Heeding the Cassandras

Chris Mooney has a piece in Seed about heeding the Cassandras – the scientists who saw trouble coming and tried to warm people. In this case, it’s Al Naomi, who works for the Corps of Engineers:

Pre-Katrina, he was pushing for a study of how to bring the city’s hurricane protections up to Category 5 levels. That’s what Naomi doesn’t like being right about: the imminence of disaster. That’s why, now, he’s “up to his eyeballs” in work. (Better than in water, but still.)

It’s a good piece, but it stops before the question gets really interesting.

Any time we have a natural disaster, it will be possible to find such Cassandras after the fact who saw the looming danger and suggested a way to protect against it better. Their proposed solution will inevitably have been expensive, but in retrospect it will look darn good. The problem is that we don’t have unlimited resources to protect against all such dangers, the forecast of which is always probabilistic, even with the most insightful Cassandras at work. And we do have Cassandras at work across our great land, from the New Madrid Fault (a lot more we could do there) to the San Andreas Fault (a lot more we could do there) to the urban wildland interface all across the U.S. to the…. Well, you get the idea.

The interesting problem is how we decide which Cassandras to listen to and how we prioritize the expenses they suggest we incur.

One Comment

  1. For most of these things, it would be a big help to simply cease to do things that make the situation worse and instead do them consistent with whatever the long-term solution is. Trivial example: Tell Trent Lott that if he rebuilds his house there he won’t be able to get any insurance for it.

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