Last year I wrote the only way to solve the present precautionary policy disaster is to “wait until the bodies start piling up”. With locusts ravaging East Africa and a coronavirus plague shutting down Western economies, maybe it is time to go back and see how the precautionary principle has fared as the (only) risk management tool in our policy toolkit. With a population naively assuming they were living risk-free lives having been reassured how their personal safety was managed by others, the coming crisis is going to hit hard.
Whatever happened to personal risk management, accountability and autonomy? Populations that have lost an understanding of risks are now incapable of dealing with simple hazard reduction measures. COVID-19 has taught us that two decades of precautionist-driven risk aversion has left an untrusting public without the capacity to protect themselves. Times of mass panic as we’re seeing today are not ideal periods to re-teach simple risk management skills, but perhaps once the outrage has passed and the bodies have been removed, a bit of risk reality education will be welcomed.
Handle with Precaution
Two decades of the precautionary principle as the key policy tool for managing uncertainties has neutered risk management capacities by offering, as the only approach, the systematic removal of any exposure to any hazard. As the risk-averse precautionary mindset cements itself, more and more of us have become passive docilians waiting to be nannied. We no longer trust and are no longer trusted with risk-benefit choices as we are channelled down over-engineered preventative paths. While it is important to reduce exposure to risks, our excessively-protective risk managers have, in their zeal, removed our capacity to manage risks ourselves. Precaution over information, safety over autonomy, dictation over accountability.
- Whatever happened to “Keep out of reach of children”? Now we cannot be trusted and all products must be child-safe.
- Whatever happened to “Handle with care”? Now safety by design has removed the need for individuals to exercise common sense or risk reduction measures.
- Whatever happened to trust? Now individuals are no longer left with the capacity to make their own decisions in managing personal risks.
“These are good things” precaution advocates would retort “since people often make mistakes and bad things can better be prevented!”. While continuous improvement of safety systems has its value, the bigger the fences, the less autonomously the individuals will react (creating a society of docile followers). The precautionary approach implies a lack of trust in individuals’ capacities to make their own (rational) choices. The over-engineered risk-management process would remove any situation where choices could be made. Fine for cases where there are no trade-offs, disruptions or loss of benefits (when the sheep have plenty of grass in their field), but in times of crisis (exposure to hazards), when precaution is your only tool, then sacrifice is the only solution.
When you’re out of bullets… Run!!!
When societies are faced with a crisis demanding individual risk management, and the only tool the regulators (risk managers) seem to have left is the precautionary principle, then autonomy and accountability are taken away, trust is lost and benefits are disrupted. With COVID-19, regulators are dealing with a population it can no longer trust as the risk management process has become centralised. At the same time, trust in the regulators has dissipated from a decade of intensive activist delegitimisation campaigns.
Precaution’s answer to COVID-19 is to quarantine the outbreak to try to minimise exposures to the virus. Given the incubation period can be as long as 14 days, this is like locking the doors after everyone has left the room. As that measure will inevitably fail, the next step is to shut everything down. Economies will suffer much longer than our fear of COVID-19 uncertainty, with the undesired public healthcare funding effects, but precautionistas have never been much bothered with lost benefits or dire consequences.
So rather than letting schools manage risks, they are closing them down. Couldn’t teachers use this opportunity to reinforce hygiene skills and expand the use of disinfectants? (Or did the schools ban the use of effective chemicals in the last precautionary wave?) Rather than promoting the immunity benefits of fitness and well-being, organisers in Tokyo, Rome and Paris have cancelled this year’s marathon races. Couldn’t these cities use the opportunity to stress fitness and healthy living as a good prevention to diseases. Rather than using the COVID-19 pause in the West to educate the public on immunity-building measures, the regulators are wasting time reassuring their populations bad things won’t happen to them. Rather than trusting the public to self-isolate when potential COVID-19 symptoms arrive (what is basically done with every other flu outbreak), our authorities have created mass panic in the supermarkets, economic recession and further public trust declines.
These are all indicative of serious failures in our risk management capacity at government level. But how are our populations personally managing this latest coronavirus risk?
When the public now sees everything of modern life (work, school, public events…) cancelled in a knee-jerk precautionary impulse, is it any wonder they are panicking? Enter the opportunist to sell you the silver solution or the naturopath detox remedy to put your mind at ease. Enter the quack to tell you to drink bleach. Enter the racist who will use the fear to mobilise outrage. Exit rationality and risk management.
With no bullets left in the risk-management gun, the only thing left to do is run … or as it is more commonly called: apply the precautionary principle. Precaution should only be applied after other risk management measures have failed but given how horribly inadequate our capacities to govern have become, it is the only strategy our regulators have come to know.
100% Safety … Guaranteed!
Citizens in most western countries have grown to expect 100% safety guaranteed by our delegated risk managers. Watching people freak out over minuscule pesticide exposure levels on their breakfast cereals indicates just how far the societal demand is for risk-free benefits. This risk-averse mindset breeds complacency in a population unaware that risk-taking is a necessary, constant practice. When confronted with perceived risks, people panic and often end up making stupid decisions.
