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In an age of disasters, a new book explains how we can better prepare for worst-care scenarios

Jonathan A. Knee   

In an age of disasters, a new book explains how we can better prepare for worst-care scenarios
  • In "The Devil Never Sleeps," a national security expert makes the case for disaster preparedness.
  • The book is most convincing when it argues that we should use close calls as opportunities to plan for the worst.

Ever feel like the world is facing a series of never-ending rolling calamities? If it's not a war in Ukraine, it's a domestic constitutional crisis or a freak weather-induced disaster.

What's more, doesn't it seem like it didn't used to be that way?

If you're convinced that this is not just your imagination, and you want to sound the alarm that everyone — from mothers and school teachers to small business owners and Fortune 500 CEOs — needs to reorient how they operate to reflect this new reality, then CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem's new book may be for you.

In "The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in the Age of Disasters," Kayyem — faculty director of the Homeland Security Project who's held a variety of state and federal homeland security positions — introduces us to "the infinite loop of destruction" that she claims characterizes the current era. (This may remind you of the immortal words of Father O'Flannagan from the movie "Airplane II": "You must trust me when I say it's very likely that we are all going to die.")

Don't worry, it's not that bad.

The good news, she assures us, is that the very "commonality and frequency of disasters allows us to focus on the few key skills needed to manage them," enabling her to finally make "disaster management simple, accessible" amidst the apparent chaos of the modern world. No longer will disaster management be treated as a unique skill delegated to professionals, she writes, but instead will be within the purview of every one of us.

Unfortunately, Kayyem simply takes it as a given that we are living in "an age of disasters"

It may be true, but beyond a passing reference to the increased frequency of hurricanes, the book never attempts to systematically make the case. This is much like the conventional wisdom that the world is changing faster than ever. It certainly feels like the technological disruptions in the 30 years since Marc Andreesen developed the Mosaic internet browser are unprecedented — but on reflection, it's not obviously more dramatic than going to war on horses in 1914 or dropping the atomic bomb in 1945.

Even if the premise is accepted, however, the collection of tools, frameworks and acronyms offered up by "The Devil Never Sleeps" fails to provide a convincing response. Kayyem's overarching approach does, at least, deliver on its promise of simplicity: "Essentially, when we think of a disaster, we focus on all the things we can do to stop it from happening (left of boom) and then all the things we can do to pick up the pieces when it does (right of boom)."

Given her assumption of relentless booms no matter what, she not surprisingly disparages efforts focused on stopping the inevitable, and instead emphasizes consequence mitigation. To underscore her preoccupation with what to do once the boom actually happens, she melodramatically ends each chapter dedicated to the lessons of various recent disasters with the words, "You are here."

But many activities designed to stop disasters also mitigate consequences — COVID vaccines, for instance, both decrease the chance you are infected and make it less likely you will die if you are — so the stark distinction repeatedly made seems a little artificial.

Kayyem's point that we should "stop trying to control probabilities when it comes to disasters and start trying to control the consequences" presents a similarly false choice. Just because probabilities cannot be calculated precisely does not mean that they should be ignored. It's not possible to make intelligent resource allocations to thwart an apparently endless array of potential harmful events without considering both the likelihood and the magnitude of the specific threats involved.

Kayydem's formal training is as an attorney, and that may be reflected in her belief in the relative importance of generalized processes and structures as compared to specialized knowledge. It may also infuse the various semantic distinctions that preoccupy her, often relating to what constitutes the "boom" and its left and right side in various crises. She also spends several pages complaining, unconvincingly, that the popular slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On" is somehow inconsistent with an aggressive focus on consequence mitigation.

Many of the short case studies of various well known disasters of recent decades are interesting, even if they don't necessarily prove or even support all the broader disaster management principles that the book seeks to promote. Where the book is most convincing is in its emphasis on using close calls "as an opportunity for worst-case-scenario planning" rather than an excuse to justify continued avoidance of the underlying problem.

We may or may not be living in the age of disasters, but it is definitely true that the devil never sleeps.

Jonathan A. Knee is a professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School and a senior advisor at Evercore. His most recent book is "The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Age of Tech Titans."


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