The great unraveling

The last 12 months yielded another humbling year. One event after another confirmed the limits of our ability to predict and shape the future. Blame idle imaginations, selfish societies, pusillanimous politicians or blind bureaucracies. Whatever the cause, 2011 should remind us of the need to be better prepared for the worst and deflate any notion that we can master our collective destinies.

For Japanese, the defining event of the year was the triple disaster of March 11. The earthquake that began the cascade of catastrophes was the largest in Japanese history and among the top five since modern record-keeping began.

Reports issued in recent weeks do not agree on the cause of the tragedy, but the fact that government and industry officials failed to envision and prepare for an event that could exceed existing safety parameters for the nation’s nuclear power plants suggests a basic disconnect in the planning process. The tragedy has posed a great challenge to Japan’s nuclear power industry, and underlined the need to rethink the country’s energy framework.

The quick and easy rejoinder is that March 11 was the result of a natural disaster and such events are by definition beyond human ken. That conveniently sidesteps the fundamental question of how we prepare for the future and the unanticipated.

The next exhibit in the defenestration of our egos is the Arab Spring. Some neoconservatives, eager to reclaim legitimacy for the botched invasion of Iraq, argue that the wind blowing across the Arab world originated in Baghdad. But the trigger was the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, a long way from the thousands of U.S. forces deployed in Iraq. His desperate act echoed throughout the region, resulting in the overthrow of governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, with mass unrest still bubbling up in the streets of Syria and Yemen.

The ultimate outcome of the revolutionary change sweeping over the region is unknown. Will democrats or Islamic fundamentalists prevail? There is little indication that any government has prepared for this moment, no matter how much it has been anticipated.

Equally disorienting has been the virtual collapse of Europe after the string of economic calamities that dominated 2011. In hindsight, the implosion of the Greek economy and the tide of possible insolvency that lapped at Italian shores — following difficulties in Ireland, Spain and Portugal — were inevitable. European leaders were forced to act decisively to defend an institutional order — and an ideal — that had framed and guided their actions for half a century. And yet they dithered.

One inconsequential step after another has eroded the legitimacy of the European project, raising the question of whether the union will survive. In fact, the EU is likely to surmount this trauma, but it is not clear at what cost.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, another game of political “chicken” was played out as the United States Congress seemingly failed to take seriously its responsibility to honor its debts and financial obligations. The readiness of Republican politicians to allow default tarnished the credibility of the U.S. government and its international legitimacy. The argument that the world’s leading economy and steward of the global reserve currency could choose to not pay its bills without consequence revealed a breathtaking irresponsibility. Here, again, politicians were dismissive and disdainful of the impact of their (in)action.

The gap between the ideals supported by leaders and the reality of their policies animated the “Occupy” movement that has spread across the globe. Some see this as the developed world’s version of the Arab Spring. While the Occupy movement is less coherent than its Arab counterpart, it is driven by the same principles of justice and fairness, with equal opportunity for all. These events are disparate, span a range of phenomena and are the product of particular circumstances, yet they have common features.

First, there is the failure on the part of governments and decision makers to recognize and anticipate the primary causes of instability and disorder. In the case of the Fukushima accident, high-ranking Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials dismissed the prospect of a natural disaster on the scale of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, along with the cascade of safety failures that followed.

For their part, governments in Europe and the U.S. chose to ignore plain evidence that their political decisions were unsustainable and that hard choices were imminent. Governments and markets stared each other down, focusing on short-term domestic political and economic imperatives, seemingly oblivious to the human lives that hung in the balance.

A second shared feature is the complexity of the systems at work. The impact of cause and effect has been accentuated by the dynamic interaction of component parts. We are talking about the chain of causality, not ultimate outcomes.

In other words, while the sources of danger are evident, the precise manner in which they manifest themselves is not. The obvious conclusion is that governments, enterprises, international organizations and society as a whole need to build as many safety features as possible into systems to minimize risk. The failure to plan for failure exacted an extraordinary cost in 2011. Sadly, we have shown little aptitude to learn from our mistakes.