WHILE THE WORLD watched Ian Thorpe race Pieter van den Hoogenband in the hundred metres freestyle final at the Sydney Olympics, queues of between fifteen and fifty cars snaked out of the driveways of petrol stations across London. A temporary disruption in the supply of Europe’s oil had led to mild panic as people flocked to supermarkets and pharmacies to stockpile the necessities of life. But it was in the petrol queues that tensions flared. Cars, which normally enable people to function, the symbols of freedom and escape on holidays and weekends, suddenly turned into instruments of entrapment.
A rise in the price of petrol seems to have the ability to make people more apprehensive than a rise in the price any other item except interest rates. Popular anger at fuel costs resulted in a major slide in the Howard Government’s popularity prior to the 2001 federal election; more recent price increases have seen anger directed at the big oil companies. We have become what The Economist pithily called “oilaholics”: increasingly dependent on energy simply to function normally on a day-to-day basis. Not only are we reliant on energy to get ourselves to work and the kids to school, but energy is necessary for the basic functioning of our society: putting food in the shops, powering hospitals, businesses and schools, delivering water to our taps and showers. Economists (surprise, surprise) have come up with a term – the “hysteresis effect” – to describe how modern economies have become so dependent on fossil fuels they are unable to do without them; and their ability to access them at an affordable price has come to be seen as an entitlement and, indeed, as a facet of state security.
A century ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim observed that societies were becoming more “organic”. By this he meant that as individuals commit more deeply to roles in the modern economy, the functions they fulfil become increasingly specialised and they come to depend on the economy and society to fulfil the needs that once individuals met themselves.[i]
In our bid for efficiency and productivity, we have taken this logic to its extreme. The growing specialisation and intensity of interaction in modern societies, a growing dependence on information technologies and “just-in-time” inventory and production systems, and an increasing impatience with redundancy, have led to huge increases in productivity but also to a major rise in the fragility of society. Modern society has become the great enabler of individual possibility – to obtain prosperity, fulfilment, happiness, education, status – but by making humans so dependent on the system, modern society has also become the greatest danger to individual possibility. A sudden and temporary disruption to one of our strands of connectivity – transport, electricity, telephone or information technology – impacts heavily on our, and our society’s, capacity to function. A sustained disruption – a terrorist attack on infrastructure, a pandemic outbreak, the collapse of financial markets or oil stocks – could have catastrophic effects.
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck argues that our current level of prosperity is such that we no longer dream, as our grandparents did, of a more prosperous future for ourselves and our children. Rather, we increasingly fear the loss of what we have and will have. As “risk-management strategies” are applied to more and more aspects of our lives, the emotion of fear seems on the ascendant. American philosopher Martha Nussbaum resurrects the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, broadly interpreted as a concern with human flourishing, to describe how human emotions, centred on what people value and fear, become strongly engaged in people’s plans, visions and hopes for the future. Fear of loss arises from a very human process of emotional investment, the imbuing of people, objects or states of affairs that are outside of one’s control with great and increasing significance as one projects one’s life forward. Such emotions, argues Nussbaum, are powerful but under-acknowledged motivators of people and societies:
Once one has formed attachments to unstable things not fully under one’s control, once one has made these part of one’s notion of one’s flourishing, one has emotions of a background kind toward them … judgments that acknowledge their enormous worth – that persist in the fabric of one’s life, and are crucial to the explanation of one’s actions.[ii]
As a society, we seem to be increasingly attuned to the emotions of fear and loss. Here, the media play a significant role. The television news appears to be driven by an imperative to emphasise, where possible, the emotional aspects of news stories, inviting viewers to empathise – positively or negatively – with the protagonists and targeting the emotions of sympathy, blame or anger. The broadcasting of experiences is overtaking the broadcasting of information. The audience is continually invited to experience vicariously a victim’s horror, rage or sense of loss. Herein lies a possible answer to why people fear terrorist attacks, the likelihood of which is very low, much more than fatal car accidents, the frequency of which is regularly publicised. Psychologists have found that people tend to be more concerned about events that can be more easily and vividly imagined happening to them. Rare and memorable risks tend to be overestimated while common, familiar and mundane dangers are underestimated.
