Thursday, April 18, 2024

The black swan

Sarwar Ahmed
It was a chilly April morning when Fakhruzaman, my Bangladeshi colleague who works for Syngenta in Europe, drove me for a sightseeing tour through the idyllic English countryside near Cambridge. We stopped over for some tea and muffins in a restaurant next to a small river. White swans floated on the cold water next to the bank, waiting for wayfarers to throw titbits for them to savour. I was taken aback when I saw a couple with swans, which were black in colour. Until then, I never knew there were black swans.
According to Wikipedia, until the mid 16th century, Europe knew only of white swans and a black swan was used as a statement of impossibility. Only after a Dutch expedition in 1697, led by explorer Willem de Vlamingh, the black swan was discovered on the Swan River in Western Australia. The term metamorphosed to connote that a perceived impossibility might later be disproven.
As I read through Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw, one particular chapter stuck on like a post-it. It is about the black swan theory, conceived by a Lebanese, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who also has a best-selling book on the subject.
Taleb explains that a black swan is an event with three attributes. First, it is an outlier, a rarity, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
As Wikipedia states, this theory explains: 1) the disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology, 2) the non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods owing to their very nature of small probabilities, and 3) the psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs.
Who dreamt the 9/11 would happen, or the financial meltdown of 2008? Taleb did bet that a black swan would hit the financial system sooner or later, prior to its meltdown. His black swan theory proved him true with the catalytic event of 2008 and its far-reaching consequences on the global economy.
Here is an interesting piece I came across recently. The global risks advisory firm Maplecroft has released a new Climate Change Vulnerability Index, which enables organisations to identify areas of risk within their operations, supply chains and investments. It evaluates 42 social, economic and environmental factors to assess national vulnerabilities across three core areas: exposure to climate-related natural disasters and sea-level rise; human sensitivity, in terms of population patterns, development, natural resources, agricultural dependency and conflicts; thirdly, the index assesses future vulnerability by considering the adaptive capacity of a country’s government and infrastructure to combat climate change.
The index rates 16 countries as ‘extreme risk,’ including nations that represent new Asian economic power and possess significant forecasted growth. Maplecroft rates Bangladesh as the country most at risk due to extreme levels of poverty and high dependency on agriculture, whilst its government has the lowest capacity of all countries to adapt to predicted changes in the climate. In addition, Bangladesh has a high risk of drought and the highest risk of flooding, according to the Maplecroft website.
The grim predictions include a deterioration of agricultural productivity. According to International Food Policy Research Institute, a crop model based on climate change indicates that in South Asia, average yields in the year 2050 for crops will decline from 2000 levels by about 50 percent for wheat, 17 percent for rice, and about 6 percent for maize.
Is climate change our black swan? Unlike Taleb’s black swan theory of unpredictability, the saga of climate change is inevitably unfolding. As is our good old habit, all we do to mitigate climate change is ask for a dole with the proverbial bowl in our hand.
To ensure food security, we need to increase agricultural productivity in a situation where our population is on the rise, we continue to lose arable land, become vulnerable to erratic weather and consequently, water resources dwindle.
Do we sense this urgency to adapt our agriculture at a faster rate or just cope with fulfilling current needs? Newer agricultural technologies, be it water availability and use, seeds, mechanisation or chemicals, need to be adopted to cope with the dawning reality.
As an example, let us look at the major resource for sustainable agriculture, water. It isn’t only Dhaka that needs its canals to be dug to keep self-righteous activists happy. We need to make water available for agriculture in a more sustainable way, instead of raising our hands for providence to deliver.
To tap this resource for agriculture, we need to dig, dig out irrigation channels that can hold water during the monsoons and are linked up with our rivers to draw water during drier times. It seems Maplecroft’s statement of our government’s capacity to adapt and understand the new reality is indeed true. The black swan is flying in our direction. Are we ready to face it?

The writer is the managing director of Syngenta Bangladesh Ltd.

 

Original article on The Daily Star

Related News

Social media pressure changing news making

Opinion Afsan Chowdhury THE relentless reality of social media has begun to influence news making at several levels. Three social media elements are making these pressures so strong. (a) It reaches consumers almost instantly and in no way can professional media compete with that. (b) Content creators can mix and offer audio-visuals that cost little ... Read more

Securing water for sustainable urban future

Opinion By AKM Mahmudul Haque WATER, the essence of life, is a precious resource that sustains our planet and its inhabitants. Yet, despite the vastness of our oceans, only a small portion of the water is potable. Recent studies have revealed alarming statistics that approximately 80 per cent of the water supplied in cities and ... Read more

We need to transform social norms for gender equality

World Population Day Views Md Nuruzzaman Khan World Population Day, which has been observed on July 11 every year since 1989, holds significant importance in addressing critical population-related issues. This year, the focus is on gender equality, symbolised by the theme of “Unleashing the power of gender equality: Uplifting the voices of women and girls ... Read more

Quality education for all, but quality schools for few?

