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Risk: The Human Adventure
Average reader rating: 0  
by Richard D North Risk

Published by the European Science and Environment Foundation, 2001

The Adventure of Risk


"Risk is the chance that something adverse will happen" - The Health and Safety Executive, UK [HSE, 1988]

"The word 'risk' derives from the early Italian 'risicare', which means 'to dare'. In this sense, risk is a choice rather than a fate" - Peter L Bernstein [Bernstein, 1996]

Risk is a lovely subject. But it is a difficult one. Still, we mustn't risk being downhearted. We must keep our nerve. We need to see who we can trust in such a tricky matter. We need to know what evidence about these matters we can believe. These are the subjects of this short book: nerve, trust and evidence. An important further message is about social responsibility: we owe it to risk-takers in the past that we are now well-off; we are now - as societies - taking further risks to get what we want. We owe it to one another not to bleat when some of the risks go wrong.

We know we can think about risk in very sophisticated ways virtually without effort. We cross roads every day, after all. Many of us find our most intense pleasure in betting shops, where risk is almost all that is discussed, and it isn't our failure to understand the nature of betting which makes us losers but our failure to understand equine quadrupedalism.

Of course, views on risk are very diverse. Our bank manager seems averse to it whenever we seek to interest him in our new ventures. Doctors one minute tell us butter is a big risk, the next that we can wolf it down to our heart's desire. Greenpeace and others say the entire planet is at risk. They would have us eschew all research on genetically modified plants: a response to a new technology almost as silly as that of government ministers who say we shall only proceed with it when it is proved that there is no risk attached to the project.

This book does not dwell on the risks, which are the most fun: the risks of sex, sport and intoxication. It is, in a way unfortunately, about more serious matters even than those.

It argues that so far as we can guess, our age has been, and may even remain, quite a safe one. The risks we produce are much more threats to our ideas of naturalness than to our health or even to that of the planet. In other words, our equanimity is more at threat than our physical well-being.

It argues that, as members of society, we benefit hugely from much risk-taking and should try to accept the consequences of risk when they are bad as well as when they are good. It argues (Chapter Seven) that the management of risk by the government cannot be as precautionary as many fashionable voices demand, and yet could be far more intelligible and intelligent than it now is. These are issues not so much of risk, as of trust.

This is isn't a text book about the mathematical ideas of risk which underlie these minefields, though I hope newcomers to the subject will find (especially in Chapter One) enough of a starter's pack to get them going with the issue.

All these issues would be of interest at any time. They are of special poignancy now because, as we discuss in Chapter Two, there is a modern industry, comprised of media, law and campaigning NGOs - and their adjuncts in academia - which is using risk as a handle to claim attention and income. They wouldn't put it that way, of course. They claim noisily that they are pursuing the citizen's rights against overweening vested interests in industry and against the indifference of the regulatory authorities. But when they create unnecessary anxiety, rather than assuage it - they are up to no good, and it is worth pointing out the damage they are doing. They are one of the larger risks we face.

Chapter Three will put a wide range of risk-taking into a moral framework, the better to make its point that almost all risks of the kind we are supposed to worry about so much now, the risks to health, safety and the environment, are worth taking.

Chapter Four then tries to put risk-taking into an economic framework, the better to develop some ideas about how economic and health, safety and environment (HSE) risk-taking can be compared. By the way, we use "HSE" to cover almost all non-financial risk. I am taking it, therefore, to cover what might be called cultural risk, or the risk to our mental well-being.

Chapter Five
addresses the way risk-taking occurs in nature, which matters especially since the emerging aversion to risk-taking stresses that modern risks are an affront to it. Nature, too often seen as an icon of stability, co-operation and fragility, is more truly seen as a world in which nerve, gambling, opportunism - risk-taking - are for ever in evidence.

Chapters Six and Seven put risk into a political context. The first of these considers how to remedy what might truly be called the modern crisis of trust. It proposes a new institution might assess risks and their regulation. The second describes how the state cannot be as cautious about risks as it is fashionable now to suppose it must be.

This short book adds to, and discusses, a burgeoning literature on risk. There is the literature of alarm, and a much smaller one of reassurance. Mine is a contribution to the latter. However, I claim that reassurance is no use in genuinely scary situations, as we discuss in Chapters Six and Seven, which look at some specific cases of the management of risk. Indeed, reassurance can be harmful, and not merely to truthfulness. I am keen to say that the world is a safer place than is commonly supposed, but I loath the creation of a false sense of security almost as much as I disparage alarmism. Still, the world is quite dangerous, and we will be happier when we accept that is the case.

I will claim that a healthy, commonsense view can still be deployed to make sense of the world we live in, and that a "reality-check" will leave us largely reassured.

The book argues that it is far too easy too assume that we should always be aiming to reduce risk. Most often, it should be optimised, which may not at all be the same thing. [Wildavsky, 1988] We need to be as sure as possible that we are getting a good deal from the risk-taking we are involved in. Assessing that deal will often lead us to suppose that our lives are only as risky as they more or less need to be, and that we wouldn't, actually, have it otherwise. I stress that the downside of modern risk-taking is regulated democratically, and the benefits spread very widely. Risks have been socialised, and that ought to make it easier for us to bear the occasional mistake, or even disaster.

The Anxiety Industry especially stresses, to the contrary, that many modern risks are involuntary and unwanted. They might have added that this is worrying because it means that some risks are not in the proper sense a gamble. Some risks, they might claim, are not offered to us in the way that a gamble should be. That is to say, many risks are imposed on us without our having the right to refuse to accept the gamble involved. But this view is in important respects flawed. Much modern risk is indeed involuntary, but quite often they are in the way that taxation is involuntary. Other risks are involuntary in the way that ill-health is: they are now a part of our world, as though they were old-fashioned natural risks. But this needn't worry us as much as is often supposed.

Risk-averse opinion stresses that people feel alienated from conventional society and conventional authority. We don't know who to trust; we feel exposed. The left and its green allies (as we discuss in Chapter Two) has always claimed that the powers-that-be are lining their pockets at our expense, and conducting power politics so as to suit the governing classes. The Anxiety Industry adds to this old case the idea that industry and government are putting us at unwarranted and unregulated HSE risks as they put their short-term ambitions before the well-being of the powerless and the unborn.

There is a useful analogy here between economic and other risks. There is a battle between those who believe that industrial capitalism is largely benign economically, and that the less regulation of it the better. There is also an argument about the role of industrial capitalism in imposing risks in the realm of HSE. Whether business is imposing economic risk or HSE risk, there is a legitimate argument about the state's role in regulating capitalism and in saving people from the consequence of risk-taking.

There is especially an argument about the equitability - the fairness - of industrial capitalism as it spreads (or fails to spread) wealth and spreads (or fails to spread) risk. The argument applies just as well in HSE as in economic terms.

Are economic and non-economic benefit and risk fairly spread in society? Are those who are put at economic and HSE risk by capitalism fairly included in the benefits, which are supposed to accrue? My answer is a strong but qualified "yes" in both cases, which I think are much more similar than might be supposed.

Only if we look realistically at risk - at its benefits, at the difficulty of regulating it - will we begin to assess whether our own system has framed its approach well. This book will argue that the British have handled the issue rather well. But we have done it best when governments have been robust and honest. Even then, they have usually - and dangerously - added to risks because they fail to stress that risks are inevitable, worthwhile, and as much as possible a matter for the individual.


You can dornload the book Risk: The Human Adventure as a *.pdf. Click here

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