Taleb, Nassim N., Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. New York City: Random House, 2018.
NB: precisely because I regard Taleb as a national treasure and have considerable respect for his work, I am not going to pull punches here. I get to do this because I have … skin in the game, and not only in Haiti (where I wrote this post over the past ten days, thus the Kreyòl Ayisyen title), but in a couple-three moderately hair-raising situations back in KC, which I will relate when appropriate. Which might be never; see Matthew 6:1-4 (cited by Taleb on page 186).
Getting this out of the way—buy this book, read it, and recommend it to others. I say this very much irrespective of what might be called the Manifold-Taleb delta, which is not altogether trivial, as I will explain in some detail—again, as a sign of respect—below. Immediately below, in fact.
In figure 6 on page 229, Taleb depicts a hierarchy of identity, and associated relative value of risk-taking, as follows:
4. Self-defined extended tribe
2. Family, friends, and pets
In this schema, the worst possible outcome is ecocide; Taleb takes level 6 as unique and irreplaceable. I contend that it is neither.
As for its supposed uniqueness, Lee Silver describes a set of beliefs about nature held by a large majority, perhaps four-fifths, of college-educated Americans; all are nonsense. They include:
- most species in an ecosystem are in mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationships
- ecosystems are stable unless disturbed by humans, with the rare dinosaur-killing asteroid as the only possible exception
- climates cycle through at most a small number of predictable and benign states, again until human activity throws things out of balance
- indeed, the entire biosphere may be said to function as a unit and personified as “Gaia”
- in summary, to borrow a phrase from Orwell—“four legs good, two legs bad”
I suspect that this belief system may represent the actual dominant American religion, and by placing the ecosystem at the pinnacle of his hierarchy, Taleb, hardly a Gaia-worshipper himself, inadvertently aligns with it.
But over the past 10,000 years, humanity has already replaced over 98% of the biomass of higher mammals with A) itself and B) its domesticates. James C. Scott points out that a majority of all plant life on Earth has become pyrophytic thanks to ~105 years of human-initiated range burning, most of it deliberate. These overwhelming developments have taken place in the last 0.01% of the history of life on land. Their only approximate precedents are mass extinctions caused by—possibly coupled—extraterrestrial impactors (much more on those below) and enormous volcanic eruptions.
And as I am wont to remind locals, normal is not the present climate; normal is ice a mile thick, south to the line of the Missouri River. The question is not what we imagine to be “natural,” but what we want, which broadly converges to a savanna environment; as Robert Zubrin once put it: “Humans are not native to Earth. Humans are native to Kenya.” See also Psalm 23:2.
Earth’s ecosystem irreplaceable? Recall Tsiolkovsky: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” (a lightly paraphrased «Планета есть колыбель разума, но нельзя вечно жить в колыбели.») … and of course Heinlein: “Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.”— on the desirability of transcending it, precisely for the sake of level 5 in Taleb’s ranking. This novel method of risk management may be regarded as an extreme form of risk mitigation. Historical efforts have consisted of risk transfer to government agencies for space exploration and development. These are being replaced by more organic entrepreneurial efforts, eg Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, SpaceX et al. The work of O’Neill (significantly assisted by non-STEM-major undergraduates) established the feasibility of constructing large-scale habitats in high Earth orbit with technology already available in the 1970s. These could eventually reproduce any desired terrestrial environment with “land” on a scale of ~103 km² and with human populations (if desired) of ~107, again with materials and methods available over 40 years ago—and nanomaterials would increase these numbers by at least one full order of magnitude. Such entirely realistic projects have not been executed only because of differing societal priorities, not insufficient capabilities, much less any lack of physical resources.
I note that the construction of ~103 such habitats would allow the entire population of Earth to move off-planet and our (former) world to return to its Pleistocene pre-pyrophytic state, perhaps the ultimate application of Talebian via negativa.
I divide the risks of ecocide into endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous risks are widely known, or to be rather more accurate, widely feared (about which much more below):
- pollution/biochemical; everything from CO2 to pesticides to GMOs, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and even water treatment
- nuclear technology, both for electricity generation and explosives
- future tech, eg AI
Unconstrained Human Activity
- overpopulation/habitat destruction
- pandemic (sometimes seen as a “balance-restoring” positive, thus allowing supposedly caring people to applaud the death of billions)
Exogenous risks are much less widely known/feared, and are sometimes even mocked, just the attitude that enrages Taleb in an only slightly different context. Nonetheless, these are phenomena that could manifest at any time on scales of a few days to a less than a year.
- Extreme solar events: the best-known is the Carrington Event of 1859, but a much stronger one took place in 774/5 AD, leaving a distinct 14C signature in vegetation. We know essentially nothing about the mechanism behind them or their probable frequency. A repeat of the 8th-century event would destroy technological civilization and might annihilate humanity.
