Worst-Case Scenarios

  • Published

Worst-Case Scenarios by Cass R. Sunstein. Harvard University Press, 2009, 352 pp.

Worst-Case Scenarios is not a new book (initially published in 2007) but one that has gained a modicum of new attention because of its author’s notoriety and connection to the present administration. Cass Sunstein is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and serves, as of November 2009, as the politically appointed administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). During his time in academia, Sunstein gained the reputation as a prodigious, but often controversial, scholar because of his views on animal rights, taxation, and marriage. His most recent books include Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Oxford Press, 2009) and On Rumor: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done (Macmillan, 2009).   

 This is a difficult book to read on multiple levels. Although published by Harvard University Press, the volume suffers significantly from poor production values which actually make it physically difficult to read. It looks suspiciously like a bound Word document, and the text is cramped to the point where sentences run virtually to the edge of the page and numerous tables are either cut off at the edges or obscured in part by the fold of the binding. The book is also markedly “scholarly,” which is a shorthand way of politely saying it will likely have a limited audience.

Sunstein introduces his premise early on which is to compare and contrast “people’s responses to worst-case scenarios and in particular their susceptibility to two opposite problems: excessive overreaction and utter neglect” (pg. 5). Although the goal is laudable, he inexplicably chooses to offer “climate change as a defining case . . . because it has immense practical importance,” comparing it to “other sources of very bad worst-case scenarios, including terrorism, depletion of the ozone layer, genetic modification of food, hurricanes, and avian flu” (ibid.). To say the least, the old adage of comparing apples and oranges appears inadequate to describe the result; Sunstein chooses instead to compare apples to a basket of many other fruits and vegetables. The comparisons are frequently long but often insufficiently focused, making the reader wonder what exactly is being argued. One suspects that many military readers will find much to dislike in the book, not because false premises are necessarily presented, but because much of what is offered does little to explain how worst-case scenarios (e.g., nuclear, chemical, or biological terrorism) can be better planned for or avoided.

Sunstein spends an extraordinary amount of time telling us how people identify and perceive worst-case scenarios, which is all well and good but probably of more interest to cognitive scientists rather than strategic planners. Since the writer is not a cognitive scientist by training, even those so professionally inclined may find the volume overly tedious and convoluted. Environmentalists, on the other hand, may have the most interest in the volume since chapter 2, “A Tale of Two Protocols,” explores the issue of ozone depletion and climate change. Had the latter topic been approached differently, it could have been made very pertinent to the military reader and planner, since regions suffering from environmental stresses are likely to also experience other problems, like food and water supply deficiencies. These frictions in turn lead to larger societal stresses and instability from which worst-case scenarios are potentially born.    

Much of what appears to be wrong with this volume is related to focus. The author is obviously very intelligent, perhaps brilliant, but goes too far in trying to connect intuitively disparate issues like “the precautionary principle,” option value, monetization, cost and benefit calculations, and genetically modified organisms. Intelligent people tend to want to connect things. Unfortunately, sometimes they tend to go too far, forging connectivity that, though not deniable, is of little relevance. Ultimately, the book fails to answer the “so what” question. Much is offered, and some is relevant, but few readers will be able to put it all together in a way that is likely to please. Bottom line, there are many books to read and little time to accomplish the task. One has to be very selective in what is chosen for time investment, since once-wasted time can never be recovered. Strategic thinkers and planners could make a better investment elsewhere. The title says it all.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."