When I first saw the title of Michael Lewis’s 2018 book, The Fifth Risk, my associative circuitry immediately connected it to The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert’s ominous 2014 look at how massive changes in earth systems, brought on by human ingenuity and shortsightedness, has us well on the way to the sixth mass extinction of earth’s 4 billion year old existence; the extinction of the dinosaurs is the most recent of the previous five.  It turns out the two are connected by more than similar titles.

Not long after Donald Trump was elected, Lewis, like many Americans, grew increasingly alarmed by reports of the unpreparedness, confusion and outright negligence in the new administration.  Of the many alarm bells ringing, the appointment of former Texas governor, Rick Perry, as Secretary of Energy rang loud and continuously for Lewis.  Perry had infamously said during his run for presidential nomination , against Trump, that if elected president he would abolish several cabinet level departments, among them, the Department of Energy.  What it did exactly, he didn’t know, but he was sure it was a prime example of government waste and over-regulation.

Lewis, questions simmering and ready for another heavy lift following books such as Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, The Undoing Project, began making calls.  Among the first meetings that resulted was with John MacWilliams, the Chief Risk Officer of the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Large corporations have long had risk officers.  We humans are notoriously unable to accurately evaluate risk in our daily lives. Gut feeling is usually totally misleading. It takes real data and the willingness to add up the numbers.  The chances of dying, over a life time, in the United States from a foreign-born terrorist  is 1 in 45,808; that of dying in a bicycle accident is 1 in 4,337, ten times greater; of assault with a gun 1 in 358 and of dying from heart disease 1 in 7¹.  Which risk gets the most headlines, and stirs the most fear?

This inattention to, even deliberate lack of interest in, accurate estimation of risks is underlined by the fact that MacWilliams, in 2013, was the first risk officer for the DOE, despite its portfolio of alarmingly dangerous projects, some of them extinction ready: eight nuclear weapons plants across the United States for starters.  One of them is in Amarillo, Texas.  Of its connection to the DOE, Governor Perry was apparently oblivious. In fact it is in Amarillo, at the Pantax plant, where the latest modifications of a U.S. nuclear war head, the “low-yield” W76-2, is being carried out.

So, what are the highest risks as you see them? Lewis wanted to know. “What keeps you awake at night?” Although MacWilliams had a scatter-plot of over one hundred and fifty serious risks they began with those at the top. “Broken Arrows,” the military code for the loss, mishandling or accidental triggering of a nuclear weapon was near the top; there have been 32 since 1950.  With over four thousand nuclear war heads deployed or in storage, more are almost sure. [For more on this, see Daniel Ellsberg’s recent The Doomsday Machine.] North Korea’s nuclear weapons shared the top spot, as did Iran’s likely acquisition of nuclear weapons if the President backed out of the slow-down deal already signed. (Which he did.)  Less nuclear but almost as equally damaging to the United States would be a massive cyber attack on the electrical-energy grid; in 2016 there were some half a million probes and smaller attacks, according to a DOE count. Those were the top four. 

The fifth risk, of the title, has to do with massive systems as well, but not of the hair-trigger kind.  Project Management is what MacWilliams calls it. Not the ordinary project management of getting a family of five out the door, or rolling out a new product on time, or even massive construction projects, bridges or buildings, but those enormous. multi-year, thousand employee, risk-filled projects, touching on the lives and safety of virtually everyone in the U.S. Projects such as the construction of massive caverns in New Mexico salt beds to store radioactive waste when a misunderstood word, “organic” instead of “inorganic” led to a $500 million clean up task. 

“Program Management” as MacWilliams conceives it is “the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk.” It comes from what you haven’t thought about, or don’t want to think about, or you don’t want to know. It is not just the things you can imagine, it is “the less detectable, systemic risks.” 

Were the incoming Trump appointees interested in any of this?

“I never had a chance to sit with the Trump people and tell them what we’re doing, even for a day.  And I’d have done it for weeks. …, There are things you want to know that would keep you up at night.  And I never talked to anyone about them.”

In our every four-year throw-the bums-out form of government the risks of short-sight are even greater than in other giant enterprises with long-term employees, hiring and promotion by talent and experience rather than political connections.  Some two million federal employees take orders from four thousand political appointees, many of whom, even in the best circumstances don’t know much about the department they are to run.  MacWilliams’ one hundred and fifty risks are present even when the grasp of facts, evaluations arrived at and predictions made are done by intelligent, responsible, well trained people.  When the out-going directors are nuclear physicists, and the incoming don’t even know that nuclear arms are part of the department’s responsibility, the risks increase enormously. 

