Reality is Unrealistic…

…or, more accurately, common sense is a flawed tool. What we think is common sense is often just based on limited horizons and unchallenged assumptions. This can be a problem. Take a person and put them in a situation where their common sense assumptions break down and they’ll be in trouble. Depending on the nature of the disconnect, it may even kill them.

Consider natural disasters.

On the face of it, this should be an easy one. What is the most lethal type of natural disaster? Tornados? Hurricanes? Volcanos? Earthquakes? Actually no. Aside from a handful of freakish exceptions like the Tambora super-eruption or (more speculatively), an asteroid impact, the type of disaster that kills the most people is actually the humble heatwave.

Consider the 2003 European extreme weather event. I remember it quite clearly. I was living in Portsmouth at the time. We had sea breezes in the city and we lived close to the sea, so we didn’t have it as bad as many people in the country. But even for us it was rough. I remember that sleep became impossible. I remember being constantly tired and spending the afternoons feeling slightly nauseous from overheating. Any kind of exertion quickly pushed you to the edge of collapse. The air felt like a warm, wet blanket. A blanket that crept over you and kept trying to smother you. The only relief that was available came through sitting in the darkest, coolest room of the house, parked right next to a fan and drinking lots of cold water. And this was the effect it had on a physically-fit and young individual. Who knows what it did to the ill or the elderly?

Actually we do know what it did to the ill and the elderly. It made them die. The 2003 heatwave is believed to have killed more than 30,000 people across Europe. It also arguably made millions of people ill to some degree (that August, everyone I knew suffered some degree of heat exhaustion). That knocks the vast majority of tornados/volcanos/hurricanes well into the shade. So, how come 2003 doesn’t rank in our minds up there with the Tambora event or the recent Chilean earthquake (death toll ~700)?

The answer is the way heatwaves work. They’re gradual events that build over days or weeks, with their effects spread out over a similar stretch of time. Human beings are notoriously bad at dealing with slow processes. In a way, this makes sense. An early human wandering around the plains of Africa is more immediately in danger from the lion in the bushes than the gradual spread of the neighbouring desert. And evolution is a conservative process, so it will tend to prioritise for spotting the lion. However, when the desert expands across your hunting grounds and all the game goes away … well, if our early human is still there, then they’ve got a problem! (One theory behind the evolution of the human animal suggests that this is exactly what happened to a bunch of apes around 10 million years ago – to stay alive, they had to start hunting different prey.)

Basically, sudden events like tornados are the lion from the analogy above. We’re actually pretty good at dealing with those – when a tornado smashes through a town in the American Mid-West, you don’t see the oil industry shipping in an army of paid mouths to deny that anything happened, for instance. Instead you see rescue efforts, disaster relief, emergency shelters etc and then subsequent reconstruction. Heatwaves, by contrast, are the spreading desert from the analogy – too easy to simply ignore. And that’s exactly what happened post-2003. Here in Britain, a lot of workplaces still have no plan for dealing with extreme weather events, for instance.

Problem is, as the climate warms up, 2003-style events are going to get more common. We really need to start getting a clue about how to handle these sorts of things, both as individuals and (I would say) as a species. And sometimes our so-called common sense (tornados >> heatwaves) really doesn’t help us.


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