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Ancient Lessons on Managing Risk

2nd century AD mosaic illustrating The Odyssey by Homer.

2nd century AD mosaic illustrating The Odyssey by Homer.

May 29, 2018


Some of the deepest insights about risk management are not all that new.

In the classical Greek legends of Homer, the mythic traveler Odysseus had advance warning that the Sirens laid an irresistible trap. A rational approach would have been to steer away. An irrational one would have been to plunge ahead. But a detour would have slowed Odysseus’s journey home, and ignoring the risk could have led to disaster. Odysseus’s solution is a beautiful example of using preliminary knowledge to manage risk. At the same time, it provided confirmatory evidence that simplified future risk management. The preliminary knowledge, of course, was that the Sirens’ trap is a song, and that, after listening, there is no escape.

Odysseus’s risk management technique was plugging the ears of his crew with wax, and having himself tied to the mast, so that he could safely evaluate the Sirens’ song. While plugging ears or lashing to masts may not solve a wide range of 21st century problems (although the recent news cycle frequently leads me to consider both options), this scene from the Odyssey illustrates how creative use of knowledge can save lives, money and time.

Managing the risks of climate change is more complex, but the value of information that provides an early warning should be as clear to us as it was to Odysseus.

Basic knowledge about the role of greenhouse gases in controlling Earth’s climate has been accumulating for more than 150 years. Recent discoveries from Stanford, including studies from Noah Diffenbaugh’s lab on links between warming and extreme events, add important refinements to a knowledge landscape where both the big picture and the details are increasingly in focus. Understanding of potential impacts from the changing climate is also increasing rapidly, especially with new work from David Lobell and colleagues on risks to agriculture and Marshall Burke and colleagues on risks to economies. These new studies pile confirmation on certainty that the risks are real and serious, and that they increase rapidly with the amount of warming.

At the same time, knowledge about the feasibility of solutions is increasing rapidly. Wind and solar are now the least expensive sources of new electricity in many parts of the world. New work from Gretchen Daily and colleagues demonstrates the cost effectiveness of coastal protection that works with nature.

Around the world, countries, companies, states, cities, organizations and individuals, are building on this knowledge to tackle climate change, but progress is much too slow. Why isn’t there more action at the global scale? It is as if we hear the first phrases of the Sirens’ song but, even though many of us are frantically kneading wax, the collective response ranges from baby steps to questioning the science. The hero of antiquity – and the poet-philosophers who revered him – understood the importance of information and the need to manage well-understood risks. And while Odysseus wasn’t above asking for assistance from the gods, he was also prepared to take decisive action, before threats became a crisis.

Unlike the ancient Greeks, we have 150 years of careful research, tens of thousands of scientific papers, thoroughly vetted assessments from the international scientific community, and a rapidly growing array of real-world demonstrations that solutions can be cost effective, reliable and replete with other benefits for people and nature.

Our problem is not a lack of information. Instead, its roots are in three areas. First, too many of us lack the perspective to appropriately weigh short-term and longer-term imperatives. Second, it is too easy to identify another country, industry or person as more responsible than ourselves for taking the next step. And third, more of us could aspire to be and support leaders with the boldness and vision to take truly decisive action. None of these problems is insoluble, but every day brings us closer to the Sirens’ song.

Contact Information

Christine H. Black
Associate Director, Communications

Devon Ryan
Communications Manager

Rob Jordan
Editor / Senior Writer