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I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher the other day. He had a professor on the show who said climate change can be fixed by making well-understood adjustments to how farmers raise cattle plus some other fairly ordinary changes. Apparently this is all explained in a documentary called Carbon Nation.

I'm skeptical of any claim so big and contrarian, but it does fit with The Adams Law of Slow-Moving Disasters. Simply stated, my observation is that whenever humanity can see a slow-moving disaster coming, we find a way to avoid it. Let's run through some examples:

Thomas Malthus famously predicted that the world would run out of food as the population grew. Instead, humans improved their farming technology.

When I was a kid, it was generally assumed that the world would be destroyed by a global nuclear war. The world has been close to nuclear disaster a few times, but so far we've avoided all-out nuclear war.

The world was supposed to run out of oil by now, but instead we keep finding new ways to extract it from the ground. The United States has unexpectedly become a net provider of energy.

The debt problem in the United States was supposed to destroy the economy. Instead, the deficit is shrinking, the stock market is surging, and the price of gold is plummeting.

Social security was supposed to go broke. It might have some dents and scratches, but it looks as if it will be fine.

Offshoring was supposed to suck the last bit of manufacturing DNA out of the United States. Instead, robotics and other market forces have caused the trend to reverse.

Illegal immigrants from Mexico were supposed to overrun the United States with crime, steal American jobs and burden the social systems. Instead, the economy of Mexico started improving and immigration reversed.

When I was a kid, it looked as if the country was heading for an eventual race war. Today that seems impossible unless angry white guys start shooting.

In the seventies it looked as if crime was going to keep increasing forever until the suburbs were overrun by street gangs. Instead, violent crime has steadily decreased.

On a smaller scale, the BP oil spill in the Gulf was supposed to destroy the Gulf ecosystem for the rest of our lives. And while the lasting damage was plenty bad, experts were generally surprised that it wasn't far worse.

The Y2K problem was supposed to break computers and plunge the planet into an agrarian society. Instead, programmers invented shortcuts for finding and fixing the bugs with time to spare.

In California, predicted ongoing droughts were supposed decimate the state. Instead, it rained.

Can anyone give me an example of a potential global disaster that the general public saw coming, with at least a ten year warning, and it actually happened as predicted?

 
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Apr 15, 2013
The long term effects of slavery in this country sure looks like a slow moving disaster to me. Especially for you folks living in the larger cities.
 
 
Apr 15, 2013
@scottn

Does Canadian health care meet the definition of disaster though? Seriously. Thats a question not a counterargument. My own thinking is that it has problems but is not a disaster, but thats an outsiders view. Do those who live with it and pay for it consider it a disaster?
 
 
Apr 15, 2013
That's sure a varied list.

Climate change, at least the man-made kind, may or may not even be a real thing. Also, whether or not it is man-made, there may or may not be enough of it to really harm anything. People who claim it's definitely man-made and definitely going to harm things generally are just using it as an excuse to raise taxes.

Thomas Malthus was wrong from the moment he made that prediction. Even people at the time counter-predicted that farming technology would improve and it wouldn't be a problem. See also the Julian L. Simon-Paul Ehrlich wager.

The nuclear war threat hung on the politics of unfriendly nations, rather than a science debate or an engineering problem, so yes, that was a real threat. Note that the cold war ended not through making peace with the Soviet Union per se, the country fell apart before them and us could truly see eye to eye.

That we haven't run out of oil yet is part new extraction technology and part finding oil in places we didn't used to think there would be oil. A lot of the estimates of how much oil is left is based on known reserves, and there are a lot more known reserves now than 30 years ago. We've gotten better at looking for oil, but it's also lucky that there actually was more to find.

The US national debt and social security running out of money are still slow moving disasters. There's no reason to think either will lead to tragedy in the near future, but under the current schemes neither is sustainable in the long-term, no matter what the politicians say. I predict that the problems are far enough in the future that politicians who want to fix the problem will return to power and take care of it before things fall apart, leaving people to wonder what the big panic was about.

I'll grant offshoring. Those kind of economic things tend to be cyclical anyway. Trends that everyone follows until the flaws become apparent, then people start reversing until a proper balance is reached. But as long as labor costs are lower in Asia, 99% of low-skill manufacturing is always going to take place there.

Illegal immigration isn't exactly solved, though the downturn in our own economy has helped reduce it. Though the states near the border certainly think they indeed are overrun with crime. That one won't be solved permanently until there's a border fence, Mexico has a long way to go to be a good enough place to live that nobody there would prefer to move here.

I'm too young to remember when a race war seemed eminent, but that stuff is still out there, it's just turned into a cold war. I'm not just worried about angry white guys shooting though, the race-baiters out there are doing what they can to make black guys angry about race too. The Rodney King riots were just 20 years ago and things haven't change that much since then. Once again, this is a social issue rather than science or engineering, so the slow-moving disaster criteria is hard to apply. There's no linear approach to the disaster, just a smolder that could flare up without warning.

