From my essay written in Sept 2005
You may prefer the audio version…
It strikes me that we don’t all-of-a-sudden find ourselves living in a state of denial about anything. We don’t wake one morning with a penchant for not seeing what’s in front of us. For example the people of the Mississippi delta didn’t move to an uninhabited flood plane and think that they could live there without risk. River deltas do flood; the settlers from Europe would have known that and so would the indigenous people’s of the area. Hurricanes though; they might be a slightly different story.
The people settling in the Mississippi delta might not have known about the frequency or fury of hurricanes. I watched a topical TV documentary, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It explained how the idea of the levees came about after a flood devastated the then settlement. The settlers rebuilt their homes and businesses, while at the same time extending and reinforcing the levees. As the town was hit over and over, they came to experience a pattern of devastation and recovery. I can’t help but think that somewhere along the line, the settlers must have considered the fact that they could expect the unexpected of hurricanes and floods, accompanied by varying degrees of destruction. At some point in the evolution towards the community’s modern sophistication and permanence, they likely came to believe that they had so much invested that it was worth the risk to protect it.
Living with Risk
I wonder how often civilisation has found itself, and continues to find itself, in the situation of having incrementally made a decision, or series of decisions, to stay with a risky choice, by not really acknowledging whether it is truly reasonable. Of course, reason is not the only factor in such choices. There are the opportunities of potentially great trade profits, the benefits of how things are when hurricanes and floods are not in evidence, and the comfort and convenience of habit.
Once a city is well enough established to become a major hub, somewhere like San Francisco on a fault line or New Orleans at sea level, must not the residents make an assumption that it must be safe enough because all those millions of people are living there. It must be alright because it has been – so far? At what point do such choices not look like choices, not look like risk-taking, any longer. At what point does it make sense? Does it ever?
Do We Consciously Assess Risk?
Do we think to ourselves, “Well, I don’t know anyone who has died here so it can’t be that bad.” Or, “I won’t be here very long – I’ll be gone before the big one hits.” Or, “It won’t happen to me – what are the odds?” Or, “My family have always lived here and we’re survivors.” Or, “Life is full of risks; I could as easily be hit by a bus while crossing the street.” What sorts of justifications do we make?
How do we rationalise knowing the facts about the risks of natural disasters, or ‘Acts of God’, with continuing to live as if they couldn’t happen at any time, which of course they can, as their occurrence is not governed by mere mortals. I suppose that one way in which we might continue in this denial would be to do things which we believe would mitigate the risks, such as building or strengthening levees or instituting emergency measures with back-up systems.
In the business world and the military world, this line of thinking is called a cost-benefit analysis. We cringe to some extent when we think of it in terms of human life, nevertheless, it’s what we’re doing. The greater the risk and the less frequently we experience such disasters, the more we grapple with how much money we should invest in preparedness, insurance and money set aside for disaster relief. We consider how much time we might have for all of this, before it will be needed.
In business school, students are taught that if the potential threat could completely wipe out your enterprise, you should at least invest enough time and money to create a solid contingency plan. For ‘enterprise’, read ‘city’ and for potential ‘threat’, read hurricane/flood/pandemic/climate/ energy crisis. I think I can safely state that nothing is as simple as the scenarios we outline in our preparedness plan. In a unidimensional society, we could prepare a contingency plan without having to worry that the funding that goes into one plan, wouldn’t have to come out of the coffers of another, equally important plan. The real world is full of difficult choices. When there are so many justifiable demands on the same limited funds, how do we, as a responsible society, choose?
Is Life a Crap-shoot?
We can posit that life itself is about taking risks and that, if we don’t, we’re really not living. There’s always a risk of terrorism, of weather-related events, or seismic activity, of human fallibility and of disease, to mention but a few. All are serious, largely unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. Which risks are the riskiest of the lot? How can we predict? Without the benefit of hindsight, is it just a crap-shoot?
On the occasions when we win the crap-shoot, does ‘winning’ encourage us to continue taking risks, as unprepared as we are? And how do we react when we ‘lose’? Do we become more risk-averse? Do we start bargaining by promising that we will prepare better for the ‘next one’? Do we start looking for where to place blame? If there were, in our assessment, nothing but risks ahead, with very few benefits, we might not choose to take such risks as living in a flood plane or tornado corridor or next door to a volatile dictator or engage in potentially risky behaviour, but that’s rarely the case. We’re dealing with constant trade-offs on ever-shifting ground.
When Is a Risk a Calculated Risk?
At one time in my career, I worked for an insurance company whose very trade was risk. Assessing risk was how they determined what premiums to charge. Although they were in the business of risk, when the time came to pay out, it seemed to me that they didn’t want to pay for the inevitable disasters. Paying out would cut into their profit, of which, when there were fewer disasters, there was a great deal. That’s the premise of insurance; a group shares in the amassing of funds so that there is enough money to cover one or more of the insured, when disaster strikes. We call it ‘spreading the risk’. However, in life, don’t we get used to the benefits while the crap-shoot is in our favour, while increasing believing that the disaster is unlikely? The longer we go without losing, or without obviously visible signs of losing, the more we lull ourselves into believing that there is less risk.
