Time for something mildly speculative after all that
During my working life I attended about three million
meetings. I think it was close to that kind of number although my memory may be adjusting
things a little. Something to do with autonomous aversion therapy I expect.
Anyhow, probably the most starting thing I discovered during
all those meetings was how extremely risk-averse people can be. I use the word
‘startling’ because at the time it was. People are not particularly rational –
I knew that but in my younger days I had not yet seen just how irrational folk
can be when personal interests are in the air.
Many people are sensitive to the smallest shadow of risk,
the faintest ephemeral hint of even the most improbable threat when it comes to
their own situation. It makes them irrational and
very, very determined. Whatever the overall benefits, however sensible a change
might be, such people will oppose it for all eternity unless their own
situation is certain to be enhanced or two hundred percent secure.
During those three million meetings it soon
became obvious that perceived risk could be the most significant driver of human
affairs. In which case, intelligence, progress and rational thought are myths, part of the
risk machine’s endlessly subtle mechanisms for spinning a rationale for building consensus, for following the low risk route. That’s how the risk of knowing too much is dealt
with – stick with consensus and avoid knowing.
Clearly a vast amount of modern life revolves around risk in
all its many forms. Things could hardly be otherwise in view of our overall survival
imperative. It fits well with what we know of behaviour reinforcement and with
seeking out the route of fewest surprises.
Even living in the UK is a risk because the mild
winter cannot sustain human life without our life-sustaining technology –
clothes, shelter and power. That may change of course. Yet many risks do not threaten our survival at all, even
though we take enormous pains, go to great lengths and spend huge amounts of
money to avoid them.
It is almost as if our big brains do not represent the
evolution of intelligence, but the evolution of risk awareness. We are not so
much intelligent as super-subtle risk assessors. We use this ability to populate almost every niche on the planet, including the oceans. We use tools and behaviour to moderate the risks of potentially hostile environments and we populate them.
In which case we are not so
much tool-makers as manipulators of physical risk. Tools from spanners to
skyscrapers, from bricks to bridges are all designed to reduce risk or adapt to
risk – that is their only purpose.
Yet accurate risk assessment goes wrong and when it does we
get a range of consequences from war to social collapse, from totalitarian
government to dubious dietary advice. Perceived risks are vast in scope and
subtlety and the scope for serious error is correspondingly vast.
Complexity increases risk so we take complex steps to
mitigate it even if we don’t fully understand it. That’s one advantage of
prejudice – it narrows the range of acceptable possibilities, reduces
complexity and thereby reduces risk. Prejudice may have its own risks which
institutions and governments try to eliminate, but eliminating one kind of risk
many create others simply because complexity has increased in unforeseen ways.
Politics is all about perceived risk, often with facile attempts
to reduce it by placating some pressure group which only wishes to reduce its
own risks. Or outright loons try to create ideal political structures, a
deluded political stasis where there can be no risk because all risks have been
designed out by the loons, cast into that outer oblivion where demons lurk.
Except the demons are inside. They always are.