Foolproof?

The Hero and the Protector archetypes are often synonymous. We look to the skies when the world is in chaos, just as we looked to our parents when we scuffed our knees in the playground. Heroes are those who hold back the invading hordes, or walk through fire to shield us from the encroaching flames.

As a parent of a young boy who seems intent on removing himself from the gene pool with each brave leap from our household furniture, I often find myself facing a moral dilemma. Through my own practice as a martial artist and traceur (practitioner of parkour), I know that some degree of risk is a necessary part of developing physical and psychological resilience. My urge to protect my son from the insults and injuries of this world is countered by an equally powerful urge to see him grow in agency and revel in the adventures available to him. Heroes-in-training must necessarily take risks, but where is the balance to be struck?

I recently came across a fascinating book which has helped me in wrestling with the question of 'risk' - Greg Ip's 2015 release 'Foolproof: why safety can be dangerous and how danger makes us safe'. The first third of the book presents Ip's analysis of the 2008 financial crisis and the degree to which government bail outs and insured investments, earlier in the 20th century, set the scene for our current loss of faith in the global banking model. Cavalier trading emerged, Ip argues, largely as a result of the fact that an illusion of safety encourages even more risky behaviours. Our evolutionary impulse to operate at the edge of safety, in order to capitalise on opportunities, causes us to overreach. As Ip observes, 'the pursuit of safety leads to behaviour that makes disaster more likely'.

The book goes on to offer a colourful array of case studies which reinforce this central premise. Modern strategies to avoid the loss of natural resources, through uncontrolled forest fires, succeeded in reducing the number of smaller fires, but also created the conditions for rarer but more devastating infernos that have occurred since. Moreover, because public confidence in the safety of woodlands increased in the short term, more homes have been built nearby, increasing the likelihood of loss of life when such fires do break out

The same is true of flood defences and the natural draw of shoreline communities. As a species we have tended to double down our investment in flood-prone areas. As populations bloom and we build on the spaces which once provided a natural buffer to intermittent flooding, superstorms like Katrina and Sandy are likely to exact an ever-increasing cost to our infrastructure and to the populace at large.

Even our overuse of antibiotics, and the subsequent rise of resistant strains of bacteria reflects the same underlying pattern at work. Our desire to mitigate risk provides short term security, but with it comes a vulnerability to black swan events. At the same time, this approach infantilises us because we lose our efficacy as individual change agents by submitting to the experts tasked with keeping us safe.

Perhaps the most ironic example in Ip's work concerns the implementation of safety helmets into the NFL. The decision to provide players with reinforced head ware and face guards came with the best of intentions - to reduce the likelihood of traumatic head injuries as a result of collisions. Unfortunately the demand for ever more dramatic in-field action, and the innovation of coaching staff, led to the helmet serving a new function as a weapon, rather than as a piece of safety equipment! Players now rammed into one another at full speed, head first with impunity and so, while head injuries did indeed decrease, spinal injuries went up threefold! Was the game safer with, or without helmets?

Ip's conclusion (and I would encourage you to read the book in its entirety) is that 'our goal should be to eliminate big disasters - not small ones, to accept a bit more risk and instability in return for more reward and stability in the long run'. His book is full of seeming paradoxes - that safety can sometimes make us worse off. That taking fewer risks can be a risky proposition. That stability can be destabilising. These are not zen koans; they are nuanced observations based on the fact that our relationship with our environment is complex and ever-shifting.

We desire long, healthy and happy lives, and indeed we do enjoy a quality of existence unprecedented in human history, but there is always a trade off going on between our safety on the one hand, and our freedom and autonomy on the other. The disasters of the 20th century have shown us time and again that if we outsource our security and salvation to external authorities, and then sleepwalk through our lives, we are colluding in a Faustian pact which will make us more vulnerable in the long term, and our lives will be ultimately more impoverished too.

As heroes-in-training, we will necessarily place ourselves at risk, not just when the call for help comes, but in the ways we engage in our daily training. It is a necessary part of the pact we make in order to be of service to others. This does not mean we should be reckless, but we must make our peace with the possibility that we are more exposed as we stand sentinel.

For what it is worth, the safe and insulated life is not only duller, but it comes with its own risks too. How many people do you know who rarely stray from their comfort zone, but are slowly dying from the diseases of excess that plague the lives of the indulged and complacent? Fear and danger are signals that can invigorate our minds and bodies into a state of readiness - a state that can be anabolic rather than catabolic, if negotiated skilfully.

So, if my son suffers the odd bruise or scrape, my instinct to bubble wrap our home may be no less powerful, but I'm going to resist that urge. At the same time, I will do what I can to discourage him from proving that he can fly down the stairs 'just like Batman'!

Likewise, while I appreciate all of the efforts the government, and the emergency services undertake on my behalf to keep me safe, I choose to avail myself of the skills and competencies needed to look after myself and those around me, should the forces of chaos breach their defences. None of us are 'riskproof' and it can be a disturbing truth to face head on, but heroes must be prepared to stare directly at 'what is', rather than shut their eyes and wish away the storm clouds as they gather on the horizon.

Andy Fisher