Black Elephant

Black Elephants are extremely likely and widely predicted events that are usually ignored either by many or a society as a whole.

A Black Elephant, notes Vinay Gupta, ‘is an event which is extremely likely and widely predicted by experts, but people attempt to pass it off as a Black Swan when it finally happens. Usually the experts who had predicted the event – from the economic crisis to pandemic flu—go from being marginalized to being lionized when the problem finally rears its head’ (Gupta, 2009). In line with Gupta’s concept, Markley argues for using Type II Wild Cards that are ‘high probability and high impact as seen by experts if present trends continue, but low credibility for non-expert stakeholders . . . ’ (Markley, 2011, p. 1079).

An obvious example is atmospheric carbon concentrations, which were recently recorded at 400 parts-per-million—a level which predates humanity by millennia and foreshadows immense climatic changes (Biello, 2013). While there are many, including a large majority of Americans, who deny anthropogenic climate change, the scientific consensus is just that, and one of the earliest proclamations of the CO2 climate problem comes from a report given to President Johnson in 1965 (Keith, 2000; Royal Society, 2009).

Black Elephants are a sort of known unknown, as Rumsfeld puts it, especially as the chasm between expert and public opinion adds complexity and uncertainty to the issue (Morris, 2014).

Normally, events with high postnormal potential require collective, global action – as was the case in remediating 2014’s Ebola pandemic. Black Elephants capture the postnormal dynamic of the Extended Present, and they are decidedly contextual and ought to be situated and/or articulated from more than one perspective, if only to capture the contradictions inherent to their emergence. Finally, Black Elephants indicate that PNL is present, and perhaps dominant, within a particular system.


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