Living on Earth is a risky business. The planet is full of natural hazards, and manmade hazards pose even more threats to life and limb. Unfortunately, American culture seems to approach the concept of risk without one wit of rationality. The results include a ridiculously litigious society, proliferation of gambling establishments, and increasingly poor management of parks. We desperately need a re-assessment of what defines risk, liability, and responsibility.
It may help to categorize different types of risks. I have taken the liberty of making up my own categories simply to illustrate important points about each type. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Stupid Risk. These are risks that each individual has a choice in making, and most are what one could call “recreational” in nature. Examples might include extreme sports, gambling (from casino games to bingo to the state lottery), and investment in the stock market. Astonishingly, American culture glorifies this type of behavior. We even televise the “Winter X Games” and Jackass. States not only participate in multi-state lottery games, but actively advertise them. At least some advertisements for investment firms include disclaimers when it comes to their guarantees of success.
- Imposed Risk. This is the kind of risk that I find most offensive. It encompasses mostly corporate activity whereby the risks are largely borne by the people least likely to be able to comprehend and fight them. It also imposes risks to the environment. Mining and hazardous waste disposal are two obvious examples of this kind of risk. Factory farming may be another. Some might consider genetically modified organisms (especially food crops) to be in this category. Wendell Berry has consistently made eloquent arguments for why we should be intolerant to such practices, citing in his many essays the problem of “absentee ownership” of land by corporations. The impact of a coal mine, for example, is felt at the site, by the rural population that lives there, not by the corporate executives in far-off urban locales.
- Insurable Risk. These are the risks with which we are perhaps most familiar, at least at a personal level. It applies to life, health, property, and vehicles, as well as to potential disasters such as fire, theft, and flooding. Ok, maybe not flooding these days. We can get “coverage” to be able to recoup our losses in the event of some kind of traumatic event. It mostly applies to material goods you will notice, and you might not be able to get insurance for your own health should you have a “pre-existing condition.” Such cases are usually beyond one’s control, determined generations prior through genes. Wonderful.
- Legal Risk. This kind of risk is largely defined by the question “Can I be sued for that?” We are collectively intolerant of the most improbable of potential accidents; and conversely eager to file a lawsuit over event outcomes for which we abdicate our own responsibility. We apparently agree that “stupid risks” are completely acceptable, even to be encouraged, whereas “legal risks” are totally unacceptable and must be prevented from occurring at all costs, literally and figuratively.
Our entire society appears to be liability-driven these days. I see the effects of this in the changing landscape of our urban parks. Here in Tucson, Arizona, we frequently use agave plants in landscaping along roadsides, on college campuses, and other public areas. These succulents are also known as “century plants” because they bloom so infrequently. When they do, they send up a very tall, dense flower spike crowned with glorious golden blossoms that make the long wait for the floral fireworks worthwhile. The bigger the plant, the taller and more spectacular the central spike. Unfortunately, the taller the spike, the more potentially top-heavy it can be. Guess what. At the first hint of instability, the landscapers hack down the spike. Frequently they uproot the entire plant. This is happening in an increasingly pre-emptive fashion whereby the plant doesn’t even get the chance to bloom beyond green buds.
When I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1990s, I found the same approach to dead standing timber. God forbid that one of these boles might topple over onto a hiker, or, worse yet, somebody’s vehicle. Too bad that cutting down the potential Tree Trunk of Doom renders homeless cavity-nesting birds, countless insects, mushrooms and other fungi, mosses, and other organisms essential to forest ecosystem health. How about filling in the *$#@! Groundhog holes instead?
The warning sign pictured at the top of this post is in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area just north of Tucson where mountain lions are seen with some degree of regularity. The increasing pressure of urban development from the south met the devastation of the Aspen fire from the north back in 2003. There was suddenly nowhere for far-ranging mountain lions to go, and three cats were frequenting Sabino Canyon a year later (see this link for more). Last time I checked, nobody was forced to go hiking, jogging, running, or site-seeing in Sabino Canyon, yet the improbable risk of a mountain lion attack was deemed unacceptable. The first suggested course of action was to kill the cats. This was met with such hostility that Arizona Game & Fish officials had to quickly retract the plan. The Recreation Area was subsequently closed for a brief time and at least one cat was captured and turned over to a wildlife rehabilitation center near Phoenix.
We must ask ourselves what is truly unacceptable risk, and learn to start tolerating random acts of nature that are beyond our control. Don’t venture out if it isn’t worth the risk to you, but don’t punish the rest of us. I’ll happily sign a waiver for the chance to brave prowling pumas at Sabino Canyon.