The word catastrophe originally stems from a Greek word meaning overturn or turn of events. In modern English it has come to be an expression of a calamitous event causing sudden, disastrous damage or suffering. (Brexit is a catastrophe! – Ed)
In the way of the modern world the risk of some kind of catastrophe appears to have risen. But that’s not true! The chances of catastrophes occurring have been a constant through time. Cavemen were susceptible to rock falls and medieval cities were prone to infernos and plagues.
We should expect surprises but for some reason we don’t. We should also expect that some surprises can be very unpleasant. This is all the more bewildering because our lives are full of surprises – and always have been. Some people confuse this lack of awareness with optimism bias. No matter what life throws at them optimists feel confident of surviving the situation. But recognising that some surprises could prove calamitous is a wholly worthwhile viewpoint. Such forward thinking is a cornerstone of business plans and risk-management policies – so-called “what if scenarios”.
Many see no point in worrying about the unexpected and yet they see no difficulty in having life insurance to protect their family; health insurance to protect their lifestyle; office insurance to protect their business and pension savings to protect their old age.
Yes it’s true that we can’t plan for every eventuality and we cannot assume that every surprise will result in a catastrophe – but some form of planning is very clever. Older readers will remember money before the Euro and some may even recall the complexities of pre-decimalisation (£.s.d.). What precautions should we take for a future currency surprise? There is a sense that transferring to the euro was an evolutionary step forward and, therefore, a step backwards cannot be contemplated. But what implications would it have for your life if the Euro broke up?
The fall-out from the surprising Brexit vote has the potential to be a real catastrophe for lots of businesses and many individuals. But what if your next personal surprise had serious negative connotations for you? In other words, what if the big events like Brexit or climate change are overtaken by a personal tragedy for you? Considering this kind of stuff is not about optimism or pessimism – it’s simply pragmatism.
Pragmatic planning can prevent surprises becoming catastrophes and can lead to safer outcomes. We might think that launching rockets into space or carrying out major surgery are complex procedures that are predisposed to unwelcome surprises and potential calamities; and so require detailed planning. But we would never dream of carrying out such plans ourselves; and yet there is nothing more complex or uncertain as our own day-to-day existence.
The lesson is surely that we should not go about our daily lives in a blasé fashion oblivious to the surprises that await us. Many ignore the evidence that surprises can turn into calamities; refusing to accept that catastrophes can happen – until they actually do!