Like everyone else, I am horrified, saddened and mesmerized by the video replays of Japan's earthquake-tsunami. The destruction and human suffering is appalling.
Everyone, it seems, is now re-reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Indeed, from the unexpected devastation and its impact on the now very dangerous nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, "the pathology of thinking that the world in which we live is more understandable, more explainable, and therefore more predictable than it actually is" seems confirmed by the daily punditry about nuclear safety.
Even without a nuclear meltdown spewing radioactive death into the skies, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami is shocking for its rapid annihilation of people and property. The death toll is now estimated at over 18,000. For an earthquake powerful enough to shift Japan 12-13 feet closer to Hawaii, it is a blessing and wonder that even more lives were not lost.
Now consider the Red Elephant.
The proverbial elephant in the room is a commonplace idiom for an obvious, large and manifestly ignored problem. A red elephant, a tag I propose, is the elephant in the room on steroids. A red elephant is something we all know, something we accept as normal and something that is unseemly, awkward or even taboo to discuss.
For example, in the midst of Japan's grief, it is offensive to note that annually approximately 32,000 Japanese citizens commit suicide -- one suicide every 15 minutes. Indeed, for the 12th straight year, the number of suicides in Japan is almost double(!) the number of lives lost in the current catastrophe.
Likewise, in the days after September 11, 2001, when 3,000 people died from a single terrorist act, it would have been indecorous to point out that 42,000 Americans died the same year from "freeway terrorism." To save American lives, instead of the global war on terror and two military invasions in the Middle East, perhaps a war on freeway accidents?
For sure, red elephant openness is necessary for prioritizing limited resources for greatest impact. Moreover, the human psyche requires red elephant candor for maintaining a sense of perspective during emotionally charged moments of uncertainty.
While people cling desperately to the hope that loved ones might still be found, it is demoralizing and nearly forbidden to compare one tragedy to another. Does it matter that on the very same day the tsunami killed 18,000 Japanese, another 16,000 children under age five died somewhere in the world from malnutrition-related deaths?
And, the next day, as Japanese rescue crews mobilized, yet another 16,000 children died. No rescue crews for them.
And, every day since, another 16,000 children are perishing from a predictable, known, understandable and fixable tragedy.
When the media is done reporting on Japan's tsunami, Pakistan's flood, Haiti's earthquake and the next natural disaster, will you be moved by the red elephant in the room to take action against the daily tsunami of dying children?