The more these risk-averse people demand risk-reduction measures, ironically, the more risks they are exposing themselves to. The demand for pesticide-free food for health reasons is leading to less fruit and vegetable consumption. The demand for less caustic disinfectants increases the risks of outbreaks. The demand for more natural products and less preservatives and packaging is leading to more waste and food poisoning. The more we could learn to accept small exposures to hazards (from pesticides, chemicals, packaging …) the safer we would be.
We are in a situation now where the next generation of zero-risk advocates have to prepare for the apocalypse and test their personal risk management readiness. And what supplies are our privileged millennials stocking up on? As a child of the Cold War nuclear survival kits, I would assume: water, cleaning products, tinned goods? Nope – the hoarding of choice that populations from Australia to Belgium to the United States are frantically emptying from the supermarket shelves is … toilet paper. Yes … toilet paper. I suppose in the world of an imagined millennial apocalypse, Uber Eats can still deliver my Starbucks coffee, so I’ll just need to make sure my bum is clean.
People do get sick, people do die – that’s life! Nature is such that strong people recover from diseases and viruses like COVID-19 (and often get stronger) while we need science and humanity to protect the weak. The objective of risk management should always be to reduce vulnerability.
Risk managers should have done the obvious with limited hazard reduction means: allocate all resources and energy towards building firewalls to protect the vulnerable in hospitals and nursing homes while leaving the rest of society to manage the risks of the present outbreak via self-isolation and according to their situations, capacities and resourcefulness. Instead everyone is mixed into the same viral soup. The strong (but nervous) are clogging up the hospital emergency waiting rooms while the elderly and at risk ride the buses. And where there are quarantines, the strong and the infirm share the same air. The Yokohama-quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship debacle will serve as a good case study where, in a stumbling precautionary world, the risk management profession was non-existent.
Speaking personally, as someone with heart disease and still weakened from an 18-month battle with a series of organ infections, I would put myself on that list of the COVID-19 vulnerable. Mrs Monger is also slowly recovering from a respiratory attack that has left her with only 62% lung capacity. The Belgian authorities have our medical records and big data should help them prioritise health measures for those most at risk from the present outbreak … but that would require sensible risk managers. To the best of my knowledge, there are no efforts by the Belgian state to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Our risk managers are instead trying to look busy by cancelling events and disrupting economic and social activities. At Casa Monger we are busily building our own firewalls, trying to strengthen our immunity and washing our hands before each face palm.
I suppose we’re expected to be docile sheep waiting for a red cross to be painted upon our front door.
I wrote an article and gave a keynote last year on what I called the Poison of Precaution, where I lamented how our over-reliance on the precautionary principle over the last decades has resulted in a societal shift towards zero-risk mindset, with more emphasis on stopping or banning substances and activities rather than spending our intellectual energy solving problems with science and technology. To take on society’s challenges requires leadership, risk-takers and innovators. Precaution teaches us followship, how to put your head down and run from any threats; how to be docile sheep rather than problem-solving wolves.
While information technology has benefited humanity in so many ways, its consequences are troubling. Having a device in our hands that offers easy answers to any need tends to reduce our cognitive capacities. I have actually designed a course for first-year business students to try to repair the intellectual damage of smartphones. Big data has sorted me into tribal communities of people who think like me so I won’t need to be challenged by ideas (I’ve banned or blocked those who disagree with me). I’ll follow Google Maps to get from Point A to Point B; I’ll download an app that will write my term paper; I’ll find someone interesting by swiping right. In exchange, I have surrendered any analytical, critical capacity to make sound personal judgements – I lack the ability to properly manage risks. We have become sheep with all of our needs taken care of as we follow our tribe, follow our phones, follow the wolves…
I have been looking for a noun to depict how these untelligent people have allowed this madness to perpetuate unopposed. In perhaps the most biting text I’ve ever written, I referred to them as “confused pigs” (but I was told that was offensive … to pigs). “Docilian” is perhaps the next shortcut in my lexicon to track the evolution of the Age of Stupid.
Docilians are individuals who do not need to think, expect things to be done for them and fear disruption and challenges. People become docile when they are well-fed, when answers are given to them along the path of least resistance and when their tribe makes decisions for them. Risks terrify docilians as they have been led to believe their world has been made safe for them. They search for intellectual safe zones and their social media communities protect them from challenging thoughts (from the need for any thoughts at all). Precautionary in their mindset, docilians don’t welcome new solutions or innovations (they detest entrepreneurs) but rather solve problems by saying “No!” to all risks or uncertainties (they support naturopath contrapreneurs). Devoted to their tribal gurus, docilians don’t care if benefits are lost or if others suffer.
Docilians are sheep.
Our precautionary cultural mindset celebrates followship, abhors innovative leadership and serves as the only risk management tool for a society of docilians demanding zero risk. In times of affluence, abundance and good health the sheep are happy … but I fear as the locusts descend and more quarantines rise up, that our sheep are running out of grazing opportunities.
Image source: Screenshot from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Postscript: I’m told my writing has been too dark for people who only want happy thoughts. So for them, here is an alternative conclusion (but take it as a final warning):
Fortunately we might still have enough innovative scientists developing new vaccines, disinfecting chemicals and crop protection tools to manage the current risk crises we are facing. But another decade of docilian precaution, another decade of campaigns against chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and vaccines, another decade of diets and practices that weaken immunity, and we will certainly have the problem of barren pastures with the carcasses of rotting ruminants.