Let’s not risk everything

May 6, 2019

We are given to be fearful of all kinds of technologies; nuclear power, genetically modified organisms and even, for a few, disease-preventing vaccinations. Advancing technology will always come with some kind of risk. Even getting out of bed in the morning comes with some kind of risk – yet, lots of people die in bed. As the joke goes, if I knew where I was going to die, I’d never go near the place. But even if every human activity has some kind of risk attached to it, it can still be managed.

What’s going on here is that the “public” (our society) accepts different levels of risk for different human activities. Often the riskiest thing we do is drive our car. We accept this higher risk because we get the benefits of mobility and convenience — and perhaps, more importantly, we like to be in control. We demand a lower level of risk when flying because we don’t have that same sense of control; a pilot is in the cockpit not us. The element of control is a big factor in what is acceptable. This “risk” is the chance that something might go terribly wrong.

There are other major factors in what risks society accepts. On the plus side, there is its benefit and its convenience as well as the control we have. All three make the risk more acceptable. Then on the downside there are the risk factors of the chances of a bad incident (frequency), the severity of the bad incident and how soon it is likely to happen. All three make the risk less acceptable.

For example, while the overall frequency of a problem or accident with nuclear power may be low and its immediacy may be low, when something goes bad — it can be an enormous problem. Chernobyl and Fukushima are demonstration enough. However, the benefits can be substantial; continuity of electrical power that’s also convenient when there’s no wind or sunshine and no CO2 emissions. In many people’s perception, it’s the severity of a possible accident that overrides any benefits.

What about smoking? To smokers there’s an immediate benefit in satisfying their craving. Cancer, the main problem, is a significant risk – its frequency among smokers over their lifetime is high. The severity, an early death, is high for the individual, but the immediacy is low. It takes a long time to develop cancer. For the smoker this is acceptable. For the rest of us, this is unacceptable because there’s no benefit to us.

Which brings us to burning of fossil fuels. The benefit and convenience are high as with any electrical power generation technology. We also use fossil fuels as a concentrated source of energy in our transportation system. We can conveniently fill up and carry it around in our gas tanks. We have control over its use in our cars. Three things in its favor.

On the downside, global warming from the rising CO2 levels, is projected to cause all kinds of mayhem from rising sea levels, more damaging weather-driven “natural” disasters, problems with food supply and thus rising human migration and on and on. Part of the problem with public perception and inaction on this issue is that for many the immediacy is low (decades in the making), and the frequency is also low (not in my lifetime), which tends to just leave severity (worldwide) as a motivator. We are literally the frog in the slowly heated water that refuses to jump out even as its life is threatened.

Some good news: the population demographics are changing and more of us, especially our children and grandchildren, are recognizing the threat and taking action. Let’s all jump, before it’s too late; time is not on our side.

Robert Cordingley is a concerned citizen in Santa Fe County.