The Coronapocalypse Part 23: Acts of Nature

A couple of months ago I was visiting friends when a eucalyptus tree fell on my car. I had parked on the street next to a park. It was a very windy day and from the kitchen of my friend’s house we heard a loud crack. This was not the sound of the tree hitting my car but rather the sound of the tree trunk snapping off near its base. We went outside to see what the noise was to find that the top of the tree had hit the car roof. By eucalyptus standards, the tree was not very large; perhaps just under ten metres tall. It put two large dents in the car which, fortunately, did not cost as much to repair as I had expected. All in all, it could have been worse.

My friend said I should see if the local council would pay for the damages. I had a vague recollection that damages were not normally paid for this kind of thing but I decided to have a look on their website. It turns out the council does allow applications for damages but the internet discussions I could find on the issue said it was not worth pursuing. A tree falling on a car is considered an act of nature and the council is not legally responsible, so I didn’t bother with an application.

Some people apparently think this rule is unfair. The tree was on council land and council are paid to maintain the trees. So, it should be their responsibility, they argue. However, this loses sight of the bigger picture. If the council is forced to pay every time a car is damaged by a tree on their land, they are very likely to conclude that it’s simply not financially viable to have trees at all. They might decide it’s cheaper in the long run to cut them all down. Imagine a suburb devoid of trees. Not only would it be incredibly ugly, it would get extremely hot in summer. The birds, insects and other creatures that depend on the trees would disappear. The whole point of the suburbs, the whole reason people moved there in the first place, was to enjoy ‘nature’. To remove the trees would defeat the entire point of the place but that would be the logical outcome of making council, a group of human beings, responsible for what are essentially acts of nature.

An objection could be made to this line of reasoning that council doesn’t need to chop the trees down, it could just spend more money on them. They could go out and hire an army of arborists to take care of the trees and we’d have the best of both worlds. There’s two problems with that. Firstly, it would cost a fortune. How many residents would be willing to accept a massive increase in their council rates to pay for such a scheme? The second problem is practical and relates to what can actually be done by the experts.

I once did a short course on horticulture at Melbourne University and one of our lecturers was Melbourne’s foremost tree expert. He told one of his war stories about a situation at one of Melbourne’s richest private schools. He had been called in to provide advice about the issue of whether some eucalyptus trees should be removed from the school playground. Some of the parents were insisting the trees were an unacceptable risk to the students. The school did not want to fell the trees partly because it’s very expensive to have a twenty metre high tree taken down (we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars) and partly because one of the trees had substantial heritage value. During the discussion, the parents demanded a guarantee that the tree would not fall or shed its branches. The horticulture expert said it was possible to be very sure that a tree would not fall as a tree must first get very sick or even die before falling and that would be quite obvious from looking at it. In relation to the risk of branches falling, there was less certainty as shedding branches is part of the lifecycle of a tree and can happen even though a tree is otherwise healthy. No guarantee could be given but with proper care and attention the risk was very minimal. This was unacceptable to the parents and the school caved in and had the trees removed, something which annoyed the horticulture lecturer. Surely the beauty of the tree, the shade it provides and the intrinsic connection between man and nature which is implied by our appreciation of trees in the first place made the risk worthwhile. What was the alternative? A school play area made entirely of concrete? Well, that’s more or less what the students at that school got.

The point of the story is that, even if you had an army of arborists, even if you have an arborist for each tree, you could not guarantee that a branch will not fall or even that the tree won’t fall. It is simply not within the power of man to know such things with certainty. It you were to hire such an army of arborists, you won’t entirely remove the risk and, in fact, you reduce the risk only a miniscule amount from where it already is. In any rational cost-benefit analysis, the plan simply doesn’t get done.

The concept of an act of nature thus has two parts. Firstly, it represents an understanding of the limitations of human knowledge. Secondly, it mitigates against outcomes like chopping down all the trees because, by acknowledging the limits of human knowledge it also acknowledges the limits of responsibility that may be borne by humans. It protects people from blame and therefore removes the risk of excessive intervention in order to avoid said blame. In this way it acts to protect the commons from intolerant minorities who use the threat of blaming those in power to gain concessions at the expense of the common good.

We can now use this concept of an act of nature and what happens when you forego it to see what has happened with the corona event.

