Saturday, 22 December 2007

The greatest risk manager of the ancient world?

Who was the greatest risk manager of the ancient world? Not easy to separate fact from fiction, but here is a possible nomination from Thucydides, the great ancient Greek historian who wrote that:

"Themistocles .. showed both the best grasp of an emergency situation at the shortest notice, and the most far-reaching appreciation of probable future developments,both for evil and for good."

Themistocles saw that Athens needed to develop as a maritime power, in order to expand as an empire, but also to protect itself against the superpower of the time, Persia. His strategy, realised eventually after 14 years , was to build a fleet of 200 galleys, train the Athenians to manoeuvre them effectively and to improve the harbous at Piraeus. In suggesting this course he was going against recent history for the Athenians had defeated the Persians on land at the battle of Marathon. Only by prolonged debate, culminating in a vote by the assembly of citizens which ostracized Aristides, his opponent who favoured developing the army, was he able to succeed.

In 480BC the Athenians with their allies destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis and in doing so lifted the threat of Persian domination.

Themistocles was a master strategist in concept and implementation, who carried those who would man the galleys with his decision. It is extraordinary that such a fractious democracy could be persuaded to change from the military approach which had proved successful against the Persians.They were, after long debate, realistic enough to understand that infantry would not be sufficient to save them a second time because of the resources of the Persian Empire. Few victors prepare for the next war by such radical change. Beyond the genius of Themistocles it was a triumph for the messy business of democratic decisions.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Idiots and Risk

Rebecca West in her masterpiece "Grey Lamb and Black Falcon" observes that 'idiocy' is the female vice. She explains that the derivation of the word idiot comes from the Greek idiotes which means a private person and in her opinion women were more prone to just taking into account what immediately affects them and their families.

There are several newspapers, the Daily Mail for one, which focus their reporting not on the wider world and its issues but on those private stories which idiots, in the sense that Rebecca West meant, appreciate because they excite but do not threaten. This year the Maddy McKann disappearance has been just such a story and the current reappearance of Mr Darwin, presumed dead 5 years ago another one.

The Idiot's approach to risk tends to focus too much on the impact that risks could have and not enough on the probability that they will occur. Excessive concern over autism and the measles jab has meant the reduction of children being immunised and so the almost certain result of children dying of measles, a threat which had been almost wiped out, until the Idiot's focused on the personal rather than the bigger picture. In trying to protect their own children, parents have greatly increased the risk to all children, including theirs. My grandmother had exactly this view of risk. She was very proud of the fact that she had kept my father free of mumps as a child. When he contracted it from me he was aged 40 and as a consequence went deaf in one ear for the rest of his life.

United we stand, divided we fall when confronting the viral legions.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Fair shares

Bird flu represent a major risk for the world's population. It also is a big opportunity for the pharmaceutical company that develops a vaccine. The cost of such a vaccine is unlikely to be affordable by many affected countries, including Indonesia where most of the recent cases have occurred. Indonesia is not willing to share its samples with the World Health Organisation unless it gets vaccine plants in return.

The New Scientist in its editorial of 24.11.2007 on the subject suggests a way out of the stalemate

" The pandemics of TB and HIV may provide answers. Here public-private partnerships and other hybrid organisations are forming that are not driven by large profits. They are starting to organise R&D globally to develop drugs and vaccines cooperatively and to distribute them fairly.... everyone must start once again sharing viruses in test tubes before we are sharing them on the wind"


Sustainability is yet again the flavour of the month. A major broker was promoting its importance at a Conference in Sao Paolo two weeks back. 30 years ago my brother and I picked up a cheque for $10,000 in Houston for an essay on sustainability. We focused on what the UK should do with its North Sea Oil Resources and proposed a fund which would be used to develop sustainable alternatives when the oil runs out. Peter Walker, a key figure in the defeat of the miners' strike and a very successful entrepreneur/politician, told us that no government would take such a long term view.

In fact the UK did not blow the oil bonanza, it kept fuel taxes high, but it did not make the significant investments in alternative energy sources that we proposed. Now it needs to.

The prize that we won in 1977 was the George and Cynthia Mitchell Prize for Sustainable Development, sponsored by the Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation and supported by the University of Houston and the Club of Rome. It was awarded at a Conference in Houston on the subject of "Alternatives to Growth" at which Herman Kahn, Tip O'Neill and Jim Wright spoke. I remember that Jim Wright ,a Texan congressman who later succeeded Tip O'Neill as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, stated that there were "no alternatives to growth" - for some in Texas some things never change, but George and Cynthia Mitchell made an investment so that they could.