- Extraterrestrial impactors: asteroid sizes follow a power-law distribution (n ~ D-2.3) , such that there are ~1010 objects in the inner Solar System and Asteroid Belt capable of producing low-altitude petajoule-range explosions like that of the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013. Had an otherwise identical event occurred instead in late October 1962, it would have started a nuclear war that would have wrecked most of Eurasia for centuries to come and severely damaged the US. Had it occurred a couple of decades later, the resulting nuclear exchange would have, like a repeat of the 774/5 AD solar event, destroyed civilization altogether and might have annihilated humanity.
The orbits of larger asteroidal impactors (≥10x the diameter and ~103 the impact energy of Chelyabinsk) have mostly been characterized and are therefore unlikely to catch us unawares, but long-period/aperiodic comets are unpredictable and have caused several mass extinctions and numerous smaller but devastating events in natural and even human history. The “Clovis Comet,” a likely impact over northeastern North America ca 12,900 BP, killed two-thirds of the continent’s human population outright, partially destabilized the Laurentide Ice Sheet, temporarily re-imposed an ice age (the “Younger Dryas” cooling), and helped finish off some 17 species of “charismatic megafauna.” An impact in the Tasman Sea around AD 1500 raised tsunamis over 100 meters high on the east coast of Australia and the west coast of New Zealand; the same event today would kill or displace ~107 people. The Tunguska explosion of 30 June 1908 would have drastically altered the history of the 20th century had it occurred a mere four hours later—and thereby four thousand kilometers westward, over St Petersburg.
Such events are classic black swans: fourth quadrant, thick-tailed probability structures with complex (and potentially utterly disastrous) “payoffs.” And because of observation selection effects, we are prone to, if anything, anthropic overconfidence bias in this area. The a posteriori distribution of impact craters, 14C signatures, etc tells us how Earth’s, and humanity’s, history has been affected; but the a priori distribution of near-Earth objects and Earth-crossing comets, and the possible fluctuations characteristic of spectral class G2V stars, tell us how human history, along with that of much of the biosphere, might be ended. Anthropic overconfidence bias is an excellent fit with Taleb’s expressed concerns about “ergodicity” and “absorbing barriers.”
How to manage exogenous ecocidal risks? Before I list my suggestions, let Vaclav Smil define the envelope: “We should act incrementally as prudent risk minimizers and pursue any effective no-regrets options. We do not have to wait for the formulation and acceptance of grand strategies, for the emergence of global consensual understanding, or for the universal adoption of more rational approaches.”
In other words, no Paris Treaty or analogous ostensibly “historic” virtue-signaling by elites; just get to work:
- Education: begin raising public awareness—which is nonzero but low; carefully explain that big meteors didn’t end with the dinosaurs (Russian dashcam videos from Chelyabinsk can help a lot), that the Sun can behave alarmingly, and that some of the risk from such disruptive events is geopolitical, given how much of Earth’s surface is occupied by rival nuclear powers.
- Investigation: we need to know more, possibly much more, about how the Sun works, which means both direct observation of it and the monitoring of large numbers of closely similar stars; a search for every potential impactor larger than 10 meters in diameter on a repeating orbit that might intersect with Earth at any time in the next several decades; and another search to find every cometary body in the outer Solar System that might pass within, say, 0.05 AU/20 lunar distances (cometary outgassing continuously changes orbits) on the same timescale.
- Communication: given geopolitical risk, it is always at least as important to be able to clearly announce and explain the true nature of a disaster as it is to mitigate it; even a few hours’ warning could make all the difference in what happens next.
- Mitigation: including hardening (against electromagnetic events), evacuation plans, decentralization, interception (of impactors)—and above all, simplification.
In summary, although I advocate for managing risk to Level 6, such risk management is significant only insofar as it fulfills the desires of Level 5; my highest loyalty on this scale is to mankind, not nature.
But that does not mean slavishly enabling the priorities of an intransigent minority of mankind. Taleb himself points out (on page 86) the danger of allowing Salafist/Wahhabi Islam to operate in the West. We may have to make a noticeable de facto carve-out to the First Amendment to ensure the de jure survival of the American constitutional order. This will be at least as unpleasant as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Here I see Taleb and raise him the prospect of containing the technophobes.
Since I am otherwise likely to be accused of misunderstanding Taleb’s argument on pages 163-4, I will go to the trouble of presenting it in condensed form:
- The real cause of malnutrition is inadequate transportation, not the nutrient content of available foods;
- but children are being used as props to sell …
- an overcomplicated technological solution
- that is categorically different from previous techniques
- and can therefore cause unforeseeable effects;
- although associated overuse of pesticides is already a problem.
