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Global Risk is Spinning Out of Control

The recently completed work of the Anthropocene Working Group, a group of scientists studying the advent of a new geologic age – the Anthropocene – went largely unnoticed until recently. The Anthropocene era, which is broadly defined by how man-made factors impact the environment, has been in existence since the dawn of the Industrial Age. The Anthropocene has not only become associated with climate change, but other forms of man-made risk, such as cyber risk and terrorism, which have come to define a global risk management landscape that is slowly spinning out of control.

The evolving predominance of man-made risk does not suggest that natural risks are declining. They are, rather, colliding in some unpredictable and harrowing ways, which risk managers and decision makers are generally not prepared for. Natural risks are characterized by caprice. Naturally occurring earthquakes and hurricanes, do not plot when and where they will strike. Man-made risks, on the other hand are defined by agency, wherein a proximate cause that triggers an event, such as fracking, which has made Oklahoma the earthquake capital of the world. Man-made risks have subjected the world to the law of unintended consequences.

Unforeseen and unanticipated risks are becoming more frequent, less predictable, and are having a greater impact on more people at one time. Here are a few recent examples:

  • Unusually dry conditions in Canada enabled someone to start a forest fire that decimated a town (Fort McMurray) at the epicenter of the country’s oil sands industry, prompting 25% of Canada’s oil production to be temporarily taken off line, and impacting global oil prices.
  • The widespread use of fungicides has greatly reduced the effectiveness of the world’s few anti-fungal agents, meaning that as many people now die from fungal infections as from malaria.
    Syrians were migrating en masse from rural areas to cities well before the Syrian Conflict was born because of drought. The Conflict has only exacerbated the reasons for their displacement.
  • Zika’s spread has already impacted tourism and travel patterns globally, with severe knock-on effects for businesses and people who depend on tourists for their livelihood.

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