Are we forgetting that life has always had risks?

August 27th, 2006
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Some recent research into an article for a business magazine about a Canadian oil company launching an oil exploration project in the Kurdish part of Iraq, coupled with some “lite” bedtime reading of Stephen Pressfield’s latest book, The Afghan Campaign, got me thinking about the post-modern West’s views on risk.

In Pressfield’s fictional account of Alexander the Great’s punishing and surpassing brutal – and temporary – conquest of Afghanistan, the hardships and privations endured by both sides are not only extreme, but routine. It eventually dawns on the reader (this one, anyway) that virtually all places, societies and ages have had a high risk of serious misfortune befalling an individual, family or whole village seemingly at random. So high that nearly everyone saw someone, knew someone, worked beside someone, fought someone or buried someone who had suffered calamity.

Contrast this with our world, where virtually all risks of calamity have been removed. Most of the remaining, far more minor ones, are being gradually stamped out. Just one minor example: Nowadays construction crews force highway traffic to slow down to 50 km/h up to one mile before the first sign of any work going on, and place those signs days before any workers actually show up. This is an admittedly trivial example, but that’s my point. We’ve virtually eliminated all the big risks, so now we’re driving risk-reduction to absurd and, I would say, counter-productive levels.

Disasters still occur, of course: Traffic accidents, tornadoes, cancer. But Western societies appear to have reached a point at which such events are regarded as surprising, unnatural and ultimately preventable. In nearly all cases, someone soon utters a call for someone to “do something” about it.

In researching my magazine article, the risks of doing business in Kurdistan struck me as quite reasonable stacked against the vast potential rewards. Yet some of the company’s investors, instead of piling in cash to increase their holdings, sold out upon the project’s announcement. Sorry, can’t tell you more, or I’d be scooping my own story, and the people paying for it. But the point seems to be, many people nowadays think that even the natural resource business should be risk-free.

Then there’s of course the difficulty of assessing risk clearly. Iraq is perhaps the best case in point. Considered an abyss of death for U.S. servicemen, and an insane place for anyone to do business, today’s post at the Belmont Club suggests the death rate for those foreigners most exposed to physical hazards in-theatre is lower than that for young black males in Philadelphia.

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