Viral disease, and disease in general was, for most of human history seen as an act of nature. Nobody other than quacks tried to intervene for the simple reason that nobody knew what the cause was and intervention almost always made things worse. The breakthroughs made in the last hundred and fifty odd years have given us incredible new powers to fight disease. In relation to viral disease, the number of people dying, in particular among the young, has nosedived. But all the gains had already been made by the 1970s. In the last fifty years, deaths from viral disease have remained steady and almost all the deaths are now among the elderly for the very simple and obvious reason that as you get old your immune system, and your body in general, becomes weakened and can’t stave off disease so well. There has been no medical breakthrough to stop the aging process. We accept dying of old age as an act of nature. To do otherwise is delusional. But that’s exactly the delusion we got into at the start of the corona event. Remember how if you didn’t agree with the measures you wanted old people to die? That was the sign that we had thrown away the concept of an act of nature entirely.

As of March 2020, the public, or at least a very passionate section of it, was no longer prepared to accept any risk in relation to respiratory viral disease. The government, after a brief push back, decided to pretend that it had the answer to the problem in the form of lockdowns, hand washing, social distancing and masking to name just a few. Many public health bureaucrats are on record from before March 2020 saying that such measures are ineffective but that hasn’t stopped them getting on board and now pretending that they are. It was as if my horticulture lecturer had told the parents at the school that he could, in fact, guarantee that a branch would not fall on their children if such and such measures were done. He would have to know that the measures were useless but, given enough political pressure, he might play along. It’s not just governments now pretending that they have the answers. Employers have a corona policy detailing how they will keep their employees safe and shops and other public venues have their own measures.

All this behaviour is driven by the small but passionate minority who demand that others protect them from viral disease. Such people are just like the parents in my lecturer’s story who demand that the trees be cut down. In such cases, it is up to governments and those in power to stand up for the greater good but in our modern democracies, intolerant minorities have seemingly gained disproportionate power. Partly this is because vested interests have realised that they can co-opt the power of intolerant minorities to bend governments to their will. Partly it’s because the internet has allowed such groups to easily share information. The parents at a school are already networked and able to get results. The internet has allowed geographically separate intolerant minorities to network and get results too.

In any case, there are two problems with our corona response that are directly analogous to the problems with local councils and trees falling over and that follow directly from throwing out the concept of an act of nature. The first is financial. This issue is self-evident. Governments have loaded up on trillions of dollars of debt. Imagine how different corona would have played out if government had required citizens to pay for the whole thing upfront. Instead, our politicians tell us the testing and the vaccines are ‘free’. This kind of self-deception has become very common in modern democratic societies. Corona is different merely in the sheer magnitude of the deception.

The second problem is practical. Just like my lecturer said, there can be no guarantee that a branch will not fall off a tree. Similarly, there can be no guarantee that any person will not come down with viral respiratory disease. Governments were initially happy to allow the possibility of such a guarantee in the form of a vaccine but this was always a fantasy. It’s only now that the holes in this fantasy are starting to appear as we hear about yearly ‘booster’ shots and the fact that the ‘vaccine’ will not protect against infection in the first place. It was as if some group of arborists came into town and offered a treatment for the trees which would guarantee that the branches would never fall again. And we believed them. Only the branches continued to fall and the arborists changed their tune telling us we have to buy another treatment and we’ll have to buy a new treatment each year. The branches will keep falling but they will fall less frequently, whatever that means.

Of course, there’s no way to stop branches falling off trees and there’s no way to stop respiratory viral diseases from circulating. We already knew that. We’ll have to once again accept these basic facts of life as acts of nature and get on with it. We could do it tomorrow if the political will was there. Texas, Florida and others have already shown that. For the rest of us, we will just have to wait until our government feels able to allow reality to once again intervene in public affairs.

All posts in this series:-

The Coronapocalypse Part 0: Why you shouldn’t listen to a word I say (maybe)

The Coronapocalypse Part 1: The Madness of Crowds in the Age of the Internet

The Coronapocalypse Part 2: An Epidemic of Testing

The Coronapocalypse Part 3: The Panic Principle

The Coronapocalypse Part 4: The Denial of Death

The Coronapocalypse Part 5: Cargo Cult Science

The Coronapocalypse Part 6: The Economics of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 7: There’s Nothing Novel under the Sun

The Coronapocalypse Part 8: Germ Theory and Its Discontents

The Coronapocalypse Part 9: Heroism in the Time of Corona

The Coronapocalypse Part 10: The Story of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 11: Beyond Heroic Materialism

The Coronapocalypse Part 12: The End of the Story (or is it?)

The Coronapocalypse Part 13: The Book

The Coronapocalypse Part 14: Automation Ideology

The Coronapocalypse Part 15: The True Believers

The Coronapocalypse Part 16: Dude, where’s my economy?