I see considerable value in these objections—in other contexts. A genericized version of this trajectory might be invoked to explain everything from NASA’s post-Skylab floundering over the past four and a half decades—exemplified by the Columbia accident—to the generally disastrous course of aid to Haiti even before the earthquake. I suspect that 3-5 above, in particular, may be involved in the recent AMD and Intel hardware vulnerabilities, and would not be at all surprised if many of the most severe software vulnerabilities are associated with “bloatware”—obscure, complex, and rarely utilized features whose de facto purpose is to entice the unwary purchaser.
(Indeed, in the broadest sense, the cycles of Strauss-Howe generational theory may be seen as a pendulum swinging between hypertrophy/atrophy of performance vs security. We have been promoting performance at the expense of security for several decades now, although an emphasis on security, to put it mildly, characterizes the parenting style being inflicted on the Homeland generation, which suggests that some cultural arenas lead others in the cycle. But all this is another post, or several.)
But applying a critique of Golden Rice to GMOs overall is problematic. Matt Ridley points out that many GMOs need fewer pesticides, allowing insect biodiversity to rebound; that individual farmers can benefit as much or more from them than Big Ag; and that “genetic engineering is a method, not a category”—one far more precise, and therefore more predictable, than the methods it supersedes. Details matter.
Opposing a technique rather than a specific characteristic is analogous to thinking that the application of, say, Gantt charts to project management might someday make projects fail in some particularly disastrous way. (To be sure, an absolute majority of projects do fail, as measured against their baseline projections, even in the private sector. I would pay good money to see Taleb address a PMI conference; notwithstanding this extended rant, I think his insights would be invaluable.)
But by far the greatest problem I see is the political context; the anti-GMO position is threatened less by the arguments of its enemies than by the associated foolish, often conspiratorial positions indulged in by its friends.
Opposition to GMOs correlates rather strongly, in my experience, with opposition to a whole array of modern technological developments that sustain most of humanity. Such opposition is obviously an inevitable outgrowth of the “nature religion” outlined earlier. Ask someone who makes a point of self-identifying as “pro-science” how they feel—and it’s always a matter of feelings—about the following:
- pesticide use
- pharmaceutical regulation
- chlorination and fluoridation
- fossil fuels and petrochemicals
- nuclear power
- the US nuclear deterrent (bonus follow-up about the Israeli nuclear deterrent)
- space exploration (if the current US President is Republican)
- population growth
- novel viral pandemics
Those questions have a range of answers; some that are pro-humanity and some that are … not so much. Enough answers that don’t support human thriving, and you’ve caught a technophobe. Enough technophobes spreading their mind virus, and we’ve got a problem on our hands at least as bad as, and probably much worse than, Salafist/Wahhabi terrorism. Enough embrace of “alt-med,” rejection of water purification, replacement of productive agriculture with “organic farming,” disdain for/suppression of reproduction, fear of high-energy-density power generation, and ignorance of the staggering resources of the Solar System—and a massively foreclosed human future, with attendant mountain of corpses, is a sure by-product.
The irony here is that many of these same people are all about promoting the danger of one ecological calamity after another; Matt Ridley again: “The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.”
To this I can only say that, like Pascal’s God-shaped vacuum, there is an apocalypse-shaped receptor in the human psyche, perpetually vulnerable to the next mind virus with the right kind of metaphorical hemagglutinin to hook onto it, settle in, and start propagating. We come by them honestly—Scott’s Against the Grain, footnoted earlier, points out that city-states routinely disappeared entirely in the ancient world, much more often (and more prosaically) than depicted in Jared Diamond’s Collapse—but such apprehensions are no longer … altogether adaptive. For our civilization, the real “absorbing barrier,” the state from which we cannot emerge, may be one of collective fear.
Our most relevant recent experience, with Ebola in the autumn of 2014, was not encouraging. Ebola was never a candidate for a pandemic in the First World. The virus is fragile, has a modest R0 value—partly because it is not airborne-transmissible and is extraordinarily unlikely to become so—and has proven surprisingly treatable with hydration and electrolyte replacement. A whole complex of environmental, economic, and cultural factors in West Africa had to come together for the epidemic to occur. Taleb understandably frets over the possibility of a “multiplicative process” involving Ebola (page 232). But again, details matter.
Plenty of this was known and could have been properly communicated, but primitive fears were the order of the day. Some were deliberately stoked for political advantage at the midterm elections.
Another example: no one has ever been killed or severely injured by radioactivity at any commercial nuclear power plant in the First World. No one. Even in the Fukushima meltdown, radioactivity killed no one—but the evacuation killed 1,600. Patients were taken from hospital ICUs, senior citizens taken from nursing homes, and left to die in high-school gymnasiums.
