COVID, black swans and gray rhinos

Steven Kelman suggests we should spend more time planning for the known risks on the horizon.

Image: Shutterstock

Many blog readers have probably heard the term “black swan,” used to describe high-profile, but hard-to-predict and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology, which can occur because of a confluence of events that are themselves rare. When they occur, black swans have outsized significance for the world. The phrase is sometimes used to describe the economic meltdown of 2008. Because of their character, it is suggested there’s not much we can do to avert them.

Yet a recent article in the world’s best magazine, The Economist of London, challenges the focus of many pundits and analysts on black swans.

“This kind of thinking makes things worse by encouraging fatalism, rejecting accountability, and giving the nod to short-termism and willful ignorance.” We should be thinking more, The Economist suggests, about “gray rhinos.”

In the world of government and policy, gray rhinos are “highly likely, high-impact risks that are a matter of when, not if,” the article states. Gray rhinos are a “metaphor for missing the big, obvious thing that’s coming at you.” 

As examples, The Economist cites rising inequality, climate change and financial imbalances such as corporate debt levels. A current example, which seems to have been on the minds of writers, is COVID-19. There were endless predictions that something like a big pandemic was only a matter of time. Yet we still weren’t ready.

The phrase grey rhino was coined by Michele Wucker in her 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. I have not read Wucker’s book, but I can guess some of the reasons why we might ignore grey rhinos.

Some go back to individual psychology, such as the tendency to pay greater attention to pleasant than unpleasant news. There is also the natural desire to procrastinate in dealing with problems that don’t have a deadline attached to them, hoping, like Mr. Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, that “something will turn up” and the problem will go away on its own. Others are political, because solutions will often be controversial and opposed either for sincere or self-serving reasons – illustrated by debates about dealing with climate change.

The phrase got a lot of attention when in 2019 China President Xi Jinping gave a speech where he said his country had to worry not only about black swans but also about gray rhinos, which he exemplified by a host of big problems facing the country. Xi’s (somewhat China-idiosyncratic) list included “politics, ideology, economy, science and technology, society, the external environment, and party building.”

So is there anything we can do to increase the chances we successfully deal with gray rhinos?

The good news is that while many may prefer not to think about gray rhinos, we can also expect that some will sound the alarm. As suggested above, recognition is not nearly equal to success at dealing with them, because solutions are likely to be politically controversial. But widespread recognition is a good first step, so we should see what we can do to increase recognition that rhinos are there.

I would suggest that a practical first step toward that end is to use the phrase gray rhino as a category in our political and social debate, so people become more aware of the dangers these risks create. (And no, I am not a consultant to Wucker.) Having gray rhinos in our vocabulary can itself create a lobby for dealing with them. We don’t know whether the Chinese will be better at dealing with gray rhinos, but it seems they are better at recognizing them.

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