The Coronapocalypse Part 17: Dropping the c-word (conspiracy)

The Coronapocalypse Part 18: Effects and Side Effects

The Coronapocalypse Part 19: Government and Mass Hysteria

The Coronapocalypse Part 20: The Neverending Story

The Coronapocalypse Part 21: Kafkaesque Much?

The Coronapocalypse Part 22: The Trauma of Bullshit Jobs

The Coronapocalypse Part 23: Acts of Nature

The Coronapocalypse Part 24: The Dangers of Prediction

The Coronapocalypse Part 25: It’s just semantics, mate

The Coronapocalypse Part 26: The Devouring Mother

The Coronapocalypse Part 27: Munchausen by Proxy

The Coronapocalypse Part 28: The Archetypal Mask

The Coronapocalypse Part 29: A Philosophical Interlude

The Coronapocalypse Part 30: The Rebellious Children

The Coronapocalypse Part 31: How Dare You!

The Coronapocalypse Part 32: Book Announcement

The Coronapocalypse Part 33: Everything free except freedom

The Coronapocalypse Part 34: Into the Twilight Zone

The Coronapocalypse Part 35: The Land of the Unfree and the Home of the Safe

The Coronapocalypse Part 36: The Devouring Mother Book Now Available

The Coronapocalypse Part 37: Finale

11 thoughts on “The Coronapocalypse Part 23: Acts of Nature”

  1. Here’s one thing that’s been on my mind lately. The Czech Republic, which is where I live, now apparently has the highest number of COVID deaths (relative to the population size) in the world. (I know, I know, each country collects COVID data in a different way, etc. etc. Still, it’s probably true that the death toll has been unusually high in CZ.) That’s in spite of the fact that we’ve been in lockdown (sometimes tightened, sometimes loosened) since March last year. Me, I’ve been working from home for over a year now. We had a 9pm curfew for I don’t even know how long (that’s finally ended, hopefully for good), and restaurants and such are still closed. So much for lockdowns.

    As I see it, there are three factors in all this. First, “forces of nature” (such as the climate and weather) that governments have zero control over. Then you have factors that governments might be able to control to some extent, but only over the long term (e.g. obesity rates, number of multigenerational households). And then you have things that governments can control in the short term, and obviously, that’s what they’ve focused on. But governments have generally been hopeless at identifying and separating the short term measures that make a great deal of difference (e.g. testing every single person entering a nursing home, right before the person enters), and those that are annoyances with little effect (e.g. forcing people to wear masks outdoors). To go with your tree analogy, it’s as if governments had decided to minimize the total number of falling trees *and* branches, while failing to distinguish between a tree and a branch, and as a result having more falling trees than necessary, and less compliance from the general public, too, because complying with all these measures aimed at stopping branches from falling simply isn’t worth the effort (for example, over here in CZ, compliance with outdoor mask wearing has been rather poor, and it’s easy to see why, isn’t it?).

    And now, supposedly, vaccines are going to get us out of this mess. Well, I guess we’ll see. Meanwhile, I hear that Australia intends to keep its borders closed until 2023. Hehe. Brilliant, sir, brilliant.

  2. Hi, Irena – Good point. There is essentially no system level thinking going on, just a mad scramble to try anything. In bureaucracies, that’s known as covering your ass. The whole masks outside thing is so ridiculous. In the Spanish Flu, governments told citizens to get outside whenever they could. What did we do? Force people to stay inside and discourage them going outside. I saw some pictures from Canada recently where they have barricaded parks for God’s sake.

    I expect things to get even crazier here in Australia. The Prime Minister stated last week that people are going to have to accept that corona ‘cases’ will go up once we open the international borders. This is, of course, pure common sense but the intolerant minority don’t want to hear it and have started blaming him in advance. What’s going to happen is that somebody is going to die ‘from corona’ as soon as the borders open. Of course, they will have been vaccinated too and all the people who think the vaccine makes them safe are going to start panicking again. Unless politicians have the nerve to hold the line, we could easily slip back into crazy town. Alternatively, politicians might look for scapegoats to put the blame on. Scapegoats like all the people who didn’t get vaccinated. We probably won’t start burning ‘anti-vaxxers’ at the stake but nothing would surprise me anymore.

  3. Hi Simon,

    Early on in the health subject which dares not be named, but all the same you named it, I read an account of a grieving family. And one quote went something along the lines of: He was taken away before his time.

    That sounded awful, truly awful. Turns out the guy was 87 years old. Mate, I’d be happy to get to that ripe old age. Seriously. It’s most certainly well past the average life expectancy.