Loss has been individualised: all tragedies and catastrophes now acquire individual, human faces, of both the victims and perpetrators. If someone has been hurt, there must be someone to blame. Apportioning blame seems to be at least partly about ensuring that others are not indifferent to one’s loss. Legal scholars agree that the allocation of blame and restitution, rather than the preservation of status, agreements or public morals, is now the prime function of modern law. The ascendancy of tort law, and its identification of victims and villains, has the intent of ensuring that all members of society are aware that they will pay a price for causing risk or harm to others. Our world has become dominated by “risk technologies” – statistics, studies, actuarial computations – each more precisely informing us: cave, hic periculum (“caution – there be risk”). The media constantly parade population risk data – on obesity, driving etiquette, lifestyle – with the intent of encouraging individuals to monitor and change their own, supposedly risky, behaviours.
In the middle of the 1990s – in retrospect a sanguine age of faith in globalisation, markets and the expansion of human possibilities – Peter L. Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk (John Wiley and Sons Inc, 1996) became a worldwide bestseller. Bernstein told an optimistic story of how Western societies, by conceptualising and refining the concept of risk, acquired the confidence and ability to make informed choices that would enable them to move towards modernity.[iii] The years since, during what Allan Gyngell calls the increasingly anxious “transmillenial age” between the late 1990s and now, have seen risk lose its positive connotation and become associated almost exclusively with loss. The future, rather than the past, is still our main focus, as it was for the heroes of Bernstein’s story, but now the main concern is to look ahead for calamities rather than opportunities. Over time, our anticipation of the future has moved from a concept of fate, about which one could do little, to one of risk, the symbol of a manipulable future into which one can look and act now to ensure it is benign. The more we invest in peering into the future, the more risky it seems.
AS RISK HAS shaped sociey, so it has shaped politics. Governments, because they are ultimately responsible for and also depend on society, have always played the role of insurer of last resort. But as society becomes ever more risk averse, governments are less inclined to play a passive role as the ultimate guarantor. Both sides of politics have realised that in gentling the fears of an increasingly neurotic society lie the keys to office. John Howard has won successive elections by reassuring middle Australia about its greatest fears: the disorder of terrorism, influxes of asylum seekers, and sudden rises in interest rates. Along the way, governments have assumed a quasi-parental role, soothing society’s anxieties and promising to protect it from the perils of the unknown.
But the politics of risk is risky politics: although fear makes governments wanted, the state’s failure to protect its citizens can be electoral poison. In a climate of public apprehensiveness, nothing viable can be left undone in the interests of public safety. Government itself becomes highly sensitive to future risk, engaging in extended public discussion of current and future dangers, and the relative costs of different strategies to forestall threats. The language of gaming has become pervasive in popular speech as probability is used to play an increasingly important rhetorical and psychological function: we are being invited to assess the risks and possible gains and losses by governments that know they will be judged according to both capability and culpability. In effect, every government’s risk-management strategy is now to invite the electorate to review the situation – the choices, risks and benefits – with which it was confronted and to judge for itself the reasonableness of the choice made. Accused of minimising the threat of terrorism in Bali and exaggerating the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Australian Government seems to exhibit an understandable psychological tendency: to overestimate risks when the costs of underestimation would be heavy and to underestimate when the costs of overestimation are prohibitive.
Is this a blip or a trend? Will society’s growing anxiety lead to an increasing paralysis in the face of uncertainty? Certainly the growing prominence of the precautionary principle, which urges conservatism in the face of probable costs, could give rise to the fear that the scales are tipping against positive risk and entrepreneurialism. The debate has grown between the partisans of anticipation, who argue that we should use our knowledge of how disasters have occurred in the past to manage future risk, and the counsels of resilience, who argue that disasters occur because they are unpredictable and that naïve risk management can actually bring them about and worsen them.[iv] As Diarmaid MacCulloch’s wonderful history of the Reformation (Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, London: Allen Lane, 2003) shows us, millenarian beliefs really can change the course of history.[v] How ironic it would be if our fears about future loss were to cause a complex reaction that removed the conditions of current and future prosperity and possibility. If there is a hope that the fearful society will not succumb to a paralysed claustrophobia, it is that a spreading realisation will take hold that we cannot escape, without great cost, from our increasingly organic, fragile society; and that this, in turn, will lead to a return to a popular fatalism that enjoys rather than frets.
[i] Emile Durkheim, The Divisions of Labour in Society, New York: Free Press, 1984.
[ii] Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 71.
[iii] Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc, 1996.
[iv] These are terms developed by Catherine Althaus, “Policy Design and the Calculation of Political Risk”, PhD thesis, Griffith University, 2005.
[v] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, London: Allen Lane, 2003.
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