Worse case scenarios are an important part of sustainability discourses which I’ve recently been prompted to consider more deeply. Indeed Cass Sunstein – in his book Worst Case Scenarios (published by Harvard University Press in 2007) – talks about “worse-case specialists”, a group which he contends includes environmentalists (along with many others such as those who work at insurance companies, doctors and military leaders). Sunstein also introduced the useful concept of “worst case entrepreneurs”, actors who attempt to ensure that people consider the worst that might happen and to amplify the salience of a threat, such as political leaders to who focus public attention on the risks of terrorism.
The broader questions posed by Sunstein are ‘how should we deal with risks of catastrophe?’, in particular a low-probability of disaster? And is it foolish to attend exclusively, or mostly, to the worst case scenario (rather than considering multiple outcomes and their relative probabilities)? It turns out that these are often difficult questions, and our intuitive judgements are often a bad guide to action.
The case for – Fred Guterl’s book The Fate of the Species
In this book Guterl, the editor of Scientific American, aims to “tell some stories about real dangers we face. I won’t give you a balanced you. I will intentionally ignore the bright side of these issues and focus on the question, How bad can it be?” (p.4). “We’re going to talk here … about how a crash could happen, what form it might take, and what could trigger it” (p.4). Intriguingly he describes himself as an optimist.
A general argument that is made is that it’s important to recognise the (potential) magnitude of our problems, and that means, it’s argued, deeply engaging with the potential worst-case scenarios. A related argument is that we shouldn’t “be squeamish about finding ways to address them” (see the paragraph on geoengineering below) – with, I think, the core assumption that taking worst case scenarios seriously will result in people being more open to seemingly radical proposals and approaches. This is probably one of the more contentious aspects of worst case scenarios; the idea that actors strategically promote worst case scenarios in order to further a particular underlying agenda.
A running theme through much of the book is contemplating potential vulnerabilities (e.g. the chapter speculating on what damage a sophisticated and targeted virus could do to critical infrastructure like electricity grids) so that, in essence, risks can be minimised and actors are motivated to take such actions. A typical section starts “it’s difficult to underestimate the importance of the power grid to the way our society functions. But let’s take a little look at how bad an attack on it could be…” (p.147).
Similarly, Sunstein notes that “for climate change, those who emphasize worst-case scenarios are attempting to shake people from complacency and spur them into immediate action”.
A related more controversial example is geoengineering. Guterl interviews a scientist from Harvard University, David Keith, who “talks about a “regret scenario” in which we find ourselves in a climate emergency but can’t react fast enough because we didn’t do the research we needed to do to make geoengineering a viable last-ditch option”. Here the argument is that pondering such scenarios can prompt and result in taking more of the necessary actions to be prepared, should the scenario come to pass, ranging from the doing the necessary basic research in advance (so that the option is available), advance examination of tricky governance questions, and public and political deliberation.
The case against (often) obsessing over worst case scenarios and probability neglect – Sunstein’s book Worse-Case Scenarios
Sunstein argues that people are often, perhaps usually, right to take their chances on the worse-case scenarios. His book focusses on low-probability risks of disaster, the-worst-that-might-happen style outcomes. Three goals motivated the book:
The first is to understand people’s responses to worse-case scenarios and in particular their susceptibility to two opposite problems: excessive overreaction and utter neglect. As we shall see, both problems affect individuals and governments alike. The second goal is to consider how both individuals and public officials might think more sensibly about situations involving low-probability risks of disaster. Insisting on a wide viewscreen, one that emphasises both the likelihood and magnitude of risks on all sides, would be a good place to start. The third goal is to explore the uses and limits of cost-benefit analysis.
With respect to public policy he argues that “often, public officials have two unfortunate incentives: to give undue attentions to worst-case scenarios and to pay no attention to them at all” (p.277). The Iraq war is viewed as an example of the former. He writes that:
Officials who focus on bad outcomes but neglect their probability, of who react excessively to recent incidents, waste a lot time, money, and perhaps life itself – and divert attention from the most serious problems that people face. Saddam Hussein was a terrible tyrant and a danger to his people and to the world. But American deliberations over whether to go to war were distorted by excessive concern with the worst-case scenarios if Saddam had remained in power (pp.276-266)
Also consider this example: after the 9/11 attacks many people switched from flying to driving (due to their concern about further attacks and related worst cases) and consequently adopted a more dangerous behaviour (driving) and “thousands of people died as a result of the switch” (pp. 279-280).
Some of the considerations include:
- The likelihood and magnitude of outcomes, whether probabilities can be assigned to worst cases;
- Evaluating the consequences of worst case scenarios, including the question of irreversibility;
- How much is lost by eliminating a worst case scenario (i.e. what must be given up? A simple example is giving up overseas travel etc in order to avoid the risks of air travel);
- Evaluating the consequences of possible responses, including the fact that “troublesome worst-case scenarios are usually associated with all courses of action, including not only aggressive regulation and inaction but everything in between” (p.279);
- The related fact that precautions against worse cases can themselves inflict losses, often have risks of their own, and can be burdensome;
- That if policies/initiatives must be rejected whenever there is a small chance of terrible outcomes (e.g. similar to former US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s so-called “one percent doctrine”) the outcome would typically be paralysis; and
- Valuation of the future
A key target of his analysis, and consideration of how to deal with worst-case scenarios, is the Precautionary Principle which he argues is fatally flawed. He contends that “it is paralyzing, forbidding the very steps that it requires” (p.279).
Interestingly Sunstein compares the policy and public reactions to terrorism and climate change. He is often highly critical of the response to terrorism, and advocates for greater attention to the worst-case scenarios associated with climate change: “with respect to climate change, compete inaction – and the obstructionist attitude of the United States under President Bush – are very hard to defend” (p.283).
On the question of irreversibility, he contends that “sensible individuals and societies are willing to spend a great deal to preserve their own flexibility in the future” (p.15).
Some general thoughts
When reading Sunstein’s book I occasionally thought about the Abbott Government’s attempts to increase the level of concern about what it calls the “budget emergency” and its potential consequences. This seems to be an example of a “worse case entrepreneur” promoting greater attention on particular risks in order to justify particular policies and actions, and is, at least partly, politically motivated. Further, as Mike Hulme has argued regarding the idea of a “climate emergency”, the defining of such an emergency is first and foremost a political and ethical project (not a technical or scientific one).
I also thought about other kinds of “worse case entrepreneurs” such as peak oil activists, and some of the anti-nanotechnology activists that I interviewed when doing my Master’s thesis. The latter is a case where I think an increasing emphasis on low-probability worse case scenarios has been a “net negative” – i.e. the campaigns of anti-nanotechnology activists has influenced the policy context and slowed technological progress and commercialisation more than I think is reasonable which also has further consequences (i.e. an example of precautions against worse cases having risks of their own).
More generally, I agree with Sunstein that we need to better understand peoples’ responses to worse-case scenarios, in particular the susceptibility to the problems of excessive overreaction and utter neglect. His book is a good place to start if you want to better understand this. A danger with analyses like Guterl’s The Fate of the Species is that it may contribute to the problem of excessive overreaction.