Defense Media Network

Global Trends 2030: Black Swans

Part 6 of a series covering the National Intelligence Council's look into the future

What are Black Swans?

The term “Black Swan” has been part of the popular vernacular for a number of years, but it is often thrown around so liberally that some clarification would be helpful in order to understand why – and how – “Global Trends 2030” discusses Black Swans as an important outgrowth of the intelligence community’s analysis.

A view of Bangkok, Thailand after floods caused by monsoon storms, Nov. 16, 2011. Monsoons disrupt the ability of Southeast Asia to feed itself. U.N. photo by Mark Garten

A view of Bangkok, Thailand after floods caused by monsoon storms, Nov. 16, 2011. Monsoons disrupt the ability of Southeast Asia to feed itself. U.N. photo by Mark Garten

At its very basic elements, the black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that is a surprise to the observer, has a major effect, and after the fact is often inappropriately rationalized with the benefit of hindsight.

Black swan events were introduced by Nassim Taleb in his 2004 book, Fooled by Randomness, which concerned financial events. His 2007 book, The Black Swan, extended the metaphor to events outside of financial markets to almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments. Taleb labeled these events “Black Swans,” calling them undirected and unpredicted. As examples of these Black Swans, he cites events as diverse as World War I, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the personal computer, the internet, and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The phrase “black swan” derives from a Latin expression. Its oldest known occurrence is the poet Juvenal’s characterization of something being “a rare bird in the lands, very much like a black swan.” When Juvenal coined the phrase, the black swan was presumed not to exist. Therefore, black swan gets to the heart of the fragility of any system of thought. A set of conclusions is potentially undone once any of its fundamental postulates is disproved. In this case, the observation of a single black swan would be the undoing of the phrase’s underlying logic, as well as any reasoning that followed from that underlying logic.

 

Potential Black Swans in Global Trends 2030

Enough about theory and birds. GT2030 provides a thoughtful, precise, and analytical look at potential black swan events. For those who have read Andrew Krepinevich’s 2009 book, 7 Deadly Scenarios, these black swan events are equally terrifying – or hopeful – and no-less believable. Boiled done to just their essential elements, GT2030′s Black Swan events are:

A Severe Pandemic: No one can predict which pathogen will be the next to start spreading to humans, or when or where such a development will occur. An easily transmissible novel respiratory pathogen that kills or incapacitates more than one percent of its victims is among the most disruptive events possible. Such an outbreak could result in millions of people suffering and dying in every corner of the world in less than six months.

A view of rapidly decreasing glaciers in the Alps near Bern, Switzerland, Oct. 16, 2011. Rapidly accelerating climate change will cause unpredictable global effects. U.N. photo by Jean-Marc Ferré

A view of rapidly decreasing glaciers in the Alps near Bern, Switzerland, Oct. 16, 2011. Rapidly accelerating climate change could cause unpredictable global effects. U.N. photo by Jean-Marc Ferré

Much More Rapid Climate Change: Dramatic and unforeseen changes already are occurring at a faster rate than expected. Most scientists are not confident of being able to predict such events. Rapid changes in precipitation patterns – such as monsoons in India and the rest of Asia – could sharply disrupt that region’s ability to feed its population.

Euro/EU Collapse: An unruly Greek exit from the euro zone could cause eight times the collateral damage as the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, provoking a broader crisis regarding the EU’s future. In the short time since GT2030 was published, such a dismal scenario seems all the more plausible.

A Democratic or Collapsed China: China is slated to pass the threshold of U.S. $15,000 per capita purchasing power parity in the next five years or so – a level that is often a trigger for democratization. Chinese “soft” power could be dramatically boosted, setting off a wave of democratic movements. Alternatively, many experts believe a democratic China could also become more nationalistic. An economically collapsed China would trigger political unrest and shock the global economy.

A Reformed Iran: A more liberal regime could come under growing public pressure to end the international sanctions and negotiate an end to Iran’s isolation. An Iran that dropped its nuclear weapons aspirations and became focused on economic modernization would bolster the chances for a more stable Middle East.

A view of the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. A democratizing China would be a potential "Black Swan." U.N. photo by Evan Schneider

A view of the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. A democratizing China would be a potential “Black Swan.” U.N. photo by Evan Schneider

A Nuclear War or a WMD/Cyber Attack: Nuclear powers such as Russia and Pakistan and potential aspirants such as Iran and North Korea see nuclear weapons as compensation for other political and security weaknesses, heightening the risk of their use. The chance of non-state actors conducting a cyber-attack – or using WMD – also is increasing.

Solar Geomagnetic Storms: Solar geomagnetic storms could knock out satellites, the electric grid, and many sensitive electronic devices. The recurrence intervals of crippling solar geomagnetic storms, which are less than a century, now pose a substantial threat because of the world’s dependence on electricity.

United States Disengagement: A collapse or sudden retreat of U.S. power probably would result in an extended period of global anarchy; no leading power would be likely to replace the United States as guarantor of the international order. This is a scenario that, while wildly implausible during the Cold War, highly unlikely 10 years ago, and not considered likely as little as five years ago, is today, especially given the United States’ economic woes, not that far-fetched.

 

Black Swans Are Just That – Unpredictable Events

There is a danger in over-focusing on one or more these potential black swans – especially the dismal ones – and lose confidence in a stable global order in 2030. But these black swans merely highlight things that could happen under a discrete set of circumstances. None of this says any of these are highly likely or that they are destined to happen.

A solar wind stream hit Earth's magnetic field during the early hours of March 1, 2011. The impact sparked a minor polar geomagnetic storm that continued to intensify. NASA photo by James Spann

A solar wind stream hit Earth’s magnetic field during the early hours of March 1, 2011. The impact sparked a minor polar geomagnetic storm that continued to intensify. NASA photo by James Spann

What they do tell us, and clearly the United States is a leader in this area, is that individual nations, as well as the world community, are investing substantial efforts in attempting to head off some of these more dismal scenarios.  Efforts regarding mitigating the effects of climate change are one example. Investing in nuclear non-proliferation efforts is another, as is helping prevent cyber-attacks.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...