Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What's The Opposite Of Catastrophe?

Discover Magazine is out with a fascinating article about the current state of nuclear fusion energy research. Generating energy via nuclear fusion is seen as a holy grail for the human race--it produces no radioactivity or carbon emissions, and is fueled by hydrogen extracted from seawater. Unfortunately, the technology is about 20 years away, and has been for about 50 years.

I recently finished Catastrophe: Risk and Response by Richard Posner, a book about high-impact, low-probability events and their treatment within governing institutions. While Posner focuses only on bad, "catastrophic" events like bioterrorism and asteroid collisions, many high-impact, low-probability events are beneficial. An unexpected research breakthrough, say, in the field of nuclear fusion, could cause untold global benefits. For lack of a better word, we can call these beneficial, improbable events positive black swans.

Just as our governing institutions are ill-suited for dealing with catastrophic events, so too are they incapable of properly assessing the rewards of positive black swans. Our political and policy structures abhor uncertainty, and greatly discount future costs and benefits. This results in over-exposure to catastrophic risks and under-exposure to positive black swans. Policy and funding priorities more influenced by risk assessment, cost-benefit analysis, and expected utility calculations could supply a corrective.

Question: What is a better name for beneficial high-impact, low-probability occurrences? I can only think of 'miracle,' which is a somewhat religiously loaded term. This macro-concept is simply begging for a cleverly-titled non-fiction book to be written about it. Somebody get me Malcolm Gladwell's phone number...

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