What this writer learned about looking ahead and planning for disasters

Bina Venkataraman, author of The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, studies the art of looking ahead for solutions during dangerous times. It's a skill she honed while working on the Ebola Task Force for former U.S. president Barack Obama.

'Epidemic prevention is much less costly than responding and reacting to it,' says Bina Venkataraman

Bina Venkataraman, who worked on former U.S. president Barack Obama's response to the Ebola crisis, has investigated emergency planning and disaster preparedness. (Daria Bishop)

Originally published in March 2020.

Bina Venkataraman studies the art of looking ahead — preparing for the worst possible outcomes, while aiming for the best.

Her work has never been more timely.

"We're right now seeing the coronavirus spreading around the world and epidemic prevention is much less costly than responding and reacting to it," said Venkataraman.

Venkataraman, who honed her skills while working on former U.S. president Barack Obama's response to the Ebola crisis, is the author of The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age. 

Bina Venkataraman says humans have the capacity to imagine the future and to do right by future generations. (Penguin Random House)

Her research took her all over the world, as she investigated emergency planning, disaster preparedness — and all the ways human nature can either solve the problem, or make it worse. 

Venkataraman, the editorial page editor of the Boston Globe, a former lecturer at MIT, and climate adviser to the Obama White House, spoke to Tapestry's Mary Hynes about her research on human foresight and failure.

Here is part of their conversation.

Your research took you everywhere from dive bars to fishing villages. You went to the wreckage of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan.

When you were there, you saw examples of both incredible human foresight and unbelievable human failure. Let's start with the foresight. Tell me about the village where someone gave a warning, around 1,000 years ago, for future generations to heed.

Murohama is an island where, in 869 [ AD ] there was a powerful earthquake, the Jogan earthquake and tsunami. People fled to the top of a hill. That seems logically like a thing you would do: go to high ground when you know that there's going to be a flood or a large wave.

And it turned out that at the top of that hill in Murohama, two tsunamis converged and the people who had fled there perished.

Having a longer memory or a longer time span of history can inform our ideas of what's possible in the future.-Bina Venkataraman

The people of Murohama, after that, put a marker down on that hill and it was very specific: "If there's an earthquake, if there's a tsunami, do not flee to this hill!" And that warning carried through the generations. People continue to heed that warning. 

Having a longer memory or a longer time span of history can inform our ideas of what's possible in the future. It can aid our imagination in instances of what seem to be unprecedented events, like a large tsunami or a devastating wildfire like the ones we're seeing in Australia.

Some of these events have not been experienced in our own recent memories, so they don't have the same sort of power over us. They don't cause us to kick in our preparatory response and get ready. 

You see this, for example, when people get hurricane forecasts in regions that haven't experienced a bad hurricane in recent years. Even people who have resources, even people who have those storm shutters in the basement, will often not prepare for those hurricanes when they have a credible forecast of it coming. That, I think, is a similar phenomenon: failing to imagine what is being precisely predicted for you.

There was a police psychologist named Georg Sieber who was charged with coming up with scenarios of what could go wrong at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He came up with 26 scenarios, one of which, called Situation 21, actually played out. He projected that a group of terrorists would scale the fence of the Olympic Village at dawn and take Israeli athletes hostage. 

The planners, particularly the German organizers, didn't want to hear about the scenario or plan for it. Part of the reason was that they were trapped by more recent memories. They were trapped by an idea of trying to prevent what they saw as the catastrophe of the previous Olympics they'd hosted in 1936. 

The Hitler Olympics.

Yes, exactly. Hitler had presided over those Olympics and they wanted to use the '72 Olympics as an opportunity to rebrand the Olympic Games in Germany.

Instead of being morose and militaristic, they wanted it to be seen as cheerful and Mediterranean. These would be the carefree games. 

As a result, they didn't take Sieber's suggestion to put armed guards on the perimeter of the Olympic Village. They didn't even take basic precautions.

They could have just housed the athletes not by nationality, but by sport, to prevent the target from being on those Israeli athletes. And we all know that this event ended in catastrophe: the killing of those Israeli athletes and coaches and a shootout on the tarmac at the Munich airport. 

There's the argument for taking the long view. What will history say? What will my legacy be? What about the argument that evolution has hard-wired human beings to think about the immediate future and not about how this is going to play down the road?

There is a component of our biological programming disposition — call it human nature — that is absolutely hell-bent on survival. But we also have within us the capacity to imagine the future and to do right by future generations. 

We have this capacity that no other species has really demonstrated to both imagine the future and plan for it.- Bina Venkataraman

We're the same species that developed agriculture by charting the stars and the seasons, recognizing that having a surplus of food could allow us to do things like build a civilization where people have different roles, where people have the ability and capacity to develop written language.

We're the same species that decided to develop and invest in programs to explore the cosmos. Those were decisions made with a great deal of foresight about the future, sacrificing some benefit in the present in order to develop something that was for the greater, long-term good of individuals and of society. 

We have this capacity that no other species has really demonstrated to both imagine the future and plan for it. We're more than just our biological programming. There are ways through our environment, through our culture, through our institutional rules that will let us become better ancestors.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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