I'm also too young to remember the crime problem of the 70s, though it may be related to the economic downturn of the time that was quickly reversed in the 80s. True, it hasn't replicated in the current downturn, though the increase in government hand-out programs may be the reason.

If you thought the Gulf oil spill was as bad as all that, you were listening to the wrong experts. Like most other environmental issues, the ones that say things aren't really that bad do exist, but nobody puts them on TV so it's understandable if you've never heard from them.

Y2K is a good textbook case of the slow moving disaster. There was plenty of time to fix it and the fixes weren't really that difficult.

Droughts do decimate areas, but seldom ruin crops more than a year at a time.
 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 15, 2013
Canadian healthcare. When Canada decided to nationalize all healthcare there were predictions aplenty that it would lead to inferior care and huge waiting times.

And lo, it has come to pass.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 15, 2013
"The March of Folly" by Barbara Tuchman is a fascinating recitation of human-powered disasters that we could have easily avoided, but did not. In most cases the ultimate problem was over-confident leaders living in a delusional echo-chamber - refusing to believe evidence that contradicted the truth as they wanted it to be.

Those with the insight to do the right thing lacked the power to effect changes.

One hopeful recent change is the speed with which information spreads. It's harder to persist with bone-headed ideas over the long term with any kind of stable power backing. (Harder. Clearly, it is, by no means impossible.)
 
 
Apr 15, 2013
The natural state of media is crisis.

Their job is to play down consensus and build controversy. It sells papers and builds pageviews and viewing figures.

But the default for negotiators is fudge. These people don't care about the right answer.
They'll come up with a way round, however convoluted. Something which ensures people don't lose face and lets everyone keep their job and their paycheck - hell even their bonus.

Any sackings are done behind closed doors. And they are more likely to be of the whistleblower or media leaker, than the person who caused the problem.
 
 
Apr 15, 2013
@Dooby

Read up on WWI and WWII sometime. 'Rise and Fall of the Third Reich' and 'A Short History of World War I' are good. Folks did not see WWII coming before 1938 or so. Maybe they should have, but 'should have' doesnt count as a counterexample of Scotts assertion here. As for WWI yes they saw it coming but beleived it would be short and not nearly the disaster it turned out to be.
 
 
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 15, 2013
Hitler? I mean, the guy came to power in 1933, only 6 years before he began his war with the invasion of Poland, so maybe the 10 year threshold wasn't met, but I have to believe there were a lot of people in Europe who realized that the situation in Germany was untenable. An entire nation was bitter about the treaty of Versailles, and it was just a matter of time before some leader rose to power and harnessed that popular anger to strike out at the rest of the continent.

A better example might be World War I, which in 1888, Otto von Bismarck famously predicted would be set off by "some damn foolish thing in the Balkans". The forces were clearly lining up long before it started, but perhaps since the invention of TnT was still so new, nobody truly understood how awful that impending war was really going to be, hence not much effort was focused into avoiding it.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 15, 2013
Several of those disasters haven't been avoided at all... specifically, economic issues, the US debt, Social Security, immigration, and a race war. There's a difference between avoiding a disaster and being wrong about how soon you think it will occur (if it's going to).

And seriously? Stocks are up and gold is down and you think that's some sign of having avoided an economic disaster? News flash: the stock market was about this high the last time we had major crash, and gold was even CHEAPER back then. We haven't avoided anything.

WATYF
 
 
Apr 15, 2013
The general public ?? That too in bold.

Just what exactly is the general public ?
In one sense the general public has never seen anything.
If one half foresaw a disaster, the other half was sure nothing would happen.

 
 
Apr 15, 2013
What is your definition of 'avoiding' a disaster? We saw we had an illegal immigration problem in the 1980's when Reagan granted amnesty to 3 million illegals and promised tighter borders. We now have almost 12 million new illegals. Schools have suffered tremendously, and at least 6 hospitals have closed in the L.A. area alone, largely because of being overwhelmed by a population that can't pay their way. So yes, illegal immigration is slowing, but I'd hardly say we avoided the disaster.


 
 
Apr 15, 2013
@Dil_Doh

I grant you that there have been earthquakes, tsunamis and floods that folks sort of saw coming but how many of those that folks saw coming were folks truly unprepared for?
 
 
-15 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 15, 2013
Earthquakes. Tsunamis (related). Floods.
 
 
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 15, 2013
The Biblical flood described in Genesis 6-9.
http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2010/06/01/long-to-build-the-ark
 
 
Apr 15, 2013
Also history has plenty of examples of empires going int a long, drawn out decline. Im sure a lot of folks in some of those empires saw the end coming.
 
 
Apr 15, 2013
Generally speaking I agree with your assertion, but since you challenged me to find a counterexample...its doubtful that folks knew beforehand that the American Civil War happened as folks thought it would but they knew for decades that some sort of conflict between the North and South over slavery was going to happen.
 
 
+50 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 15, 2013
Lindsay Lohan?
 
 
 
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