Myopia and the Snowball Effect

Published by Chris Oestereich on



Climate Change.  Inequality.  Epidemics.  Water shortages.  Biodiversity.  The list goes on.

We know the issues are out there, but we choose to ignore them.

It’s not my problem.  It’s not that big of a deal.  Someone else will take care of it.  Maybe it will just go away.

We tell ourselves these things to avoid acting as we’re too busy, too tired, too overworked, too whatever to get involved.

So we bury our heads in the sand and hope it goes away.

And sometimes we might get lucky.  Sometimes someone else will take care of it.  Sometimes feedback loops will counteract the problem.  Sometimes we’re better able to adapt to the change than expected.  Sometimes we’re overly worried about things that were never going to be big problems.  Sometimes.

So we don’t act.  But sometimes the problems snowball to a point where we can no longer ignore them.  Once there, we’re forced to commit far more resources than we might have if we had only acted in the early going.

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

For all the credit we give ourselves for our self-aware, big-brained nature, we’re no better than boiling frogs when it comes to threats which do not produce the direct fear of seeing a bear hurtling towards us.  If we’re going to earn our self-praise, we’re going to have to evolve the way we react to distant threats.

This tweet from Atul Gawande starts to get at it for me.

Overreacting in ways that quell panic are great, but overreacting in ways that stanch the spread are what we really ought to be looking to do.

The current Ebola outbreak is a great example.  It started early this year in Guinea (Epidemics typically start from one or a few isolated cases.), but it has since spread far beyond the country’s borders. The mobilization of significant international assistance was slow to materialize.  Because of this, the opportunity to contain the outbreak to a small number of cases was missed.  We now need a response that is orders of magnitude greater than the one which might have handled this if we had “properly overreacted” in the first place.

Failing to do so allowed this snowball to become an avalanche.

Source: CDC

Further Reading:

Owen Barder – Finding a Cure for Ebola

Ian Welsh – Why Ebola is a Threat & Why Africa Can’t Handle Ebola: the Destruction of the Third World