Sunday, June 06, 2010


Nassim Taleb made his reputation on his early insights about the big economic meltdown and now he appears in lots of places as our newest pundit-with-accent, replacing Kissinger’s teutonic opinions with slightly livelier and much sexier Mediterranean ideas about pretty much everything. I did not know until recently that he’s huge among the survivalist crowd, though his expertise is statistics rather than apocalypses. The reason is no doubt his interest in “robustness,” not just in monetary systems but as a concept. He points out that complexity introduces frailty, because of the exposure to so many risks -- too many to keep track of or even aware of existing. He challenges the reliance on statistical “likelihood” that underlies our commerce, military, and political systems.

Well, what a relief! I hate being dominated by algorithms, not least because I’m always way out there at the end of the long-tail. In practical terms, that means that the kind of things I like to buy never make it to the market except for some little test blip somewhere. Thank goodness for Internet shopping, where I’m far more likely to find what I want than I am at the local supermarket.

All the interviewers try hard to get Taleb to give advice, but his advice is scary. In a weird way it pulls together a lot of things I’ve read over the years from mythology to organizational design to publishing to local politics. Maybe it starts with Paul Shepherd’s ideas about what happened to us when people shifted from a hunting base to an agriculture base, esp. the kind that depends on huge monocultures of corporate controlled seed stock (sterilized so that it cannot be used as seeds the next year) over huge areas planted, fertilized, poisoned (herbicides and pesticides), and harvested by machines in a way that gradually erodes and compacts the earth. This is the foundation of cities and, come to that, refugee camps and commodities for the poor, who would die of starvation if these grains did not create so much surplus nutrition. But what begins to emerge is the idea that the food supply is subtly contaminated in some way -- perhaps simply by being contained in plastics that leak poison. The animal food sources, esp. grain-fed, may be suffering the same way as well as from gratuitous hormones and antibiotics. Big Pharma may be imposing as well as maintaining chronic conditions that would in the past have been fatal -- thus skewing the evolution that would previously have culled all creatures that didn’t fit, so that our very genetic matrix is morphing to require what is bad for us.

Taleb is moving his expert methods from financial systems to far more essential systems, like agriculture, in part because he doesn’t think any of our present financial systems are robust enough to justify speculation or investment. Like a Great Depression survivor, he is advising the storage of wealth in mineral commodities and ag land. He is noting that the land will keep its value, but the way it is used is becoming less and less robust, especially when changing climate systems and diminishing water supplies are taken into account, which is almost the same thing when one realizes that water is stored in mountain snowpacks and deep underground aquifers created by the melting of the continental glaciers ten thousand years ago. Both are basically irreplaceable and known to be quickly diminishing.

Taleb puts emphasis on disease, with one of his favorite examples being the Irish potato famine. He is a fastidious man and rather removed from biology, but he does understand that many people starved. What he does not seem to grasp or consider is the underlying forces, like the clearance of crofters by absentee land owners and the Catholic opposition to female self-determination in matters of birth. (See Swift.) Way too many people were dependent on potatoes. Or maybe that is what he is referring to when he speaks of the turkey, who thinks life is great until Thanksgiving comes along, an event for which the poultry farmer planned.

“Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan is religious – not in the sense of being able to summarise his metaphysical commitments on the back of an envelope, but in the sense of being committed to the religious practices of his native Greek Orthodoxy. Why? Because, he said, the interdicts of religion are the best way to deal with the exposure that results from living in "extremistan", a world in which uncertainties will catch you unawares.

“ . . .If we'd followed the ancient precept not to build up speculative debts, which is to say avoided usurious excesses, the world might be a better place today. Religious practices, Taleb suggested, are the wise product of thousands of years of accumulated wisdom that help us to live better in the face of what's unknown.”

I live a modest life so limited that relatives from the coastal cities find it uncomfortable even for short visits. Not enough heat, hot water, appliances, TV cable, garaging, lawn cutting, or space to conform to what they take entirely for granted. Not even enough towels. No recliner or sofa big enough to sleep on. All my furniture is second-hand, sometimes remnants from my childhood. Most of my assets are paper books. The electricity, which is always a little flukey in Valier, was off for three hours not long ago, which left me pondering how much I depend on it for food management: freezing, refrigeration, cooking. “Eating local“ in Valier would mean almost no vegetables, although one friend points out that I do not exploit the resources of the Hutterites who are far more self-sustaining than the rest of us and prosper from their religion-supported practices.

If I spent the rest of my life living on bread and cheese (which would destroy my diabetes II strategy), I would be perfectly content so long as I had the Internet. My “affinity groups” and co-writer are globally located. I cannot walk across the fields or through the woods to enjoy conversation with them or draw comfort from them. We do not join on Sunday mornings to sing well-loved songs. But our keyboards smoke.

Beyond that, I am totally dependent on virtual money systems: social security, medicare, and the Oregon public employee retirement system, all of which can be suddenly altered by politicians far away and responding to their own interests. I cannot, like Taleb, invest in gold. I must invest in ideas, which is also like him. A very useful and religious sort of thing to do. I’m glad he speaks of it so eloquently. It is a neglected kind of wealth. What remains is to fit our religions to our lives.


artemesia said...

I live in comparative extravagance in one of those lush coast cities--and I worry all the time about how vulnerable we all are, and what we are doing to the planet which must ultimately nurture and sustain us. Last night I watched a movie (at the Hollywood Theater, beautifully restored) about one man's adventures en route to and in Patagonia with Yvon Chinourd and Doug Tompkins (180 Degrees South). Someone mentioned Jared Diamond's book Collapse, and said that in a recent conversation Diamond mentioned that he didn't see any indications that we were learning from history. I agree with you, Mary, that wealth is in relationships and ideas.

circles said...

This post reminds me of Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, though perhaps because I just finished it. He argues, actually, that more food (and obviously healthier)can be grown on small farms than can be grown in our "efficient" industrial systems with a little ingenuity, since a small farmer can keep track of all his land, can successfully interplant crops, while a farmer with thousands of acres can only really keep track of the one crop and spray it with ridiculous amounts of chemicals in the process.
The whole book is about changing the way we think about economy for survival's sake--I recommend it for a little hope for the future, if you need it like I do.
By the way, Mary, I've been reading for months now. Thank you for your daily ruminations--they're wonderful.