Book Review: Catastrophe: Risk and Response, by Richard A. Posner

By Roberts, Patrick | Homeland Security Affairs, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Book Review: Catastrophe: Risk and Response, by Richard A. Posner


Roberts, Patrick, Homeland Security Affairs


In Catastrophe: Risk and Response, Richard Posner makes the case that the risk of global catastrophe is higher than most people think, and he analyzes the reasons why the U.S. under-prepares for natural, technological, and terrorist catastrophe. Attempts to mitigate the risk of catastrophe will incur heavy costs, whether economic (as in proposals to reduce the effects of climate change) or civic (as in policing reforms that infringe on civil liberties). How might the U.S. and the world weigh the extraordinary costs and uncertain future benefits of avoiding catastrophe? Posner advocates economic tools, especially cost-benefit analysis, as a guide in determining which catastrophes are worth protecting against and which are so unlikely to happen or so trivial that they are not worth the cost of defense.

Catastrophe is a central work in the burgeoning literature on how to deal with rare but high-consequence events. Long the domain of engineers, statisticians, and the reinsurance industry, the unique properties of rare, high-impact events drew attention after the attacks of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina. Nassim Taleb's recent bestseller, The Black Swan , documents the unpredictable nature of rare, high-consequence events. 1 He shows how traditional "Gaussian" statistics use past events to predict future ones according to the properties of the bell curve. With rare events, however, we do not know the underlying properties that define the curve. Mapping these non-linear relationships proves difficult.

Recent work in behavioral economics shows that people have trouble calculating risks. They often wildly over- or under-estimate numbers, but rarely provide a large enough margin of error. 2 When social scientists bother to check the predictions of "experts," of when and where international political events such as revolutions and wars are to take place, the experts fare little better than chance. 3 Most historically important events are impossible to predict with confidence.

We know that disasters will occur, just not precisely when. Scholars from a variety of disciplines have documented the myriad reasons people fail to take steps to reduce the damage caused by inevitable disasters. Sociologists focus on macro-level trends such as urbanization that lead to high concentrations of people and resources attractive to terrorists and vulnerable to accident and disaster. 4 Another line of inquiry examines the components of "social vulnerability" in race, class, and gender. 5 Disasters affect different social groups in different ways, and identifying patterns of how particular groups respond to disasters can help mitigate consequences. The elderly, for example, may lack social networks to help them evacuate.

Political scientists, as a rule, analyze the political incentives behind intervention in disaster policy. The system of presidential disaster declarations suits the federal nature of U.S. government by providing a role for governors in the request process, but it also provides few incentives for presidents to limit disaster spending. 6 Other studies examine how entrepreneurial bureaucracies such as FEMA attempt to find a mission and build capacities to meet that mission, sometimes running into conflict with the short-term goals of politicians. 7

Posner's work, however, descends from the macro level of social and institutional theory to the individual, drawing on the literature of economics to understand how individuals think about the risk of rare events. Catastrophe locates the source of disaster risk in individual behavior such as living in floodplains, not purchasing insurance, or not taking the possibility of technological accidents seriously. Posner's contribution is to synthesize the literature in economics and cognitive psychology to explain the obstacles to efficient risk calculation imposed by the human mind. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Book Review: Catastrophe: Risk and Response, by Richard A. Posner
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.