Like Finland, Imagine Everything That Could Go Wrong

Each day, the reported death toll from the earthquake in Turkey and Syria grows. It’s not just a local tragedy killing people far away. Natural disasters have struck, and will strike, around the world — including in the United States. What are their repercussions? What lessons can be learned from them?

Perhaps the most salient is this: Bad luck is inevitable and we must anticipate and prepare for it.

To Americans, our first association with earthquakes may be the one that destroyed San Francisco in 1906. It killed an estimated 3,000 people, but there have been at least eight documented earthquakes since the year 1500 with death tolls over 100,000 — including the 1923 Tokyo earthquake that killed 143,000 people, topped by one that killed nearly a million people in China in 1556.

As lethal as earthquakes are volcanic eruptions. Much more deadly than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption that killed 57 Americans were the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, of Krakatoa in 1883, of Santorini that may have undermined Crete’s Minoan civilization and the 1902 eruption that killed about 30,000 people within a few minutes on the Caribbean island of Martinique.

Our catalog of natural disasters continues with tsunamis (more than 200,000 dead, mostly on Sumatra, in 2004), floods (recently inundating much of Bangladesh and Pakistan), and fires and droughts (think of California and Australia today). Other types of disasters include epidemics (like the medieval Black Death and the 1918 flu), famine and wars.

Downtown Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in the aftermath of the tsunami there in 2005.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Wars are disasters that we inflict on ourselves. Policies of our governments have also played a major role in causing famines, including the 1845-1849 Irish potato famine and Ukraine’s famine in the 1930s. We have ourselves to blame for those disasters.

But natural disasters — earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, fires and droughts — seem to fall into the category of “bad luck.”

Yes, of course, we are powerless to prevent an earthquake, tsunami, or volcanic eruption. But we can anticipate and prepare for them. That was a message of the great Italian author Niccolò Machiavelli, who drew a crucial distinction between the Italian words “virtu” and “fortuna.” By “virtu,” Machiavelli meant achieving success through one‘s own abilities. By “fortuna,” he meant events beyond one’s control.

No, said Machiavelli, we don’t have to remain helpless victims of “fortuna” or bad luck. The inhabitants of a city located on the banks of a flood-prone river can’t prevent rain from bringing the river into flood. But they can prepare for the expected bad luck of a flood by building dikes along the river banks when the river is low. Similarly, we can protect ourselves against expected fires by using fire-resistant building materials, clearing flammable brush from near our houses and funding fire departments. We can reduce our risk from earthquakes by adopting earthquake-proof building codes. (Here in earthquake-prone Los Angeles, my university, the University of California Los Angeles, recently rebuilt its hospital and medical center, and my wife and I recently strengthened our house, in order to prepare for the inevitable next earthquake.)

The Dixie fire in California was the second largest fire in the state’s history. It burned over 963,000 acres in 2021.Credit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Finland offers a model of preparing politically for any disaster. During World War II, Finns suffered greatly as a result of being cut off from imports. Finns responded after the war by setting up a government commission that meets once a month, imagines everything that could go wrong and each month plans and prepares for one such disaster. (A Finnish friend of mine is on that commission.) Finns are now prepared for chemical shortages, fuel shortages, medical supply shortages, an electric net failure and other eventualities.

One of those Finnish commission meetings several years ago recognized the likelihood of a respiratory disease pandemic. The commission advised the government to buy and store lots of face masks, which were cheap at the time. The result: Finland was ready for Covid, as well as for all of those other disasters.

Similar thinking is useful in our personal lives. In my field work as a biologist in New Guinea’s jungles, almost everything that could go wrong has at some time gone wrong for me. Whenever I’ve had an accident in Los Angeles, my wife has driven me to the hospital emergency room. But I don’t have that option in New Guinea’s jungles. After some close calls, I eventually learned to think constantly about what could next go wrong, and to prepare for it. I’ve found that habit useful even in my daily life in Los Angeles.

Psychiatrists use the term paranoia to mean: constant exaggerated fear of something going wrong. Many non-Finns, and many of my Los Angeles friends, consider Finns’ and my outlook on life as an absurd vice, verging on paranoia. I consider our outlook as a healthy virtue that I call “constructive paranoia.” In other words, be ready for lots of bad luck.

Nations, and individuals, should practice constructive paranoia. Some already do. Among countries, examples besides Finland include Vietnam, which was ready to respond instantly when Covid emerged; and Australia, sensitized by long experience of droughts, fires and floods. The governments of those three countries had most likely learned from previous disasters.

What about Turkey and Syria? Syria finds itself in an especially cruel situation. Even before the earthquakes, the affected area of northwest Syria was suffering from a cholera outbreak, and from severe shortages of blankets, doctors, electricity, food, fuel, hospital beds, shelter and water. The area is in revolt against the national government. While other countries and nongovernmental organizations may provide short-term help, long-term solutions are unlikely until Syria has regained national unity.

Turkey, on the other hand, has an effective national government. The thousands of Turks who died in the past week were viewed by their government as Turkish citizens, not as rebels. Turkey has a history of many recent earthquakes, of which the current one was “merely” the worst. The Turkish government has motivation to learn from experience. It also has the means to practice measures of constructive paranoia, including long-term measures such as enforcing seismic construction codes.

Perhaps the earthquake will motivate not only Turkey, but also other countries. What’s true for earthquakes also holds for pandemics and other threats: anticipate and prepare. After SARS and MERS, the world should have anticipated more such emerging diseases. But we didn’t, and the result was millions of unnecessary deaths from Covid. Will the world be ready for the inevitable next pandemic? Will Turkey be ready for the inevitable next earthquake?

Jared Diamond is the author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book
“Guns, Germs and Steel.”

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