May 05, 2011

Worshipping false Gods

Shipping pundits, following savants from the political and financial world, seems to have rediscovered old jargon in a new bottle- Nassim Taleb’s ‘Black Swan Theory’. Taleb had theorised, in his famous 2007 book, that unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence are the ‘Black Swans’ of history; these events are impossible to predict and therefore are known only after they occur. The name of the hypothesis comes from the fact that everybody presumed for ages, before a black one was discovered, that all swans were white. Taleb theorised, “After they (Black Swan events) occur, we find rationalisations for them, but we should accept that random events may disrupt any model or plan”.

Seems to me that a Black Swan may be what we simple sailors call force majeure or an Act of God. Seems to me, also, that shipping is joining the chorus in making excuses for so called Black Swan events which should have been well predictable, not random- and, therefore and by definition, not Black Swan events at all.

Forget the World Trade Centre attacks, the Japanese triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, radiation) or the revolutions in North Africa or the Middle East- which are touted today as Black Swan events but which I say were well predictable. After all, if you build nuclear reactors in one of the most risky seismic zones in the world, you should not be surprised when an earthquake shakes or a tsunami floods or a reactor leaks as a consequence, should you?

The shipping industry, however, has taken its excuses a step further, some claiming that Somali piracy, for one, is a Black Swan event. This surmise would be hilarious if it weren’t pathetic. Somali piracy has been around and escalating for a decade and a half. A Black Swan event? One had to be deaf, dumb and blind to not have seen it coming. And have half of one’s anatomy in the sand, to boot. As for the other alleged ‘Black Swans’ that maritime experts are touting- Japan and the Jasmine revolutions included- shipping should know better than most that such events are likely to recur. They should need no reminding that this industry is always hostage to cataclysmic events, since whatever the nature of the ‘Black Swan’- political, financial, environmental or security related- global trade, the lifeblood of shipping, is invariably hit. Surely the industry doesn’t need a rocket scientist to figure that out?

Deep Water Horizon, despite what the pundits are telling us now, was not a Black Swan event. When you buy over corrupt administrations in order to operate with insufficient safety, you are predictably tempting fate. No doubt some of the sea birds were tarred black with the oil spill, but folks, those were originally white birds, swans or not, not black.

We continue to build bigger and bigger ships, and continue to staff them with short manned and fatigued crews. No matter how good or well trained these are, we increase the chances of an accident every time we do so. Of course, we can tempt the Gods, rush headlong into disaster and then claim an Act of God to collect insurance and soothe our consciences, but we cannot claim, with even a tinge of integrity, that the disaster was surprising or unpredictable, or that the swan was black.

We cannot continue to fail to reach international agreement on vessel emissions and then claim Acts of God or Black Swans when the seas rise and the weather deteriorates - as it has been doing, while we continue to build and load ships without taking this fact into account. In doing so, we are playing with dice loaded against us; simple logic says that we will lose.

We cannot let greed overcome our common sense when we send ships through the melting- and pristine- Arctic without proper en-route emergency facilities or even, in some cases, proper navigational charts. The Gods of destruction await us eagerly, not Black Swans.

We cannot ignore piracy or its links with terrorism and then claim surprise at the escalation in violence. We cannot claim that the consequence of our ostrich like behaviour is something we could not have predicted. We cannot say that piracy is a Black Swan event just because we- for more than a decade- refused to see the obvious. We can’t attack pirate mother ships and then act astonished when hostage seafarers are tortured, executed or die in the crossfire. These results are not a consequence of Black Swan events; they are a consequence of stupidity.

A Black Swan event- or an Act of God- has to be more than an insurance racket, you know. But then shipping often misses the point completely. Or, even when it does not, it just- like that famous elderly nun in the convent- completely and conveniently ignores the entire point, and to hell with the consequences. In fact, our industry seems to specialise in either missing the point or conveniently ignoring it, and then crying wolf, or Black Swan, or force majeure.

That elderly nun, by the way, also missed the point- or chose to ignore it completely- when the agitated Mother Superior rushed into church where all the nuns had gathered. “I MUST tell you all something,” the Mother Superior said excitedly. “We have discovered a case of gonorrhea in the convent!!”

'Thank God,' said our elderly nun at the back. 'I'm so tired of Chardonnay.'

And I am so tired of these false Acts of God.


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