Forecasting Disaster Part 1, by ShepherdFarmerGeek

Have you heard? There’s a lot of speculation lately that we might see downright apocalyptic events in mid-to-late September. I have to admit; it’s an impressive list of events, prophecies, and trends, and I’ve been encouraging my family and friends to top off their preparations in anticipation of what might happen. My “threat level” assessment is high.

However, this is also an opportunity to revisit this whole idea of “projecting” trends and “forecasting” events, so that we are not tripped up or misled by the limitations of that process. Rather, we should focus on what truly is important, especially if we think something dramatic really is about to happen. Let’s take a look.

Wheel of Doom

Disasters are, by very definition, events that catastrophically impact one or more of the four basic categories of provision– security, shelter, water, and food. We are highly motivated to predict them. Depending on the event, it could be critical to have an hour’s notice, a day’s notice, or a year’s heads-up that something very bad is about to happen.

Regardless, no matter how much we study and analyze, our ability to actually “foresee” the future is pretty much zero. We can’t see even one second into the future, much less one week or one year. I’ve been prepping for 15+ years, and in those years I have seen many very disturbing predictions come and go, most of them based on patterns of events, or convergences of events, or trends, or political threats and warnings.

NONE of those things came to pass, thank God! (So, I’ve had many more years to be prepared for the huge crises that I’m p-r-e-t-t-y sure are coming, I just don’t know when.) Well, what went wrong?

The Black Swan

Why aren’t we more successful in predicting disasters or crises in the U.S.? How is it that “Black Swans” (the term popularized by Nassim Taleb in his book and articles) keep catching us by surprise?

1. The Dilution Effect

A trend may look influential, but for it to affect our country is a huge undertaking.

  • There are more than 360,000,000 people in the U.S., with every language and culture under heaven represented.
  • The U.S. covers 379,000,000 square miles.
  • It boasts a $15+ trillion GDP in an incredibly diverse variety of businesses and industries.

2. The Law of Unforeseen Consequences

The Law of Unforeseen Consequences is produced by factors such as:

  • Systems of systems. There is a high level of complexity in our world these days. (“Engineers will tell you complexity increases as the square of the subsystems involved…” – Ol’ Remus)
  • Chaotic connections, where connections between industries, persons, economies, and organizations are disproportionate, exponential, or synergistic, irregular, or modified by factors we are unaware of. Alternatively, connections we expected from a convergence don’t happen because there actually isn’t any overlap. Unexpected dependencies, leverage points.
  • A seemingly small event that triggers a cascade, or branching cascade, of numerous low-probability events whose connections may have been completely unknown, resulting in an unforeseen high-impact net effect. Invisible connections we aren’t aware of that trigger unexpected events.
  • Events that unfold faster than we anticipated or even thought possible.
  • Some trends cannot be extrapolated because they only look like trends, but may actually be truly random events, or only a small part of a more complex, longer-term process (as in longer than a human lifespan).
  • Illusion of control, where persons, leaders, and organizations fall for the deception that “control” is possible when it often is not.
  • Transformative, game-changing inventions that alter the balance, timing, or direction of a trend in positive or negative ways. These include “sci-fi”-type inventions that have actually been fielded or are about to be fielded. We don’t know what we don’t know.
  • High-impact, low-frequency risks that were either accidentally overlooked or dismissed without consideration because they did not fit into our tidy model or expectations.

3. Limitations of Humanity

The limitations of humanity include the following:

