Joel Achenbach is a super-popular writer for the Washington Post who happens to be interested in science-y developments such as climate change, asteroids, and disasters. He's also a man with a giant pen, or, perhaps these days, keyboard. He can write! So refreshing in science, may I say.
His latest thinking out loud, from this month:
The apocalypse will be budgeted. That is our trajectory, anyway: The
bureaucratization of disaster. That which cannot be stopped will still
be crammed, heroically, onto a spreadsheet. We like to tell ourselves
that we’re ready for the day when the eschatology hits the fan.
A week after 19 firefighters died in their emergency shelters in Arizona, and just days after a Quebec town
was largely destroyed in an explosive train derailment, we’re
collectively steeled for the next calamity. Death and destruction are
carefully enumerated in the modern world. There were 18,200 weather
catastrophes (or “loss events”) worldwide between 1980 and 2012,
totaling $2.8 trillion in losses (in 2012 dollars), including
$885 billion in insured losses, according to the reinsurance giant
Munich Re. These disasters have killed 1,405,000 people. (Stalin,
apocryphally: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions
is a statistic.”)
At any given moment you can look at a NASA Web site
to see which asteroids have the potential to strike the Earth. There’s
one called 2007 VK184, for example, that’s about 425 feet in diameter.
It’s a minus-1.57 on the Palermo Scale and a 1 on the Torino Scale. What
does that mean? It means that it’s very unlikely to hit us when it
swings close in 2048, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
level, we’re all doomsday preppers now. We’re part of a paradoxical
society that is, in the aggregate, wealthy and powerful, yet feels
vulnerable and insecure. The flip side of a cultural sense of
entitlement — to life, liberty, happiness and the freedom from accident
or misfortune — is the hurt and outrage when something goes terribly
Our civilization is increasingly like a fine-tuned sports
car that is very expensive to fix. It burns too much fuel. It’s
dangerous to drive. And when it’s not in the shop, we’re anxious about
the slightest dent or scratch.
We have a sense of being constantly
on the verge of disaster or in the midst of one. If there’s not a
disaster in the news, wait a week. There are disasters that come with
warnings, and those that appear from nowhere. Bulletin: On Friday, an
engineer parked a train hauling crude oil
on a hill above Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and went to a hotel for the
night. For some reason, the air brakes failed. The unoccupied train
rolled for miles, back into town. When it derailed, the explosion
leveled much of the downtown, including a bar packed with late-night
partyers, and killed at least 15 people, with dozens more reportedly
missing. They never knew what hit them.
Perhaps a modern
civilization always feels disaster-prone because we’re all so connected,
with live-streaming video from every part of the globe. There are no
faraway disasters anymore.
So the question is: How much of this vulnerability is real, and how much is it some kind of mass hysteria?
We’ve got our best committees working on that right now.
Honestly — how many studies is that opening-with-metaphors worth, when it comes to putting our national situation into perspective? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?
Impossible to say…but note how he parses the language. This is how we build understanding: By knowing the concepts — such as "exposure" — on which our thoughts are routed. A map to the paths in our minds. And like any map, it has edges, perceptual flaws, and limits. But the inclusive nature of language allows us to see these limits instantly, and respond in kind, emotionally.
Our common language — you have to love it. Or, I do.
But meanwhile, our overheated world refuses to wait…