Risk Insider: Beaumont Vance

Hippopotamus Risk Management

By: | July 6, 2015

Beaumont Vance is an executive risk manager. He has managed strategic risk for Fortune 100 firms for the past 15 years. His multidisciplinary approach weaves together such disparate fields as quant modeling, statistics, behavioral economics, biology and game theory into practical solutions and insights.

Topics: Risk Insider

The greatest failing of American risk management in the 20th century was the failure to import hippopotamuses into Louisiana.

Had we done that, we could have avoided World Wars I  and II.

But if nothing else, this failure provides a good example of the perils of the law of unintended consequences.

In the 1890’s, people became very concerned about overpopulation and the lack of new arable land. In 1898, Sir Willam Crookes, President of the British Academy of the Sciences, stated that the world was running out of land on which to grow food and that unless something was done quickly, there would be global starvation by 1930. The leading scientists of the time completely agreed with his Malthusian doomsday prediction.

By 1910, even the United States was suffering a food shortage. While in the past we simply expanded westward to increase farmland, by 1910 this was no longer an option. The land had become overgrazed and the number of cows available for meat production was declining by millions per year.

In March of 1910, Congress took action and proposed H.R. 23261 — a bill which would import hippos into the united states.

Creating a new source of fertilizer was a better risk mitigation strategy than an armada of free-range hippos moping through the bayous. However, when choosing a mitigation strategy, one has to be very careful of the unintended consequences.

From a risk management perspective, this made incredibly good sense. Louisiana had been overrun by an invasive species of water hyacinth from Japan that was clogging waterways. The aquatic hippos would eat the invasive flowers, and we would then eat the million tons a year of “lake cow bacon” (as the New York times euphemistically put it.) It was a win for everyone it seemed.

In Germany, scientist Fritz Haber was also working on increasing food production. In a completely hippo-free experiment, he figured out how to extract nitrogen from the air.

Nitrogen fertilizer production prior to Haber consisted of mining existing nitrogen deposits. But these were almost exhausted and so his breakthrough came just in the nick of time to save the world from starvation. From the moment he started production of nitrogen in 1910, agriculture was forever changed across the entire planet. And best of all, the main ingredient, air, is free!

With the benefit of hindsight, we now can see that creating a new source of fertilizer was a better risk mitigation strategy than an armada of free-range hippos moping through the bayous.

However, when choosing a mitigation strategy, one has to be very careful of the unintended consequences. Complex risks sometimes do not respond to simple solutions as we expect.

Haber’s nitrogen not only fed the multitudes, it provided enough food for a very large German army. And nitrogen, in addition to feeding soldiers, makes a wonderful explosive (as Timothy McVey demonstrated by blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building with a truckload of it.)

How could finding a way to feed the hungry possibly backfire? By the unforeseen outcomes — armies and bombing campaigns in both world wars.

Perhaps what we need, when addressing very large, complex risks such as overpopulation and global warming, is more hippopotamus risk management.

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