The black elephants

The phrase “black elephant” has been gaining traction on social media. This is an amalgamation of two phrases. One, “The elephant in the room” is about something large and obvious that is being ignored or overlooked. The other, “black swan” is an event that seems impossible and unpredictable until it occurs. A “black elephant” therefore, is an apparently unpredictable event that should actually be very predictable.

It is impossible to prepare for a black swan, by definition.  At best, it is possible to build robust systems that can cope with it. It is possible to prepare for a black elephant, but this is an event that people choose not to prepare for.

One example of a black elephant was the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The destructive power of the atom bomb stunned Japan into surrender. But the Germans and Americans had been trying to develop an atom bomb for years. Physicists had put pen to paper and theoretically calculated the explosive power it unleashed long before the actual development of the bomb.

Right now, the world is undergoing the sixth extinction event. This is a mass extinction of species, caused by climate change. Climate change is causing hotter temperatures (on average) coupled with wilder, more unpredictable cycles of extreme weather, such as hurricanes, blizzards and droughts.

This is another black elephant. There is overwhelming evidence that climate change has been triggered and accelerated by human activities. This situation has been predicted in detail, and in its broad outlines, by many scientists. It has been debated at multiple conferences and led to accords, such as the Kyoto Protocol.

But despite decades of warnings, climate change still seems to cause surprise, and policy-makers around the world appear under-prepared for the consequences. Indeed, the American president appears to be in denial to the point where US government agencies have supposedly been instructed to throttle the use of the phrase, “climate change”.  

Brexit is another black elephant. It has been on the cards since 2016. The deadline is very short now. The UK appears to be totally unprepared despite the consequences having been spelt out in detail. For that matter, the European Union may well be unprepared for some of the possible consequences. This could, for example, have a domino effect where other member nations opt out of the EU.

When we examine domestic policies over the past few years, one must classify demo
netisation as a black swan. It had never been a mainstream policy position for any political party. It was implemented with a high degree of secrecy. The subsequent events made it obvious that the administration was utterly unprepared and didn’t even have a coherent policy position to justify it.

On the other hand, the abrogation of Article 370 and the retraction of statehood status for Jammu & Kashmir is a black elephant. The BJP’s ideologues have always advocated some variation on this theme, and it should not have been a surprise that it would be muscled through, given a Parliamentary majority.

The entire political establishment — government and opposition — ought to have been prepared for it, and ready with policy positions, as well as arrangements on the ground. But there was a refusal to acknowledge the possibility, let alone prepare for the consequences. What little news we have trickling out of the region indicates that the administration was unprepared for what has followed. If there are further consequences, such as an escalation of hostilities with our Western neighbour, or international condemnation, those would also be black elephants.

There are always black elephants in the offing. The rollout of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country is on the cards, for example. It will cause huge disruptions since it asks for documents that many Indians have never possessed. We’ve already seen the mess that resulted from a “pilot NRC project” in Assam, with lakhs of residents sitting in camps.  But nobody is debating the likely consequences of a national rollout of the NRC yet. I’m sure you can think of other black elephants if you try.

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