Day: September 23, 2014

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

09:52 – Barbara called yesterday to let me know she was enjoying herself. When she called, Colin and I were smoking cigars, drinking bourbon, and watching the fight on TV. Later on, we headed to a strip bar for a boys’ night out.

Well, not really. Instead, we watched more episodes of Doomsday Preppers. The obvious goal of the series’ producers is to convince viewers that these people are crazy and stupid and, by extension, that anyone who believes in being prepared for emergencies is crazy and stupid. And there’s no doubt that many of their subjects are obsessed about dangers that are very unlikely to occur.

But many of them are concerned about potentially catastrophic events that have a much higher probability of occurring, for example an EMP event that takes down the entire power grid and transportation system. The man-made EMP event that many of them fear just isn’t going to happen, for both political and technical reasons. But a natural EMP event, a replay of the 1859 Carrington Event, is not only possible but inevitable. And, as Wikipedia says, “Studies have shown that a solar storm of this magnitude occurring today would likely cause widespread problems for modern civilization. There is an estimated 12% chance of a similar event occurring between 2012 and 2022.” I think that estimate is pessimistic. Such events occur, unpredictably but on average, every 400 to 500 years. That means that in any given decade, the probability of such an event is only 2% to 2.5%.

Similarly, another of their subjects, a San Diego physician, is preparing for a world-wide influenza pandemic. Historically, lethal pandemics occur on average about once a century. The last one was the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed 50 to 100 million worldwide, or 3% to 5% of the planet’s population. If a similar epidemic hit today, the death toll would be much, much higher, probably a billion people or more. In 1918, we didn’t have jet airplanes moving people around the world constantly, so transmission was limited. Nowadays, there are no such constraints on transmission. Essentially the entire population of the planet could be exposed to a lethal virus within literally a few days. We could have 50 to 100 million dead just within the US. On the other hand, the US and other first-world countries have much more capable public health systems than existed in 1918, which ameliorates the danger to some extent.

So, back-of-the-envelope, let’s guesstimate that the chance of such an epidemic occurring in the next decade is only 2% rather than 10%. That’s pretty comforting. A decade is a long time, and there’s only a 2% chance of each of these things happening during that time. The problem is, probabilities multiply. Looking at ten such potentially catastrophic problems, each with only a 2% chance of occurring within the next decade, we can calculate the probability that none of those will occur as 0.98^10 = 0.817. All of a sudden, things don’t look so rosy. An 18.3% chance of something terrible happening in the next decade is enough to scare most people. And if you look at 100 things each of which has only a 0.1% probability–one chance in thousand–of occurring each year, the probability that none of these things will happen over the coming decade is less than 37%.

My own SWAG is that the likelihood of something really, really bad happening during the next decade is perhaps 10%. My guess is that it will be a zombie apocalypse, so that’s what I’m preparing for. That way, I’ll also be prepared if something else happens instead. Okay, the truth is that I don’t believe zombies exist, so they’re just a placeholder for an unknown threat. What I really think is more likely to occur is civil unrest leading to a complete breakdown of the social structure in urban areas. That’s why I want to relocate to a small town in a farming area. I have an immense skill-set. I’ve spent the last 40 years accumulating useful skills and knowledge, but I don’t know how to farm, nor am I physically capable of doing so. So I’d like to live somewhere surrounded by people who do.

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