Facing the future. Guest blogger: Prof. Stephen Leeder

Facing the future in a world where black swan events change everything.

When considering what we may be facing with a new federal government in Australia, a wise starting point would be a conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he of the Black Swan theory.

Taleb has written extensively, using the discovery of black swans in a world that did not believe they existed as his metaphor, about the impact of unpredictable game-changing events. Such events (9/11, the tsunami that led to the Fukushima catastrophe, the internet) change the course of history but we do not see them coming.

According to Wikipedia, Black Swan events have the following characteristics:

  1. The event is a surprise (to the observer).
  2. The event has a major effect.
  3. After the first recorded instance of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected; that is, the relevant data were available but [not processed in a way that enabled us to prevent it].

So perhaps the best that we can do in thinking about what we are facing is to acknowledge that the big things that will shape our history over the next 3-6 years are not predictable.  An epidemic, an earthquake, a nuclear war, a tipping point in climate change that kills all the fish, a crazy person on a rampage with a gun, the discovery of a cure for cancer or dementia – no-one can say.

In the meantime of course there is a high measure of predictability about our daily lives.  Tony Abbott will continue to conduct his business with intelligence, discipline, an ascetic athleticism, a trenchant debater’s criticism of opponents and a demand for loyalty in his ranks.  He may well manifest a religious concern for the plight of the poor. Think three years in a seminary and then think three years as prime minister.  The differences are unlikely to be profound.  None of us really change much over time.

Tony Abbott is on record as having little sympathy for those with mental illness, questioning whether what is commonly called mental illness is not a cute name for weakness of character.  He may have moved beyond this caricature: we shall see.

Stopping the boats and abolishing the carbon tax are core promises.  The first will only be achieved by a more sophisticated and nuanced approach than having the Australian navy intervene.  Settling the xenophobic paranoia whipped up over this matter will take time.  Carbon has a bad history in Australia.  Maybe a Black Swan event is necessary for our nation to address climate change seriously.

In relation to health care, little has been said to indicate what the new national policies will be.  The challenges – older people, more chronic disease, more technology, more need for national prevention programs, and more resources for general practice – are mainly managerial and only secondarily political, though of course the capacity for faulty politics to stuff things up in health care is substantial.

The previous government embarked upon a program of change to the health care system as described recently in a blog by John Dwyer.  As he argued, however, much remains to be done to better align the provision of care with the health needs of Australians.  This is especially so in relation to the care of those who have serious and continuing illness who require care from hospitals, general practitioners, community health staff, specialists in the community and home care.  The joining up of these care modalities is best done from a community base and while progress has been made, we lag far behind international best practice.

The preventive agenda, never enthusiastically endorsed by the conservative side of politics, has much work to do with the disastrous epidemic of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  To address this effectively will require the engagement of the food industry, curbs on our alcohol consumption, revised plans for urban design and much more.  A retreat into assigning responsibility entirely to the individual for lifestyle behaviour and food and beverage choices is unacceptable and silly.  We have done well with a long struggle over tobacco, especially during the past six years, and much more needs to be done across portfolios to address the huge health problems associated with over- and inappropriate consumption of processed foods. Tony, are you listening please?

We can only wait and see what Mr. Abbott et al. have in mind.  Black Swan events can change everything in a trice.

In summary, the predictable aspects of the future can be discerned in the character of the principal players and the political context in which they are operating.  But it is the big, unpredictable events that will shape our history. Let’s hope they are good ones that create new opportunities!

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