Do policy makers frequently underestimate non-human threats (ie: epidemic, natural disasters, climate change) when compared to threats that are human in nature (ie: military conflict, economic competition, Cold War)?

post by RorscHak · 2019-06-15T16:29:47.755Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW · 3 comments

This is a question post.

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Epidemic status: A random thought that I don’t feel adequate talking about.
However, I believe this topic must’ve been discussed by somebody somewhere, so if my question reminds you of something similar, please point me to it.

It appears to me that policy makers seem to frequently prioritise dealing with threat posed by human players and neglect threat posed by the natural environment, even when the latter could be demonstrably more worrisome than the former.

Almost as if we are “designed” to deal with hostility from other humans, but are badly equipped to perceive and deal with a hostile natural environment.

I still struggle to express my point, so I’ll put in a couple examples and see how it goes. These examples don't serve as evidence, as I made some sweeping statements about politics that won't necessarily be true (stereotypically true, perhaps), just to show what my question is concerning.

Example 1: Cold War and climate change.
For example, the USSR (ignoring the effect of nuclear weapons) during the Cold War probably didn’t pose an existential threat to the Western countries, while an impeding climate catastrophe might be.
Yet policy makers during the Cold War felt the need to commit significant amount of resources to counteract Soviet influence across the globe, including the costly (and arguably futile and nonsensical) wars in Korea and Vietnam, while political actions on the climate issue seems rather half-minded and still controversial.
Was it because climate change is too far away while the threat of communism seemed imminent? I don’t think so, since the reasoning behind the wars and many other geopolitical manoeuvres were likely long term, on the scale of decades if not longer—our environmental policy won’t differ much in this regard.

Example 2: WWI and influenza

In year 1918, even after the Influenza was observed to be extremely dangerous, authorities in the US were reluctant to implement public health measures and suppressed truthful reporting of the epidemic hoping to keep public morale high for WWI.
Which certainly backfired when the epidemic became obvious to the public, dismantling their trust in the authority. Critical judgement error indeed.
Again, it seems that the threat of the epidemic was downplayed in the mind of policy makers, even though it was already observed to be potent and deadly, and ultimately proven to be more destructive than the war itself. (Which shouldn’t come as too much a surprise)

Hopefully I have explained my question well enough.

I would like to know if there are similar discussions about this topic.

Maybe we can extend the guess further: we humans might be more adapted in sorting out our relationship with other humans compared to sorting out our relationship with non-human subjects. This is a very general statement that I don’t have any idea if we can back it up.

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answer by Dagon · 2019-06-15T17:15:50.340Z · score: 9 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I say no. They're prioritizing short-term over long and very long, but they're properly thinking about human threats as more amenable to policy response (not exactly more important, but more comparative-advantage for governments).

One very important piece missing from your analysis is that humans are strategic and other threats are not. If you can convince humans that you're prepared for their threat, you don't actually have to be prepared, because the attack won't come. You can't convince a virus of anything - they just keep replicating regardless of your stance or position.

I'd also argue that governments (and other ingroup/outgroup political units) are correctly categorizing threats to themselves, even when that incorrectly prioritizes threats to constituents. WWI was a threat to the style and composition of governments. Influenza killed more, but didn't threaten the organizations.

comment by RorscHak · 2019-06-16T04:33:14.051Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I like your last point a lot, does it mean that governments/institutions are more interested in protecting the systems they are in than their constituents? It indeed seems possible and can explain this situation.

I still wonder if such thing happens on an individual level as well, which can help shed some light.

comment by Dagon · 2019-06-20T16:18:53.031Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think there's a bunch of subtlety in the causation, but yes, most political units act on self-preservation more fervently than pursuing their nominal goals. Another filter would be that those who control and benefit from the organization are acting in their interests, even when the non-powerful "members" are harmed.

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