An analysis of “highly obvious but ignored threats”—from failing infrastructure to financial crises to climate change—and what can be done to prevent disastrous outcomes.
“Of all the tricks that human nature plays on us, inertia is one of the most powerful forces preventing us from getting out of the way of a known challenge,” writes policy analyst Wucker (Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right, 2006, etc.), a former vice president at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Drawing on interviews and research in behavioral economics, she details the “willful collective failure” to act on warning signs that preceded the 2008 financial crisis, the Enron debacle, the collapse of a Minneapolis bridge in 2007, and other events. She calls these highly probable, high-impact threats “Gray Rhinos,” as opposed to the rare, unpredictable catastrophes that author Nassim Nicholas Taleb dubbed “Black Swans” in his popular 2007 book, The Black Swan. Throughout her book, Wucker describes the many reasons people fail to respond to obvious dangers—e.g., denial, avoidance, procrastination, and calculated self-interest. Many reasons are emotional or irrational. Others are encouraged by the imperatives of political and financial systems, which seek short-term results or profits rather than investing in long-term solutions. Wucker makes a strong case, but she is often long-winded and perhaps overly optimistic that an awareness of the quirks of human nature shaping our decisions can spur decision-makers to respond effectively to obvious threats. However, she provides solid examples of government action on such gray rhinos as water shortages and the need to plan for future disasters in the wake of floods. She urges readers to avoid the panic stage of an impending threat by “quickly moving from recognition to diagnosis to action.”
A valuable guide for individuals and policymakers who want to act when they see the lights of an oncoming train.