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As he does so well, Lewis interviews with an infectious curiosity.  People we don’t know, and matters about which we have only slight knowledge, if at all, become interesting to us in the telling, in some cases, vital.  Besides those at the DOE, Lewis met with former employees of the USDA, (The Department of Agriculture,) and the Department of Commerce, the National Weather Service, run by NOAA. 

Along the way, we get civics lessons: briefs on the fire-fighting fleet of aircraft run by the USDA, nuclear storage tanks under the purview of DOE, and the economic realities of R&D investment. MacWilliams carries the same, often disputed, message as Mariana Mazzucato in another recent and important book, The Value of Everything (2018).

“Early stage innovation is most industries would not have been possible without government support in a variety of ways, and it’s especially true in energy.  So the notion that we are just going to privatize early-stage innovation is ridiculous.  Other countries are outspending us in R&D, and we are going to pay a price.”

We are reminded of the vital and far-ranging work done by government agencies and the employees in them. Far from being the sort of incompetent gold-brickers of popular imagination, most of the tens of thousands are thoroughly vetted, highly competent, scientists, engineers, quality-control and safety technicians, many sacrificing higher incomes and prestige to do public service.

Among those we meet are Max Stier who created the Partnership for Public Service, to attract, train and help retain talented public servants.  Ali Zaidi at USDA, who came to the U.S. as a fiver year old Pakistani child. Kevin Concanon from the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services of the USDA whose professional concern had been “to alleviate human suffering.”  Kathy Sullivan, a former astronaut who, at the National Weather Service under the Department of Commerce wondered why so many ignored weather warnings which are, today, incredibly accurate. Lillian Salerno who had worked in Rural Development to get low-interest loans to towns with fewer than 50,000 people in them.  

All fine, dedicated people, working in the public interest, all appalled at what the new administration was doing to the work they had done.

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“Lost in Transition,” the opening chapter, is a quick must-read which will imprint some of the details of the administration’s failures.

Not only had no transition planning been done, Trump thought none was necessary, that it was a waste of time and money. Former presidents had sent hundreds of people to meetings, putting in thousands of hours of preparation.  Trump said to Chris Christie, his first transition head (and first to be fired): “Chris, you and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.” 

The outgoing Department of Energy transition team had set aside 30 desks and 30 parking spaces for the planned transition-day conference. No one showed up.  Four years earlier 30-40 Obama hires had come to learn as much as possible.  When some Trump appointees did finally come, they were not interested in the nuts and bolts of what they would be in charge of.  They did want lists of names of those who had attended inter-agency meetings on the social cost of carbon. In the first weeks of the Trump appointees taking over, terabytes of publicly paid-for, and previously available data, disappeared from agency servers.

By the time Lewis began to interview, six months into 2017,  there was no appointee to head:

  • the Patent Office
  • FEMA 
  • Transportation Security Administration
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention

When he began writing,  half of the top 700 positions in the administration still remained unfilled.  Some who had been appointed had conflicts of interest, or were unqualified, making them unprepared to deal with risks.

“Many of them are potentially catastrophic risks — the risk of a pandemic, or the risk of a nuclear accident, or the risk of a terrorist attack — one after another. And many of these are not risks that most people are thinking about.

Even Steve Bannon, head of Trump’s presidential campaign said to friends, “Holy fuck, this guy [Trump] doesn’t know anything.  And he doesn’t give a shit!”

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The connection of The Fifth Risk to the Sixth Extinction by now is obvious.  Mankind, since the Industrial Revolution, has managed to put its great home at risk; those who built the industries, those who oversee them, those who insure them, those who study, watch and monitor, all say that continuing as it is now, the world is in a world of trouble. This week’s report of over one million species at risk of extermination is the latest scream of warning.  With the arrival in power of hundreds who do not understand, or care about the most fundamental properties of physics, chemistry, biology,  who fawningly follow the lead of one who approves of and excites their passion for ignorance, the small chance of slowing or reversing the degradation of earth systems is approaching zero at high speed. 

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Other Reviews / Interviews

NY Magazine

NY Times

USA Today

NPR

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1 As calculated by the CATO institute.