Monday, August 2, 2010

Watch Your Step

No pain, no gain. It's a cliche because it seems so common sensible. Everything has a price; nothing comes from nothing. It's even a Law of Nature, right?

We all know that without risk there is no reward.  Even further, we are told, the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

Consider walking.  Is it risky?  Most of us don't think so, unless we are very young, very old, injured  or disabled, for whom the risk inherent in walking is anything but imaginary.  Even for the healthiest of bipedals, walking is among the most dangerous things we do, because the physics of walking is actually a process of falling and catching oneself repeatedly.  Because we walk so much, it seems safe enough, but we all know from experience that it only takes a single mistake to make clear the constant inherent risk.  You don't have to fall far to die.  One need not walk off a 400 foot cliff to tumble to one's death.  A six-inch curb or an icy bit of pavement can do the trick just as well.

But walking isn't really so dangerous, is it?  No, of course it isn't.  Even after just a few hundred steps, we rightly get the idea that what seemed dangerous at first is actually pretty safe.  The risk (death) is pretty low and the reward (getting somewhere) is pretty high.

The question is, though, is whether or not greater risk really does bring greater reward.

If walking is risky enough, why bother to run?  Well, one might need to escape from a bear, or to catch one's dinner. And, if some precautions are taken (like not running off cliffs or into trees), running is not much more dangerous than walking.   So running, even though it is riskier, is still considered safe enough to be worth the reward--staying alive.

But, to continue down this path, if the rewards of running are greater than the rewards of walking, can we continue to increase rewards by increasing the risk?  In other words are the rewards of running faster (racing) greater than merely running?

Clearly taking no risk at all seems likely to yield the smallest reward, but when the cost of the risk (death) exceeds the value of the potential reward (staying alive; eating dinner) we rightly pull back.  But if the potential reward is sufficient, will we simply tumble headlong into ever-increasing risk without stopping?

Surely there is a line, somewhere.

That line is are just as surely different among individuals--accounting for the likes of Eivel Knievel--but when that line does not involve physical risk but merely, say financial ruin, that line seems to be very hard to find.  Some people deliberately erased that line in their short-sighted and selfish pursuit of wealth before, during and certainly after the most recent financial meltdown.

The odd thing about this state of affairs is that we, as humans, are actually conditioned to minimize risk to the point where we can simply take it for granted.  While walking--even over level terrain--does in fact represent a real and tangible risk, in fact we know the process to be so easy and 'natural' that we don't really consider it to be risky.  That is till, say, we take a walk along a trail with a 400 foot drop-off to one side, cross a busy intersection in a major city, or step out onto that see-through ledge that juts out over the Grand Canyon.

So, paradoxically, it seems that in spite of our daily exposure to the most basic risk of all--death by falling--here we are, living in a culture that literally makes a profit on the fear of risk.  Today, it seems like risk--even the most mitigated and necessary--is to be avoided at all costs.

Boy, does it cost, and it's no wonder.  We are more than willing to pay.  For whatever reason, at perhaps historically the safest time to be alive, particularly in our culture, we want--expect, demand--guarantees for everything, from the material to the conceptual and we don't care what it costs as long as it's safe.

It starts with our products, things, of course--those objects over which we have the greatest personal dominion.  From these we expect the greatest 'unconditional' satisfaction or our money back.  In some ways this is good.  We really don't want faulty or dangerous products and have a good reason for not wanting to pay for either.

Lately, though, it seems like this demand for satisfaction (despite Mick Jagger's well known and even hum-able advice) has spread to other, less tangible but no less fundamental aspects of our communal lives.

The mantra is repeated often:  Everything must be made safe for public consumption.

The risk prevention component of our industrial complex is both pervasive and perverse.  Today, seatbelts, car seats, airbags, fire alarms, child-proof medicine bottles, flame retardant underwear and the millions of products (like useless stinky deodorants and deadly stinky air 'fresheners') are just the most visible of consumer products designed to take advantage of the most trivial and imaginary of personal hygenic fears.

Why is this so?  Despite our seemingly fervent desire to mitigate it, we are hardly consistent in our fear of risk.  In some cases, like the eating of lead paint and the breathing of asbestos, the risks are now so obvious--may I say even, so 20th century--that we take them for granted.

In other cases, like smoking chemical-laden tobacco cigarettes or the driving of automobiles, we have, for the sake of profit, actively denied the risks in the face of hard evidence to the contrary.  Who says cigarettes cause cancer?  Do people really die in car crashes?  Do bears really...well, you know?

At the extremes like this, in fact, it is clear that we have co-opted the most classic fears to serve the cause of consumerism.  But these fears are starting to seem, well, so old-fashioned.  It's time for some 21st century risks and fears, don't you think?

Not to worry, we've got plenty of good stuff to worry about in the new millennium, the Mayan calendar notwithstanding.  For example, these days, what's really troubling some folks is the fear of getting cancer from cell phone radiation or being stripped of all their possessions by the creeping socialist government that will surely emerge from the national debt.  Now those are some things to worry about!

Oh really?  Despite contrary stands on these 'issues' taken respectively by San Francisco and Fox and Friends, both of these fears are, in fact, imaginary.  The San Francisco city council and Glen Beck would do well to read on a daily basis.

I have trouble understanding politicians and pundits when they talk about mitigating the chances we are taking with our grandchildren's lives and livelihoods because the subject of their fears are not really risks at all.  Is our entire way of life really at risk because the government printed billions of dollars to give to the bank, airline and auto industries?

I have trouble understanding amateur scientists and Luddite alarmists when they talk about imaginary radiation and blithely confuse correlation with causation. Are our brains really at risk from the miniscule amount of radiation emitted by cellphone circuitry?  

I know some people think so.  But, what they want is really just a sure thing.  You know.  Risk free.  Big money, with no whammies.  Me, I am not so sure.

Considering that walking is likely as dangerous (or more so) than either foolish, spendthrift politicians or silent, irradiating cell phones, I can't help but thinking that we sure spend a lot of time worrying about all the imaginary risks in life when we are all taking real tangible risks with our lives with each step.

I say, quit worrying about radiation and socialism.  Watching where you put your foot next might just be the safest decision you'll ever make.


valgal said...

should i send this on to some peeps in california who might enjoy reading this?!

bc said...