Stay safe? – the politics of safety and risk

John Daniels investigates changing cultural perceptions of risk.

‘Risk is somehow bound up with humanising possibilities…’  Matthew B. Crawford

Years ago I worked as a chaplain at a college in the Lake District which had a thriving outdoor studies programme. As you can imagine, one of the basic issues covered on that course was risk: how do you stop adventure becoming misadventure?

I had some fascinating discussions with staff and students about this. We all bemoaned how risk-averse our culture was becoming, and how stultifying that was.

All that was back in the 90s, for goodness’ sake. How much the world has changed since then. ‘Health and Safety gone mad’ has become a byword in the interim. Not that anyone ever denied that there is such a thing as risk, and that it needs to be managed responsibly.
It’s fascinating how ‘Stay safe’ somehow became the default alternative to cheerio during the lockdown. And now, as we desperately try to come out of lockdown, ‘safety’ seems to be the major impediment. Just getting children back to school, for example – who’d have thought it would be so difficult?

What lies behind the seemingly commendable preoccupation with safety? The image I can’t get away from as I reflect on this is of a knight in full armour, impervious to the assault of even the best equipped enemy. It’s as if we’re unconsciously taking that as a role model: I want to be able to do whatever I like, confident that no-one and nothing can hurt me back.

Maybe it’s the proliferation of face-masks on the street that puts me in mind of armour. Of course I can see the reason for the masks (and if that’s what it takes for us to get back to ‘normal’, so be it). But I worry that what lies underneath is a false belief that we should be able to eliminate risk from life altogether. And if I have an absolute right to safety then, if ever anything does go wrong, there must be someone to blame.

Yet some 26,000 people are killed or seriously injured on UK roads each year. So when will we ban cars? And atmospheric CO2 concentrations have now reached 417 parts per million. So why on earth is the UK waiting till 2050 to become carbon-neutral? Isn’t this irresponsibly risky?

It’s almost as if the more risk attaches to some parts of our lives, the more we seek absolute safety in others. And we do that despite it being impossible, and the fact that it makes the business of ordinary life so intractable.

Personally I think there’s a lot of mileage in that distinction between adventure and misadventure they taught back at college. Risk is just part and parcel of living. When you’re out in the mountains, a suit of armour is no good. You have to reckon with the wild reality of the world, realise you’ll never be wholly in control, and devise your adventure accordingly.

The question is: what adventure are we on, as a species? Looking around, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s simply a quest to make more and more money. If that’s so, then we shouldn’t be surprised when adventure eventually turns, inevitably, to misadventure.

John Daniels is an Anglican priest and theological educator with a background in earth sciences, currently working for the Diocese of Hereford.

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