Views Mohammad Ehsanul Islam Khan Education empowers and shapes nations. Increased enrollment and reading levels in Bangladesh have also enhanced education access. But the focus on quantity has overtaken the drive for quality education, leaving only a handful with access to top-notch universities. According to Dr John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life; education ... Read more

Equal education leads to a better society

Opinion Mehreen Chowdhury EDUCATION is known to be strongest when voices and diverse perspectives are heard and shared around the community. It is vital that young people are given the space and safety to express them without feeling ashamed. The idea of special education is governed by the concept that education is for all. It ... Read more

Alarming increase in child marriage

Opinion Zillur Rahaman CHILD marriage is one of the social ills in Bangladesh. It was once an epidemic in Bangladesh. It, however, came under control because of various measures and the supervision of the government in the past decade or so, but has been increasing at an alarming rate since the Covid pandemic, which increased ... Read more

Time to prioritise social justice

Views We have the chance to reshape the world we live in – economically, socially, and environmentally. Gilbert F Houngbo May 1 is widely known as International Labour Day, a day when we celebrate the contribution of workers worldwide. It is a moment for pride, celebration, and hope. After three years of the Covid-19 crisis, ... Read more

More heatwaves are coming our way. Are we prepared?

Views While Bangladesh has a lot of experience in tackling cyclones and floods, we have not taken heat stress into consideration until now. Saleemul Huq The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently completed its sixth assessment report (AR6), with the Synthesis Report coming out in March. The Synthesis Report carries some key messages about ... Read more

Women must be at the forefront of the transition to a low-carbon economy

Opinion Veronica Mendizabal Joffre and Pinky Serafica Can we truly reimagine a path to a low-carbon transition and change the climate narrative? This is hard to envision when we witness the unprecedented damage we are inflicting on the planet. For women, the effects of climate change are already a lived experience. Where environments are damaged ... Read more

Why collaboration is in our collective interest

ViewsRMG NOTESClimate ActionWithout fashion retailers and their suppliers working together, our industry as a whole will continue to see emissions rising. Mostafiz Uddin According to the latest report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world is likely to fail to reach its most ambitious climate target – limiting global warming to ... Read more

Will our universities survive in 25 years?

Views Syed Saad Andaleeb Quality education is the backbone of a wholesome and prosperous society. But finding the “quality” in quality education continues to be elusive in Bangladesh. The “so called” universities (more like community colleges) are rife with social, economic, political and ideological problems that work against building learning organisations. Teachers, the kingpins, don ... Read more

Can teachers be the pivot of change in education?

Views Manzoor Ahmed “No system of education can be better than its teachers” is an aphorism that remains meaningful. The nostalgic and idealised image of the teacher as a scholar, dispensing knowledge and wisdom to the young selflessly, who lives a simple life with little concern for material rewards and who is looked upon by ... Read more

Climate loss and damage are clearly visible in southwest Bangladesh

Views Ashish Barua, Sawkat Chowdhury The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) by Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that the sea level, over the last 120 years, has increased by 0.20 metres, and continues rising fast, caused by thermal expansion, glacier ice loss, ice sheet loss, etc. The sea level ... Read more

How can Dhaka solve its traffic problem?

Views Debra Efroymson If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that “traffic was particularly bad today,” I could have retired already. Over the years, people have hazarded various suggestions as to the cause of the terrible Dhaka traffic and its potential solutions. Causes include: not enough roads for all the cars; poor ... Read more

Celebrating 50 years of global environmental movement

Opinion Saleemul Huq The global environmental movement started in 1972, with the first global environment conference held in Stockholm, Sweden, hosted by then Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. Among the heads of governments who also attended was the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who famously declared that environment and poverty were two major global issues ... Read more

Saving earth from disasters

Opinion By Md Zillur Rahaman TODAY is World Earth Day. The day is celebrated worldwide each year to show support for the protection of the environment. It was first observed in 1970 and is now held globally by the Earth Day Network. The UN-sponsored conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from June 3 to June 14, ... Read more

Women for women

Opinion Faria Rashid PATRIARCHAL societies like to deceive women into thinking that women cannot get along, work together and stand in support of one another. Given the patriarchal history of society, it has mostly worked to keep women in their places and apart from each other. This is why we hear so much about women ... Read more

CSR and a new order of business

From being seen as mere philanthropy and ‘doing good’, corporate social responsibility is now at the heart of business sustainability and ethical and accountable corporate behaviour Bitopi Das Chowdhury CSR or corporate social responsibility has been a buzz phrase for quite some time now. Not a day goes by without it being mentioned, albeit in ... Read more

Harmful impacts of cartels on consumers

Munshi Abdul Ahad A cartel is an anti-competitive arrangement between two or more competing businesses. Anticompetitive agreements, particularly cartels, harm consumers in urbanised society, as well as in the emerging countries. In adding together, cartelised industrial sectors lack competition which certainly reduces competitiveness in the long run and may have a negative impact on the ... Read more

How to troubleshoot the economy

Sadiq Ahmed Bangladesh is facing serious macroeconomic challenges and I have written a lot explaining them in a series of articles published in The Daily Star and in The Financial Express. In this new article I am going to write specifically about how Bangladesh could address those challenges while also mobilising substantial external financing in ... Read more