    Hey, it’s an intriguing comparison you’ve made, and it works. Like it! I heard that the parents of the local primary school removed Hellebores from the school gardens. Admittedly that family of plants is from a renowned and long known about group of poisons. But you’d probably have to eat a lot of them, and would get awfully sick first. Bonkers.

    I sort of believe that if the environment is made to be too simple (thus mitigating risk) and too sterile (again mitigating risk), the first moment a genuine challenge is encountered or a bug, people will genuinely fail.

    In decline, things can get pretty weird.

    PS: I had an arborist inspect a tree which was very close to the house. The arborist reported that the tree was fine. Not long after that, the top of the tree fell onto the house which we were constructing at the time. It was a bit like the damage to your car although the impact threw the house off vertical by a degree or so (only one person ever picked that up and he got stuck into me about it). After that I met a champion axe man, who was the only person who would consider the tree removal job. It was a very large tree. He was like the ultimate alpha male and his hourly rate worked out to be $2,400 just to drop the tree which he did in about 15 minutes start to finish. He told me that the tree had kept him up half the night. The tree was infested with termites so experts get things wrong, although I agree with the tree guy in your story as no branches had actually fallen and the tree displayed no signs of illness (the head had actually fallen from my tree and this is a very different situation).

    Cheers

    Chris

  4. Hey mate,

    “government feels able to allow reality to once again intervene in public affairs”

    Good one. Sums up the situation nicely.
    Might be a while though. Vaccination was the last exit before the cliff as far as I can see.
    We won’t ever be able to get out of this, because we don’t want to.
    Reality has the unpleasant aspect of not bending to our will, however the most important tenet of our religion is, that there is no limit to our power. We are god. Nothing can happen without our approval.
    What happens when an immovable madness is hit by an irresistible force?
    We are just about to find out. This train wreck will go on for a long time.

    A mate of mine who was a cop, told me that the (i think it was QLD, but not sure) police does not speak of accidents any more. There are only incidents now. Difference being agency.
    If it is an incident, someone is responsible.
    This sums the way we think nicely. Nothing can happen without us causing it.
    We might have reached peak insaniy. At least it is hard to see how we can top this.

    @irena
    Haven’t heard about the 2023 date for opening the borders. At the moment there is no driver to change anything. Most aussies are not even aware that they can’t leave the country, and those who are think that’s just fine. Aussies have an amazing ability to stick their heads in the sand. Far superior to anything Europeans can do.
    I lost a lot of respect for this country in the last two years. First the bushfires, then corona showed up what we are really made of, and it is not impressive.

    Cheers

    Roland

  5. Hi Chris,

    I remember a story about that dome they built a couple of decades ago, the one that was supposed to be a self-contained ecosystem like a mini Earth. They planted trees in there and the trees seemed to grow ok but when they removed the dome the trees fell over almost straight away. The problem was that inside the dome the trees had not been exposed to any wind at all. As trees are growing, they adapt constantly to the wind in both the roots and the branches. If they don’t get any wind, they don’t adapt and then when they are exposed to the ‘real world’ they can’t handle it. As you note, same applies to humans.

    Did you call up the arborist to ask why they didn’t notice the termites? Would have thought that should have been fairly obvious.

  6. Hey Roland,

    Yes, I think you’re right. I think it was a commenter on Greer’s blog who said that it’s quite likely that in the next fifty odd years nothing will happen. We will just see complete stagnation on all fronts. That was already underway but now it will be much more pronounced. It’ll be like a society-wide Devouring Mother archetype. All risk removed and also all freedom. I think Australia is likely to see an extreme version of that. As long as the iron ore and the coal exports keep things running here the government will have enough power to enforce stagnation whereas in the US the government will lose control and already has of certain areas it seems. I suppose Europe will be more like here unless the EU breaks up. It’s going to be a bit of a nut house. A bunch of people hiding in their homes pretending they are all powerful masters of the universe.

  7. Irena and Roland – the main driver there is the fact that there’s a federal election due soon in Australia. I think the date has to fall some time between Sep 2021 and Sep 2022. The borders won’t open before the election.

  8. That sounds plausible.
    Have you watched rake season 5?
    Not that great compared to the first seasons, but they had a similar scenario in the plot. A minor plumbing accident in parliament house caused a panicked overreaction they could not get out of anymore. Almost prophetic.
    Haven’t seen the whole season yet so i don’t know how they will resolve it.

  9. Roland – I gave up on it after the start of Season 3 where they were really grasping at straws. But that does sound relevant to current events. Might give it a go.

  10. Yeah i agree. First two seasons were good then the wheels fell off. Season 5 is quite bad except for that subplot that just happened to become relevant.
    Only reason i kept watching it.

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