On being prepared

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Climate of Man has been running in New Yorker. Among the memorable anecdotes is one describing paleoclimatologist Peter deMenocal’s work with linking sedimentary data with archaeological findings. Here’s the trenchant bit:

Tell Leilan was never an easy place to live. Much like, say, western Kansas today, the Khabur plains received enough annual rainfall—about seventeen inches—to support cereal crops, but not enough to grow much else. “Year-to-year variations were a real threat, and so they obviously needed to have grain storage and to have ways to buffer themselves,” deMenocal observed. “One generation would tell the next, ‘Look, there are these things that happen that you’ve got to be prepared for.’ And they were good at that. They could manage that. They were there for hundreds of years.”
He went on, “The thing they couldn’t prepare for was the same thing that we won’t prepare for, because in their case they didn’t know about it and because in our case the political system can’t listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think.”

An uncomfortable parallel from yesterday’s The Coming Influenza Pandemic?:

A while ago we had a story on the government running computer simulations to plot strategies on containment. Nature is constantly moving, testing limits, finding openings without looking for them. This is proof that simulating is probably folly, and right only by luck. A deadly pandemic, if it occurs, will come only by the confluence of events which could never have been predicted, as all “accidents” are.