Saturday, January 16, 2010


Survival of the fittest is a phase that has taken on an edge while we watch the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. Some are reacting by emphasizing how “unfit” the Haitian situation was in the first place -- from the shoddiness of their buildings, to the easy-going ways of the people, the corruption of their government, the stripped ecology, the determination of the rest of the world’s people to ignore them, and the insidious ways of voodoo. They are accused of making a deal with the Devil. They should have gotten some kind of insurance (jokes). He seems to be running a more vicious scheme than bankers are. Foreclosure is one thing: a house that pancakes with one’s children inside is far worse.

Nassim Taleb
, who has become such a respected prophet because of his idea of the “black swan,” the totally unexpected event that boggles all expectations, so rare that no one prepares for it, is relevant here. But he has begun to talk about something slightly different: the beneficial effect of severe and extreme events on people. My copy of his actual writing, which was a draft for his book in progress, has disappeared into the morass of paper piles in this house, so I may not get this exactly right. What stayed with me is the idea that it’s good to be occasionally tested by extremes. People who have life easy, sliding along, taking things for granted, become couch potatoes with no brains and no retirement.

My own take on this is skewed by my impatience with people who seem to be going nowhere, goal-less and gorm-less, frittering away their days and perfectly willing to fritter away mine as well. Though they seem as drugged by wildly apocalyptic films as by fat, salty and sweet foods, they don’t seem to be storing up for tomorrow. When trouble comes, they are paralyzed. They’ve made no preparation and have no plan for recovery. Instead of helping to dig out their neighbors, they sit on the curb and weep. Which is marginally better than the energetic young men who have taken up machetes to go looting.

Somewhere I have a book explaining why North America gave rise to more new species of animals than other milder and more congenial continents. The principle is pressure, the constant recurrence of extremes that snuffed all entities unable to adapt. This is NOT a matter of being powerful or predatory, which is a point often missed even though biologists constantly point out the survival of little fuzzy mammals when the dinoes tipped over and fossilized. More in keeping with my opening, at the moment the best form of communication in Haiti is texting on mobile phones, since the electrical infrastructure there is so poor that all the cell towers, sturdily built, have generators running them. Not until the two or three days of stored diesel fuel are exhausted will they stop operating. NOW who’s doing time-wasting trivial messaging? As well, the most effective kind of fund-raising appears to be small donations sent by e-messages and spearheaded by celebrities. Those who spend a lot of time “approving” and “organizing” are left clucking in the dust, which is where they’ve been for the last hundred years when it comes to Haiti.

I notice that the dead and wounded are being carried out of the rubble by ad hoc teams of neighbors. After all, they just gotten through four hurricanes last year. They must be the fittest left from that struggle. So many New Orleans people after Katrina were rescued by a volunteer “Cajun navy” while officials were trying to check boat licenses. I’ve never forgotten that in the aftermath of the Flood of 1965 right here in northern Montana, the equivalent of Homeland Security sent mismatched bridge halves to reopen Marias Pass, crucial to east/west traffic, and didn’t even address the north/south bridge washouts. A couple of local ranchers took their heavy equipment over and improvised crossings. This, of course, made the officials very unhappy.

At seventy I’ve taken some hard falls, sometimes only saved by my mother’s sofa. I know I’m not the only one. It’s easy to just stay there, back in childhood, but that hasn’t been my way -- partly because it wasn’t my mother’s way. The high achievers I know have been the ones who risked, got beat up, learned and survived.

But that’s not the whole story. Somehow they found a way to recognize the terrain and fit into it, a two-part operation. Or maybe three-part: seeing it coming, surviving the crisis, and adjusting strategy afterwards. That third part gets neglected as we see from the bank debacle: once the outcry was addressed, it was business as usual with no expectation of having to make major changes. On the other hand, too much preparation for things that were inaccurately projected, can wear everyone out for when the real trial comes. Examples might be the furors about various flu plagues, bird or swine.

Taking action brings up the old dogcatcher rule: the two things you can do wrong is catch a dog or not catch a dog. And the corollary to that is: find out what it’s really about, which is, of course, people. The best way to improve the animal shelter is to improve the behavior of the animal owners. Fewer animals needing shelter is a more effective way to lower costs than finding a source of cheap dog food.