This train of thought leads me to shift my focus from the world of cities and large-scale societal disasters to the more immediate but no less impactful realm of personal relationships. You might agree that relationships are also risky. It seems to me that the more we love, the more vulnerable we allow ourselves to become and the more we rely on one another, the greater the risk of getting hurt, both emotionally and financially. We all know the statistics about the numbers of separations and divorces, accidents, illnesses and deaths. We even know most of the reasons; they’ve become clichés. Most of us have seen relationships close to us disintegrate, if not our own, and yet, we still fail to do the relationship preparation, maintenance and healing that we are told can reduce the risks.
There are always reasons, especially in hindsight. “The kids were small and needed our attention. We didn’t have the time. Our careers were all-consuming. We were just waiting for life to slow down a little. We thought it was a bad year. We thought it would get better. I couldn’t get him/her to see that there was a problem. It’s just life – I can’t expect things to be perfect. Everybody has bumps in their relationships.” I suggest that our primary relationships carry huge expectations, from both sides and from society. The cost of relationship dysfunction, especially with a family, are enormous and complicated. You would think that with the costs and benefits being so high, investing time and energy in awareness, skill-building and contingency planning would be the order of the day. And yet they don’t seem to be.
I could as easily talk about our health as about relationships; whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. Our denial about the state of all of these in our lives is akin to that of the citizenry of New Orleans or insurance companies or the couple whose marriage is inching towards dysfunction and eventual breakdown. I’m not talking about the choices that are glaring and relatively simple – we’re typically better with the roaring tigers that are emergencies. It’s the complex choices that present enough difficulty that we put them off, often burying them at the back of the closet. I suspect that this is especially so when we meet with resistance; those choices where: our resources are stretched precariously thin or; our options are unclear or unpleasant or; where we’re unsure of our position in the situation. For my part, I know I fall into asking myself whether I’m being logical, reasonable and rational. I ask whether I know enough, whether I should compromise, whether I’m in the right.
When we get right down to the crux of these choices, how many can even be measured rationally? Indeed, are there just so many unknowns that we are dealing with a crap-shoot? Where the odds are unknown, or unknown to us, how do we go about assessing the risks? How much control do we believe that we have; in our relationships, our communities or in our countries? Feeling or believing that there is not enough time, knowledge or resources, even if it only seems this way, leads us to inertia – to denial and inaction.
What If We Were to Use Our Intuition?
If life is indeed a crap-shoot, maybe we’re better off using our intuition to make the final choices. I’m referring to ‘healthy intuition’, not the hopeful little voice that suggests that it might go away if you leave the risk in the back of the closet. What if using our intuition isn’t such a lunatic way to make choices or aid in making them? I wonder how many New Orleans citizens heard a little voice inside them that told them they needed to leave the city, before or just before Hurricane Katrina hit? How many people stand beside their partner-to-be, knowing, or at least strongly suspecting, that they are or might be marrying the wrong person, and do it anyway? Or once into the relationship, how many people have a nagging inner voice that says there is something that isn’t right and needs attention, sooner rather than later? I know that we ignore our inner voice at our own peril. Our collective intuition is calling to us.
Time for Change
Jumping to the bigger picture once again, for many years I have had a deep and frustrating sense that our system of government is just not working for us any longer. Doubtless, it is better than those in many other places on the planet, but I don’t believe ours is up to the task any longer. I dream of a system that is empowering to all the members of the citizenry it purports to represent. I want it to be designed to foster community, inclusion, collaboration and trust. I am often embarrassed and ashamed as I listen to our elected representatives and our business leaders; both at home and abroad. I can no longer convince myself that they must be intelligent and worldly, or they would’t have risen to the positions they have. Just when I think it can’t get worse, it does.
Although I consider myself a born optimist, when it comes time to vote, at any level of government, I feel I have a choice between bad and worse. It’s not that I think that the individuals are necessarily crooked or incompetent, rather that, if anyone has to work in a system that is based on the concept of ‘he with the most toys wins’, that forces short-term win-lose thinking, it will not bring out the best of that person’s abilities in their quest to be in service of others and of the whole. This sort of system will, perforce, attract those who can and are willing to work within it. I don’t believe it is sustainable for our collective future.
I’m very aware that criticising doesn’t make the system better. I admit to devolving into hopelessness on occasion, feeling that I don’t have useful suggestions for improvement. I recognise that governance isn’t my area of expertise. But how can my own system of representation and governance be beyond my expertise? I fervently hope that there are members of my community who find this challenge worthy of their passionate problem-solving capabilities and, when they surface, I will do my best to support them. In the meantime, I am contributing from my area of expertise and passion, to support the personal and professional empowerment of the people who are changing our world for the better.
The question I pose today is this: What is our personal and societal risk, if we ignore that which we know isn’t conducive to the collective life on this planet?
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