Terrorist attacks, nuclear explosions in border nuclear power plants, poisoned drinking water in big cities, a collapse of the world’s communications. Extreme events such as these are his passion. Are extreme events able to bring the systems in our highly complex world to collapse from one day to another? An interview with the PhD mathematician John Casti about his research into the “X-Events”.
Mr. Casti, you turn your attention to extreme events that occur suddenly without warning and shake-up our world view. Do you know which catastrophic “X-Events” await us in Austria in the near future?
Probably the most threatening X-event would be a nuclear accident in one of the neighboring countries. But an equally damaging, although longer unfolding time, X-event would be an economic collapse in Europe, specifically the Eurozone, which Austria is a member of.
Terrorist attacks, nuclear explosions in border nuclear power plants, poisoned drinking water in large cities, the collapse of the world’s communications. With 9/11, Fukushima and the financial crises of recent years, we have already collected a lot of experience with such “X-events”. But does this information from afar, so to speak, reflect anything that could possibly help us? How much of the past helps us if we want to prepare ourselves for the future?
Just about all the X-events you mention from elsewhere are things that could occur here in Austria, as well. So, yes, the knowledge of what took place in Japan, the USA and elsewhere can be of great value to Austrians, too. But the value lies mostly in the fact that these X-events have actually occurred. So for Austrians that should suggest that they are not “inconceivable”, “impossible” or anything of the sort. They have taken place elsewhere, and they can take place here too if we don’t put in place some safeguards.
How do you as a mathematician investigate events and scenarios that have never happened before?
In the case of “unknown unknowns” for which we have no data, the usual tools of the risk analyst, probability theory and statistics, are simply inapplicable. You cannot construct an empirical probability distribution for the likelihood of an event that has never occurred. You have to develop a completely different conceptual mathematical framework to address these questions. The approach outlined in my book X-EVENTS is to regard an extreme event like an Internet crash or a political revolution as human nature’s way of relieving the stress of a complexity overload in the system. From that standpoint, what you want to do is create a mathematical framework for measuring the dynamically changing complexity level of the system, and identify the level at which a collapse is imminent. I cannot claim to have worked out the details of this framework yet, since my book was really a call-to-arms for a research program to do exactly that. But this is the general idea.
Have “X-events” in the large, global-style, have anything in common with dramatic events in our personal environment – for example, if we experience a death in the family or being without the Internet for months?
This idea of complexity overload (or sometimes complexity mismatch if it involves two or more systems in interaction), is perfectly scalable. It applies at all levels from the individual to the planet, as a whole. When the complexity level becomes unsustainable, either you have to “downsize” voluntarily, or nature (human nature, actually) will do it for you. And if nature steps-in to do it, the result is not pretty!
Extreme events are often caused by human factors, many of which have already been investigated. What are our weaknesses?
Many! Inattention, misunderstanding, malevolent intent, or just plain stupidity have all been the cause of one or another X-event. Certainly, greed and the longing for power stand high on the list of X-event generators. So take your pick.
Your latest book, “The sudden collapse of everything,” describes the highly complex interweaving of factors such as energy, transport and communication in our society. If we consider individuals in a society, how can we prepare for an X-event? Is that even possible?
This is not a black-or-white affair. Some individuals under some circumstances are in a position to shield themselves from some types of X-events. On the other hand, if the X-event is a gigantic asteroid impact, no amount of preparation is going to help. So to give a proper answer to this question requires a lot more space than I have room for here, maybe a whole new book!
Are you an optimist?
One reviewer of my book described me as “the optimist of the apocalypse.” I think that’s a good description of my position.
Note: On THU, December 20, 8 PM, best-selling author John Casti talks during the “Deep Space LIVE: X-Events – The sudden collapse of everything” at the Ars Electronica Center.