“[In a storm], lightning is going to strike…but you [can’t] predict [exactly] when and where…” — Curt Braddock, communications expert, American University
Now, here’s a word for us non-specialists: stochastic.
The term is familiar to most people working in fields such as science and economics that require statistical interpretations of occurrences. But it can also apply to the social sciences, which track human behavior patterns.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines stochastic as “…randomly determined; having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely.”
A classic example of stochastic behavior, from the physical sciences, is the activity of gas molecules in a closed container. The molecules float around and bump into each other, but there is no way to predict which particular molecules will collide at any given time.
The same is true of sudden climate change impacts. We know we will suffer from tornadoes and hurricanes, fast-moving wildfires, flash floods and so on, but we don’t know when and where they will strike. Will our town be the next Lahaina or Paradise, California? There are too many variables in the global weather system to make precise predictions.
The incidence of mass shootings is similar. In the complex system of our society, these events are stochastic. We can predict that they will occur, and we can study the patterns of their past occurrence and possibly learn something about their causes — they are often committed by young, socially isolated males, for example — but we can’t predict the time or location of the next mass shooting event.
A common thread linking these three stochastic phenomena is that they are juiced by inputs of physical or social energy. If we heat gas in a closed container, its molecules move faster and collide with one another more frequently, increasing the chances that any one molecule will collide with another one during a given time interval. As we continue to warm the earth, we see more, and more intense, climate impacts, increasing the chance that one could strike at a particular location. And as tensions within American society escalate, given the widespread availability of guns as an initial condition, there is an increase in the number of mass shootings, again increasing the odds that one will happen at a particular place, though we can’t predict where that place might be. Such tensions can be further exacerbated if public figures condone or promote violence as appropriate behavior — elevating the frequency of unpredictable violent incidents.
Another similarity between sudden warming impacts and mass shootings is that, because they are so horrific, they instill fear. This is obviously the case for those who have the misfortune to be near an event — often the survivors of such scenes suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can last a lifetime. But they also frighten the rest of us, filling our minds with searing images of suffering and grief that can permeate our unguarded thoughts and our dreams.
One of their most fearful aspects is their stochastic nature. They can happen anytime, anywhere, to any of us. We could be a victim of, or a witness to, a mass shooting at a shopping mall, on campus, at work, our place of worship or while enjoying a holiday event. Our homes and communities could be devastated by one of the ever-more-frequent extreme weather events now causing death, displacement and heartache across the globe.
Most of us don’t live in terror of such events, of course. They seem unlikely to happen to us. Also, we need to go about our lives, so psychologically separating ourselves from them seems like the only way to manage our anxieties and remain functional. They are comparatively rare, we tell ourselves, and likely to happen somewhere else, to someone else. Of course, they are just as likely to arrive at our doorsteps. Their distribution cannot be predicted.
Is there anything we can do about these dangers, or our feeling of endangerment? What about protecting our kids? Is that possible?
In upcoming posts, we’ll explore some strategies for managing our existential angst, a prerequisite for confronting these threats.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Firebird Journal: Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene, the author’s blog.