic meter of water weighs 1000 kg, a cubic meter of air weighs 1.2 kg, a thousandfold difference; and the vertical impact power on structures goes up with the cube of speed on top of that. Under such a regime, all old structures would be gradually wiped out by hurricanes, and new structures — built beyond the storm surge reach (this may be, depending on the terrain, just 50 m or 2 km inland) to high wind-resistance standards — would be able to survive all but the strongest conceivable cyclones…

A rational decision-maker inheriting a city sunken below the sea level faces a tougher challenge than gradually reducing and eventually eliminating the sprawl along a coast, but the same strategy applies. Discourage the city’s further growth, build a second, less formidable, line of defenses behind the existing (reinforced) dykes (that is what the Dutch have been doing recently, setting aside areas that will be deliberately flooded, not defending every bit of land) and manage its decline. After all, regardless of what you do, the current rate of deltaic erosion will turn the city into an utterly indefensible island in a matter of five to six generations.

But the safest of all bets is to conclude that the sanctimoniously defiant “we shall rebuild” cry will, yet again, prevail and that billions will be spent to set up more infrastructure for future destruction…

There is no will, at any governing level, to behave rationally.

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Enriching the Earth: Fritz Habery, Carol Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production
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