The overwhelmingly obvious risk is official overreaction as an emergent systemic property, founded on public panic, encouraged by carriers of the “mind virus” of opposition to applied science. Ruinous positive-feedback loops lie in wait in airports, hospitals, mass transit facilities, schools, and even large entertainment/sport venues—not from the deadliness of a new disease or radioactive isotopes, but from our own, very First World complex of cultural factors, including overcomplicated, easily-bottlenecked, and generally badly designed mitigation processes. In the crunch, will our response be better than Liberia’s?
Indeed, how much of the First World is psychologically healthier than the Third? Are we any less vulnerable—or, as Taleb might say, more “ergodic” (page 225)? Bluntly, are we doomed to resolve the Fermi Paradox through self-destruction, because we feared or even merely failed to effectively use our own tools?
Of course, I neither know the answer nor know if it is ever possible to know it. But I think our chances get better the more of us that have skin in the game.
Buy this book, read it, recommend it to others. And apply it. The civilization you may save is your own.
1. Extended ramblings at Poukisa Mwen Te Ale An Ayiti (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/52160.html).
2. Silver, Lee M. Challenging Nature: The Clash Between Biotechnology and Spirituality. New York City: Harper Perennial, 2007.
3. Smil, Vaclav. The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002: 185-186.
4. Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.
5. Mark A. Richards, Walter Alvarez, Stephen Self, Leif Karlstrom, Paul R. Renne, Michael Manga, Courtney J. Sprain, Jan Smit, Loÿc Vanderkluysen, Sally A. Gibson. “Triggering of the largest Deccan eruptions by the Chicxulub impact.” GSA Bulletin, 127 (11-12, 2015): 1507–1520.
6. Orians, G. H., & Heerwagen, J. H. “Evolved responses to landscapes.” In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, 1992: 555-579.
7. This was a line in a speech I heard him give at one or another International Space Development Conference back around the turn of the millennium.
8. Archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20140219031703/http://www.rf.com.ua/article/388.
9. Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, 2013: 345.
10. Ibid., 344.
11. O’Neill, Gerard K. The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. New York City: William Morrow and Company, 1977.
12. Edward W. Cliver, William F. Dietrich. “The 1859 space weather event revisited: limits of extreme activity.” J. Space Weather Space Clim. 3 (2013): A31
13. Adrian L. Melott, Brian C. Thomas. “Causes of an AD 774-775 14C increase.” arXiv 1212.0490 (2012)
14. Sloan Digital Sky Survey news release of 5 June 2001 (originally at http://www.sdss.org/news/releases/20010605.edr.img9.html).
15. Derived from Ibid. (see also http://www.wwu.edu/depts/skywise/a101_asteroids.html)
16. Olga P. Popova et al. “Chelyabinsk Airburst, Damage Assessment, Meteorite Recovery, and Characterization.” Science 342, 1069 (2013)
17. See https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cuban-missile-crisis.
18. Christopher R. Moore, Allen West, Malcolm A. LeCompte, Mark J. Brooks, I. Randolph Daniel, Albert C. Goodyear, Terry A. Ferguson, Andrew H. Ivester, James K. Feathers, James P. Kennett, Kenneth B. Tankersley, A. Victor Adedeji, Ted E. Bunch. “Widespread platinum anomaly documented at the Younger Dryas onset in North American sedimentary sequences.” Scientific Reports, 7: 44031 (2017)
19. Paywalled at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040306/bob8.asp.
20. See http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/taleb08/taleb08_index.html.
21. Nick Bostrom, and Milan M. Cirkovic, editors. Global Catastrophic Risks. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011: 125, Table 6.1
22. Smil, Vaclav. Global Catastrophes and Trends: the Next Fifty Years. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008: 238
23. A little light reading at https://www.nasa.gov/columbia/home/CAIB_Vol1.html (especially chapter 5).
24. Schwartz, Timothy T., Ph.D. Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking. North Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2008.
25. See https://threatpost.com/amd-investigating-reports-of-13-critical-vulnerabilities-found-in-ryzen-epyc-chips/130404/.
26. See https://threatpost.com/intel-in-security-hot-seat-over-serious-cpu-design-flaw/129289/.
27. See http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/genetically-modified-crops/.
28. See http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/apocalypse-not/.
29. The first of several shameless plugs; Ebola Realities and the True Test (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/46564.html).
30. See Don’t Panic: A Continuing Series – Ebola or Black Heva? (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/46254.html).
31. See Observation of the Month (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/46470.html).
32. Johnson, George. “When Radiation Isn’t the Real Risk.” New York Times, September 22, 2015
33. See Don’t Panic: A Continuing Series (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/45948.html).