  • Fickle human nature in wide variations (some not immediately obvious) in upbringing, education, mood, experiences, resistance to change, tradition, et cetera. Even bad people disagree with each other, resist cooperating, and have their own agendas. There are no perfect conspiracies.
  • Bureaucratic inertia that slows, delays, and resists directives from above simply as a function of the bureaucracy’s size and (lack of streamlined) organization.
  • Our unfortunate dependence on statistics (or public opinion polls) without understanding or realization of how easily statistics can be manipulated or skewed. Probability assessments vary from person to person and are more subjective than we’d like to believe.
  • It’s human nature to generally focus on the wrong threats and incorrectly assess personal and national risks. Part of this is due to poor mathematical and statistical education these days (as evidenced by the popularity of gambling). This is like the preppers who buy all the awesome firearm toys but who have no reliable way to purify water, underestimating the damage and disruption that simple waterborne illness can cause in an emergency situation.
  • Propaganda from insiders with ulterior motives or undisclosed incentives who present themselves as authorities. (They’re forgetting “No statement should be believed because it is made by an authority.” – Robert Heinlein) We naturally want to trust others, but the others can lie. If you haven’t read the little book How Do You Kill 11 Million People?, you really need to buy this book. (Hint: You lie. Lies are that powerful.)
  • We get gamed or stampeded into making choices we otherwise wouldn’t, because of psychological manipulation in the press and advertising. They have it down to a science. Never underestimate human stupidity, or malice.
  • Linguistic imprecision between people discussing issues or making decisions, disagreement among experts, elements that are in fact unmeasurable– these and more make predicting the future foggy if not completely impossible!

4. Our Incomplete Understanding of Physical Processes

Our incomplete understanding, especially about the initial conditions and physical processes of weather, tectonics, volcanism, ecosystem dynamics, solar processes, human mass psychology, economics and more, prevent us from having the ability to forecast future behavior. Yes, even after all these years, science doesn’t know everything. What disasters/crises do we think are impossible? Are they really impossible? (“All things are possible until they are proved impossible – and even the impossible may only be so, as of now.” – Pearl S. Buck)

5. The Unseen Hand of Satan and Those Participating in His Conspiratorial Multi-generational Plotting

I’m sorry, but there really is an evil plan to destroy the world. The plan encompasses diverse persons and organizations, many of whom are completely unaware they are being co-opted in a demonic conspiracy, unaware of the invisible connections coordinating their actions.

6. The Unseen Hand of Our Sovereign God

Our sovereign God will have the last say and always gets His way. Remember that. Few are the prepper novels, disaster movies, and survival reality shows that ever include or anticipate that God has a plan for our individual lives and the course of human history. I call it the “God Factor”; it’s an idea we espoused during our college Risk board game marathons that referred to the unpredictable, uncontrollable, unstoppable intervention of the only living, sovereign, almighty Creator God of the Bible.

Evil people will make their little plans with grandiose expectations for world government, a world economy, and the suppression of human freedom. They can plan all they want, but God gets the last word. (We should never fear the machinations of the world, no matter how dark the day.) This is vital to remember.

So, sure, we try hard to get a glimpse of what’s coming, but it seems we can only recognize “precursor events” in retrospect. (Hindsight is 20/20.) To our frustration, mankind gets blindsided again and again.

These “precursor” events and apparently significant “convergences” are happening all the time in our highly complex, mobile, and violent world. Coincidences happen. What they mean is the big question. After many years of seeing coincidences and convergences come and go, some of them quite dramatic, I can say they clearly don’t always imply disaster is imminent!

However, instead of accurately foretelling a disaster’s character and timing, we’ve been able to do something nearly as useful! By playing out the scenarios for the myriad different disasters, we have come to an encouraging and useful conclusion: the preparations for one scenario have a lot of overlap with the preparations for other disasters. Being prepared for the factors that overlap gives us a good foundation for virtually any foreseeable event. This is the basic premise behind prepping.

The Basic Premise Behind Prepping

Prepping is simply a practical, wise response to the uncertainties and contingencies of life. We can imagine which scenarios are possible or even likely (i.e., the “Wheel of Doom”). Also, we can accumulate supplies and knowledge to cover those. We are prepping based on extrapolations of our current knowledge, trends, historical record, and our knowledge of basic human needs. Unless we receive a divine heads up, we’re not going to know about an impending Black Swan, but we can use the general principles of prepping to be reasonably prepared.

Short of having an angel with a flaming sword suddenly appear at the foot of our bed and deliver a prophetic message from God (and there may actually be some authentic divine warnings relevant to this very September that I mentioned), we have huge limitations on knowing what’s going to happen next.

Read on about the disaster and what we can do in Part 2.