The exhaustion of fossil fuel was NOT a black swan. Global warming is NOT a black swan. Overpopulation by both humans and pets is NOT a black swan. Even the earthquake in Haiti was NOT a black swan because it is known that there is a major tectonic fault through there. Previously there was an earthquake just as bad, though it was two hundred years ago -- which might suggest to some that another was about due. Even the attack on the World Trade Towers was not a black swan, because the buildings had already been attacked and the terrorists had promised to try again.

By definition, no one can prepare for a black swan. We CAN prepare for ongoing processes, but only by facing and addressing hardships, which is a matter of character. Don’t just watch it on television or read about it: figure out what you can do best and then do it. Or as my family always said, “Prepare for the worst, expect the best and take what comes.” Old advice. Still golden.


Lance Michael Foster said...

I was in Ames, Iowa during the flood of 1993. The night before, we had a tornado come through Ames. The next morning, the town was isolated, some parts from each other. I helped sandbag and move neighbors' stuff out of their submerged apartment.

In 1996, I spent four months in Nigeria during the corrupt reign of dictator Sani Abacha. The campuses were shut down because of student unrest. Kidnappings and murder were ongoing, and witchcraft was frequent. We were targeted for murder too. Haiti reminds me a lot of Nigeria, but Nigeria's soil is redder. There are still some things I haven't processed. One man who worked with us could only sleep from 3 am to 6 am any given morning because the robbers would come around between midnight and 3 am. When I came back to the US I was shocked by all the excess of goods and opportunity, and by the sour unsmiling complaining of the richest people in the world.

I was awakened early one Alaska September morning in 2001 by my wife who was on the phone from Washington DC and she told me about the twin towers while she was watching the smoldering crash into the Pentagon and had no idea what was going to happen next. You have to recall no one knew what was going to happen next. I could do nothing. And she worked in the Hart Building so she had been exposed to anthrax and had to be treated for it for some months afterwards.

I am astounded by the comments of folks like Robertson and Limbaugh. If they, or people life them, faced a DAY of what Haitians go through, they'd be blubbering like babies.

The thing to remember is we really don't know what or how much people have gone through, so we shouldn't get too cocky. Remember Job.

That "whiney" guy weeping on the curb might just be crying over a broken video game or losing a job...or he might be crying upon learning his daughter has cancer.

Upon learning the peasants had no bread, the great princess said, "let them eat cake." Such sentiments on the part of the fortunate in the face of the misfortunes of others presaged the French revolution.

But why waste my breath.

Vagabonde said...

I am not sure which great princess Lance Foster refers to – in great French-bashing America they usually say that Marie Antoinette said this, but she did not, it was said years before she even came to France. What presaged the French Revolution was the cruelty of the church as much as the monarchy. The Catholic Church was the largest land owner and imposed taxes to the people and was tremendously wealthy. They owned all the hospitals and schools. If you did not go to church you could not go to the hospital or get a birth certificate for your children. They were intolerant and omnipotent for centuries, to such an extent that up to now France is the most secular country in Europe. France has let the nobility come back but when President Sarkozy talked about having some church representation at some meeting, people marched in the street against it. They are very strong about the separation of church and state, stronger than in this country. Actually the French philosopher, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), was the first to advocate in his writings the separation of church and state. Montesquieu was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, who was in turn quite influenced by him. People in this country listen too much to the likes of Robertson (who is a disgrace) – too many of them - Americans should do like the French and march in the street in protest to Robertson's utterances. He is a dishonor to this country.

Lance Michael Foster said...

As you say, it was not said by Marie Antoinette, who was actually quite disposed toward charity, although it has been wrongly attributed to her by many (probbaly since she is the main "princess" people know of from that era of French history). It was a saying popular in French culture long before her, and the evidence indicates was said 100 years before her by Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV.

Certainly the Church as an institution has generally taken the side of the status quo in such cases. Which makes sense as institutions always want to preserve and perpetuate their own interests, which as an institution means the status quo. We cannot for example forget the Church's support of Franco's regime in Spain. However the Church as an hierarchical institution has also been at odds over such things with many of its individual saints, monks, nuns, and priests when it comes to social justice for the common people, witness Bishop Romero of El Salvador, who opposed the Church (under John Paul II) and the U.S. government (under Carter) in their status quo support of the oppressive San Salvador government and who was killed for it in 1980.