Wednesday, November 4, 2015

#148 Risk management

Dear all,
The ripples from our trip to Africa continue to spread in my life and my mind, as can be seen in this month's post.  I'll keep looking for more ways to share that experience.
An on-going joy at home is a near-by grandchild, who reminds us on a regular basis of the incredible buoyancy, keen observation and intelligence, flexibility and love of life that is our birthright.  May we rejoice in it in others, and reclaim it more and more for ourselves!

Risk management

As I was biking into a poorer neighborhood just west of mine to get to my local YMCA, I noticed how the number of bikers without helmets grew, and couldn’t help but think of my recent time in Africa, the tons of bike riders there, and the total non-existence of helmets.  I think most of us would identify an arc of progress here: Africa in the rear, many in the US ahead of them, my helmet-conscious neighborhood in the vanguard.

There’s certainly logic in this line of reasoning.  Historically, prosperity has created the conditions for risk mitigation, with generally good results. It’s great, for example, to ensure that water is safe to drink, require people to follow traffic laws, and encourage vaccination against deadly and contagious diseases.

As we extend beyond these overall public protections, however, there are some troubling trends. We seem to be focusing more and more on consumption of safety.  In a society with great income inequality, such risk mitigation comes at a price that is often paid individually. The more affluent can drive the biggest and safest cars, consume the best health care, and buy protection from violence in gated communities. People with fewer resources have fewer options about the risks they are exposed to, from the environmental contaminants in their neighborhoods to the lack of spending money for “extras” like bike helmets.

We have identified many more things as risky than our parents or grandparents ever did, and prohibitions against individual behavior that is deemed risky are steadily growing. Yet, as we pour our resources and well-developed risk management capacity into a crusade to eliminate risk, the expense of additional protection yields less and less additional well-being.  I would go farther, and suggest that we may have reached the point where our risk aversion is putting us in greater danger.

Childhood asthma, for example, has now been linked with the reduction in gut bacteria that comes with use of antibiotics in the first years of life.  I have to wonder:  are those parents who are trying hardest to protect their young children from bacterial infections actually putting them at greater risk?  The early childhood education field struggles with a similar paradox.  Regulations around sanitizing, that are getting increasingly stringent in an effort to create germ-free environments for our little ones, are creating their own unintentional hazards—both in the dangers of inhaling/ingesting the sanitizing agents, and in the decreased opportunities for children to acquire their own antibodies to fight off infection.

Shifting to look through the widest possible lens, by far the greatest risk we are facing as a species is the threat to life on earth that comes from global warming.  From that perspective, our focus for risk mitigation is seriously misplaced.  Those of us with the largest carbon footprint—driving cars, heating and cooling big houses, eating food that’s traveled thousands of miles, mindlessly consuming products that depend on scarce natural resources—are engaging in the most risky behavior of all. Riding without a bike helmet entails risk.  Pursuing consumption and economic growth at the cost of the planet’s integrity, however, is risk of a whole different order.

I wonder if part of our obsession with fighting germs and pursuing bike safety is a manifestation of this paradox. In a world with enormous risks and dangers all around, we focus on the little ones that are at hand.  While taking antibiotics and wearing bike helmets can’t protect us from climate change, at least it’s something that we as individuals can do to feel safer.

I’m not advocating that we stop taking basic safety precautions or that we intentionally put our loved ones in danger.  But what if, whenever we spent time, attention, money or energy in order to feel safer ourselves, we committed to spending an equal amount of time, attention, money or energy to reduce the risk that our cumulative individual and societal decisions are bringing to others in distant places or future generations?

As I think about this whole issue, a couple of lessons stand out.  First, it always helps to step back and take a look at the big picture.  Second, when we think about risk management, it may be time to look beyond traditional technical, regulatory and product safety solutions—to mass movements for changed priorities, perhaps.  Finally, a little humility may be in order.  Those countries in Africa that have lots of helmet-less bike riders and few cars to hit them—that seem so backward to us—may be engaging in much less risky behavior overall than our own rich industrialized fossil-fueled hyper-risk-averse societies.

First light

First light, I learn
can give relief to those who struggle
with the darkness of the winter.

I choose first light of summer for the cool,
before it is a penance
not a joy
to work outside.

But I have marveled at
the beauty of the sky when day is new
and searched for words.

Soft?  Delicate?
These only hint at what envelops me.
But now I know.

This light is new.  Not settled yet
it fills the sky with possibility
and draws us in.

Imagine:  A new economy is possible!
Eliminating homelessness

In the past nine years, Utah has decreased the number of homeless by 72 percent—largely by finding and building apartments where they can live, permanently, with no strings attached.

Nationwide, the chronically homeless fill up the shelters night after night and spend a lot of time in emergency rooms and jails. This is expensive—costing up to $50,000 per person per year according to the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Traditionally in social service sectors, homeless people are required to get a job, deal with substance abuse or treat mental health issues first before they can even be considered for housing. But in 2005, Utah adopted a policy called “Housing First” which calls for putting the homeless in housing before addressing the issues that caused their homelessness in the first place.

Nine years into the 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, officials estimates that Utah's Housing First program cost between $10,000 and $12,000 per person, about half of the $20,000 it cost them to treat and care for homeless people on the street.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

An 84 year old Chinese woman who shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in medicine for her discovery (in 1977) of the cure for malaria, based on a reference in a text from 400 A.D.

Brazil’s pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 37% by 2025 from 2005 levels, the first major developing country to pledge an absolute reduction.

The September win by California prisoners of an historic settlement ending long-term solitary confinement.

A summer ruling by the Hague District Court that the Dutch government must ensure that Dutch greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2020 be at least 25% lower than those in 1990—a precedent that could be used by courts in other countries. 

More resources

Resource from my friend Daniel Hunter, Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow; An Organizing Guide.

Recent posts on other web/blog sites:

In, Pamela Haines locates her family's homey DIY celebrations on a class spectrum of different connections to upward mobility.


Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:  (or just google the title), a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting writing I've done over the past 20 years.  NOTE THE NEW URL. START: a way to study and work together with others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to  I'm currently posting at

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