Tag: <span>Preparedness</span>

Eschatologist #28: If Ye Are Prepared Ye Shall Not Fear

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Doom is coming. The end of the world approaches and men’s hearts fail them. What are we going to do? What are you going to do? 

Have you considered religion? No? Well you should. But I understand if you’re hesitant. There’s a lot of that going around. Or perhaps you are already religious, but you’ve heard that the Lord helps those who help themselves. 

Fair enough. Let’s tackle preparing for the end of the world. First it’s necessary to define the term. Sure, some people are worried about the literal extinction of the human race or a catastrophe so bad that the living will envy the dead. But most people’s worries are more immediate: they just don’t want horrible things happening to them or their loved ones.

For the vast majority of people — including you — this is wise. Yes, great and terrible apocalypses are possible and we shouldn’t ignore them. But most of your time and attention should be focused on those around you, your community. To begin with, you should make sure you have a community in the first place. Outside of the most extreme catastrophes this will be very important. 

Beyond that, you should prepare yourself for the common stuff. Are you saving money? What does your job look like? Is it precarious? Do you have a plan if you’re laid off? What natural disasters might happen in your area?  Do you have a 72-hour kit? I understand that all these questions are just boring common sense.  But, I am surprised by how many people will spend hours talking about a possible AI apocalypse, but who haven’t spent 30 minutes deeply considering the consequences of losing their job.

Speaking of the AI apocalypse, another common failure mode I see is for people to get freaked out, to start panicking. They end up with an unhealthy degree of fatalism. If you fall into that category, perhaps this observation from Ray Dalio about historical calamities will help:

What are these destruction/reconstruction periods [Great Depression, world wars, Spanish Flu] like for the people who experience them? Since you haven’t been through one of these and the stories about them are very scary, the prospect of being in one is very scary to most people. It is true that these destruction/reconstruction periods have produced tremendous human suffering both financially and, more importantly, in lost or damaged human lives. Like the coronavirus experience, what each of these destruction/reconstruction periods has meant and will mean for each person depends on each person’s own experiences, with the broader deep destruction periods damaging the most people. While the consequences are worse for some people, virtually no one escapes the damage. Still, history has shown us that typically the majority of people stay employed in the depressions, are unharmed in the shooting wars, and survive the natural disasters.

That last bit is worth emphasizing: “the majority of people stay employed in the depressions, are unharmed in the shooting wars, and survive the natural disasters.” This has been true and I believe it will continue to be true. The majority of people will stay employed despite AI automation. They will survive even nuclear armageddon. And yes they will also successfully weather global climate change. 

This does not mean that any of these events will be pleasant, and you might end up in the unlucky minority of those whose lives are destroyed. But they are all things that can be mitigated by being prepared. Also, if you’re in a strong community it’s unlikely that all of you will be in the unlikely minority, and those that aren’t can help those that are.

Some of you may be saying, but what about the singularity? What about truly unprecedented black swans? Yes, even if you’re perfectly prepared, there are some catastrophes you can do nothing about. I don’t think they’re going to happen soon, but the probability of them happening eventually is much higher than I would like. And it’s not just you, it’s possible no one can do anything about them. Not when they’re happening, and — even if they had perfect foresight — not now either. Should this be the case, is there then no hope?

Well… Have you considered religion? 


I guess what I’m saying is that you should focus on things you can control. Which is more than you realize. For example you have control over how you spend your money. You can spend it wisely or foolishly. I leave it as an exercise to the reader, what category donating to this blog falls into. 


Eschatologist #11: Black Swans

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


February 2020, the last month of normalcy, probably feels like a long time ago. I spent the last week of it in New York City. Which was already ground zero for the pandemic—though no one knew that yet. I was there to attend the Real World Risk Institute. A week-long course put on by Nassim Taleb, who’s best known as the author of The Black Swan. The coincidence of learning more about black swans while a very large one was already in process is not lost on me.

(Curiously enough, this is not the first time I was in New York right before a black swan. I also happened to be there a couple of weeks before 9/11.)

Before we go any further, for any who might be unfamiliar with the term, a black swan is an unpredictable, rare event with extreme consequences. And, one of the things I was surprised to learn while at the institute is that Taleb, despite inventing the term, has grown to dislike it. There are a couple of reasons for this. First people apply it to things which aren’t really black swans, to things which can be foreseen. The pandemic is actually a pretty good example of this. Experts had been warning about the inevitability of one for decades. We had one in 1918, and beyond that several recent near misses with SARS, MERS, and Ebola. And that was just in the last couple of decades. If all this is the case, why am I still calling it a black swan?

First off, even if the danger of a pandemic was fairly well known, the second order effects have given us a whole flock of black swans. Things like supply chain shocks, teleworking, housing craziness, inflation, labor shortages, and widespread civil unrest, to name just a few. This is the primary reason, but on top of that I think Taleb is being a little bit dogmatic with this objection. (I.e. it’s hard to think of what phrase other than “black swan” better describes the pandemic.)

However, when it comes to his second objection I am entirely in agreement with him. People use the term as an excuse. “It was a black swan. How could we possibly have prepared?!?” And herein lies the problem, and the culmination of everything I’ve been saying since the beginning, but particularly over the last four months.

Accordingly saying “How could we possibly have prepared?” is not only a massive abdication of responsibility, it’s also an equally massive misunderstanding of the moment. Because preparedness has no meaning if it’s not directed towards preparing for black swans. There is nothing else worth preparing for.

You may be wondering, particularly if black swans are unpredictable, how is one supposed to do that? The answer is less fragility, and ideally antifragility, but a full exploration of what that means will have to wait for another time. Though I’ve already touched on how religion helps create both of these at the level of individuals and families. But what about levels above that? 

This is where I am the most concerned. And where the excuse, “It was a black swan! Nothing could be done!” has caused the greatest damage. In a society driven by markets, corporations have great ability to both help and harm by the risks they take. We’re seeing some of these harms right now. We saw even more during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. When these harms occur, it’s becoming more common to use this excuse. That it could not be foreseen. It could not be prevented.

If corporations suffered the effects of their lack of foresight that would be one thing. But increasingly governments provide a backstop against such calamities. In the process they absorb at least some of the risk. Making the government itself more susceptible to future, bigger black swans. And if that happens, we have no backstop.

Someday a black swan will either end the world, or save it. Let’s hope it’s the latter.


One thing you might not realize is that donations happen to also be black swans. They’re rare (but becoming more common) and enormously consequential. If you want to feel what it’s like to have that sort of power, consider trying it out.