February 25, 2006

More bad things happen?

Anyone who has talked to me for any length of time will have the impression that I have a scary certainty about the impending doom of the bird flu pandemic; as mentioned previously here, this fear and accrued knowledge stretches back to reading of the death of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. I have been confidently warning anyone who will listen for about two years that the pandemic is imminent. The world-wide news services are not helping to clarify the danger – although bird to human infection is pretty deadly – realistically how often do you come into contact with a live bird? The real pandemic will come as the disease mutates to be contagious human to human; then we are in big trouble; find out more at http://avianflu.typepad.com/ and http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/h5n1/ . I have written to my member of parliament about it and used the Freedom of Information Act to examine the preparations of my local authorities. While you still could, I bought my Tamiflu and high-spec medical face masks. Watching the progress of the flu in birds spread inexorably from the east, while I was in Holland the virus reached France this week I have been struck by an odd impression given out by the governmental authorities. As my own MP vouchsafed – every thing that can be done is being done. The usual mantra ‘our xxx is the best in the world’ (substitute pandemic preparations with police, medical services, education, army, etc.). Surprise surprise, I return to the UK to find the local newspaper headlines – MANCHESTER UNPREPARED FOR BIRD FLU. The reassurances of government officials did not put my mind at rest – or many of the scientists in the field. It would be great for this to be one of those empty scares but everyone from the World Health Organisation down says it is a question of when it hits rather than if. And the WHO’s own flu expert (before he was told to shut up) was openly talking about 150 million deaths (the 1918 outbreak killed around 50 million). In many of the projections of this thing which WILL happen we are looking at deaths on a biblical scale – in 1918 people really wondered whether civilisation itself could survive. The scary thing beyond this scary thing is that very ‘biblical’ epithet: inevitably Christian fascism and Dark Age Islamism will appropriate it as ‘god’s judgement’; but that will be after and maybe I won’t be here to worry about it. In considering the disaster’s approach, I am reminded of Jared Diamond’s essay (you’ll find it on the web if you search):


This starts with the intriguing question: what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree? Were they saying, think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees? Were they saying, respect my private property rights? Surely the Easter Islanders, of all people, must have realized the consequences to them of destroying their own forest. It wasn't a subtle mistake. The Easter Islanders gradually chopped down that forest to use the wood for canoes, firewood, transporting statues, raising statues, and carving and also to protect against soil erosion. Eventually they chopped down all the forests to the point where all the tree species were extinct, which meant that they ran out of canoes, they could no longer erect statues, there were no longer trees to protect the topsoil against erosion, and their society collapsed in an epidemic of cannibalism that left 90 percent of the islanders dead. how on Earth could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depended? He goes on to look at other infamous disastrous decisions by various civilisations through history to find common factors. He comes up with four categories:

“human societies and smaller groups may make disastrous decisions for a whole sequence of reasons: failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it. All this may sound pessimistic, as if failure is the rule in human decision-making. In fact, of course that is not the case, in the environmental area as in business, academia, and other groups. Many human societies have anticipated, perceived, tried to solve, or succeeded in solving their environmental problems. … Thus, my reason for discussing failures of human decision-making is not my desire to depress you. Instead, I hope that, by recognizing the sign posts of failed decision making, we may become more consciously aware of how others have failed, and of what we need to do in order to get it right.”

These words have been in my mind while observing approaching disaster, especially as I was in Holland, within the article Jared Diamond considers the Dutch experience. “Failure to solve perceived problems because of conflicts of interest between the elite and the rest of society are much less likely in societies where the elite cannot insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. For example, the modern country of which the highest proportions of its citizens belong to environmental organizations is the Netherlands. I never understood why until I was visiting the Netherlands a few years ago and raised this question to my Dutch colleagues as were driving through the countryside. My Dutch friends answered, "Just look around you and you will see the reason. The land where we are now is 22 feet below sea level. Like much of the area of Holland it was once a shallow bay of the sea that we Dutch people surrounded by dikes and then drained with pumps to create low-lying land. We have pumps to pump out the water that is continually leaking through the dikes. If the dikes burst, of course people drown. But it is not the case that the rich Dutch live on top of the dikes, while the poor Dutch are living down below. If the dikes burst, everybody drowns, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. That was what happened in the terrible floods of February 1, 1953, when high tides and storms drove water inland in Zeeland Province and nearly 2000 Dutch people drowned. After that disaster, we all swore, 'Never again!' and spent billions of dollars building reinforced barriers against the water. In the Netherlands the decision-makers know that they cannot insulate themselves from their mistakes, and that they have to make compromise decisions that will be good for as many people as possible."

In the public (and personal) responses to the threat I am struck by the failure of decision makers to appreciate the problem. When it comes to the flu, decision makers including my local MP and local government officials seem to have the equivalent of believing that they can breath underwater.

There is an almost hysterical international standby strategy to attempt to isolate the initial outbreak of the disease wherever that finally comes, when you think that bird flu has already made it to Iraq. I can’t be the only one for whom two concurrent disasters contributing to an even bigger calamity rings bells for.

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