Covid-19: A Black Swan Just Warned Us About a Grey Rhino
In a matter of just a few weeks, an invisible, non-living clump of molecules has managed to shutter much of the civilized world. Aircraft are grounded, schools have been emptied, cities have become ghost towns, and nature has already begun to reclaim lost land. The invincible charge of economic growth and “progress” seems to have come to a grinding global halt.
The SARS COV-2 virus has reeked havoc in the lives and routines of over 7 billion people in just a few months; and we are only in the beginning. Nonetheless, humanity can and will recover from this outbreak. We are capable of bouncing back from this, even if it might take a year to do so. Life will continue and the economy will recover.
But if a virus could disrupt the world in such profound ways, we cannot begin to imagine the impact that a more significant disaster might bring. A major asteroid impact, for example, could not only level an entire country, but the dust and debris kicked into the atmosphere could easily distort the global climate, decimating farms, cutting off food supplies, water supplies….etc. For most people, this crisis will be remembered for a lack of toilet paper and a depressing stock portfolio. It is important to remember that electricity and water are still flowing, the internet is still running, and the grocery stores are still (mostly) full. Next time we not be this lucky.
The Covid-19 outbreak is a “Black Swan” event, one that would have been largely unforeseeable outside of doomsday scenarios. Nonetheless, the collective failure of humanity to properly respond to this disaster also demonstrates the danger of so called “Grey Rhino” threats. A Grey Rhino is a threat that is highly probable and foreseen, but the danger is neglected because the solution is inconvenient. Therefore, the threat is neglected.
The quintessential Grey Rhino threat is climate change, but again, humanity is largely unprepared and unwilling to take the steps necessary to respond. Much like the Covid-19 outbreak, the solution to climate change requires a fundamental shift in the way that the economy works. This impact threatens established interests more than it does the real economy. But also like Covid-19, decisive and forceful action early on is ultimately less impactful on the economy than prolonged inaction and foot-dragging.
Like an asteroid impact or deadly disease outbreak, climate change threatens the very foundation that civilization was built on. If we have learned anything from Covid-19, it is that civilization is more fragile that many of us are willing to admit. There is a dire need to improve policy-making and global cooperation so that humanity is better prepared for Black Swans and Grey Rhino’s in the future. Covid-19 a warning that we had better heed.