57. The error connected with concentrating on prevention of small catastrophes instead of prevention of the greatest possible catastrophe
In Yellowstone Park, wildfires were prevented effectively for many years. This prevention was so effective that it allowed a buildup of dry woody material, which culminated in a trio of catastrophic blazes in the summer of 1988, which required 9,000 firefighters and $120 million ($240 million as of 2014) to contain37. Yudkowsky (2008) has a similar example related to flooding:
Burton, Kates, and White (1978) report that when dams and levees are built, they reduce the frequency of floods, and thus apparently create a false sense of security, leading to reduced precautions. While building dams decreases the frequency of floods, damage per flood is so much greater afterward that the average yearly damage increases.
Another example is the weakening of the average immune system today due to insufficient exposure to pathogens. Our sanitized lives are devoid of pathogens, which could make us highly vulnerable to genetically engineered viruses of the 21st century. Analogously, American Indians were highly susceptible to European pathogens, which were incubated in the filthy gutters and alleyways of overcrowded European cities. Some Atlantic coast tribes lost 90% of their adult members to disease shortly after the arrival of the Europeans.38