"Dead Reckoning": Cross Cultural Risk Part I

3 holiday blogs on Cross Cultural Risk Comparison, Assessment.  

File:Rubberbandball.jpgRisk Comparison and Assessment.  Sometimes society gets it right.  Sometimes, though, we miscalculate risk, and misdiagnose.  Environmental regulations are the response to environmental risks, which may or may not be a direct risk to human health.  If our subjective responses to direct risk to our own lives vary, by demographic, how good is our derivative judgement of the more indirect risk to the environment?  And to the indirect risk to an environment physically distant?

Our opinions on world risk are like an army of rubber bands.  When enough of them are used together, they can create energy, a movement, or an obstacle.

"Risk" generates aversion, and aversion is energy to be harvested, either by capitalists, or by command-and-control economies.  Risk aversion, and the externalized risk aversion (which arises genetically from the impulse to nurture), are winds we can direct towards or away from our windmills and sails by conjure.   The force which conjures these winds is journalism, or wiki-editing, or other social media.

Now that I've lost nearly everybody (a Thanksgiving long-bomb hail Mary blog tradition), let's use e-waste policy, again, as a lens to measure how media plays on society's cognitive risk (personal threat avoidance, or nurture to protect "others", or true ecosystem challenges) to stir policies worth billions of dollars.

In our families, our religions, our work, and our lives we must weigh different derivatives of risk and benefit.  But our actions and decisions and votes seem like rubberbands.  They are capable of holding small things together, or inflicting a snap of pain.  But the rubber band cannot hold back a landslide.  We direct the energy and elasticity we have to the things we can cognitively manage.   That image is a way of introducing my theory of how we care about the pictures of little kids in Africa and Asia.

We care about those kids.   The people who tell us about them - our local town recycling coordinator, or campus sustainability director - are the people who tell us to compost our coffee grounds.   Somehow caring about our compost bin, or our carbon footprint, becomes our way of expressing concern for the kid in the photo.  Like a prayer for them, directed by an environmental authority who has established our environmental routines, vespers and communions.  In ancient times, the only way you could communicate risk about coffee ground waste, pork ridden disease, or justification for a king's war, was the local parish.  Priests and mullahs didn't have much competition when conveying risks to your health or your soul.

Here is my cognitive cosmos.   We care, and if we can care collectively, we can change the world for good. Like the combined strength of thousands of rubber bands, our caring can accomplish more through a society's consensus.  But only if we care about the right things.  Caring about pictures of kittens, harp seals, and brown babies is natural and good.  But we must be smart, and step over the bodies when necessary to help heal the greatest number of battlefield casualties.  We tend to defer or outsource that caring to some type of authority, or Steward.  For some risks, we get advice from Mom.  For some, we rely on local government.  For some risks, many of us seek a priest.

The perception of risk to something we care about stretches our energy to do something about it.  We intervene in our families, or vote for a law, or we report strangers to authorities.  We do those things because we care, and caring is something I believe in. Ultimately, I am a totally committed environmentalist, as loyal to the ecology as a World War II doctor on the battlefield against Hitler.  I am focused, and I'm strong, and feel a certain harmony in what God wants and what my Mom wants and what my neighbors, employees, customers and clients want.

But here is a line we draw on authority.   All of us, Republican and Democrat, Tea Party, Communist and Progressive.  No exceptions.  

No friendly fire

We don't want people serving koolaid on the battlefield and telling wounded soldiers it's medicine.  And we damn, damn, damn don't want our soldiers pointing their guns at our allies, firing at friends, and committing collateral damage.  And when that sin is committed by a Steward or an Authority, there is hell to pay.

The biggest risk I can communicate about is the danger of the priestattollahs, the ones who harness our nurture and become tools of evil.  Friendly fire and collateral damage are even more important to address than enemy fire.

Replacing 100% recycled content lead solder with 0% recycled content tin-silver solder, mined from Indonesian coral reefs, and calling it "ROHS compliant"...  A bad idea which took a decade of focused energy by environmentalists to accomplish.   It was bad medicine.   And now we are in the heart of a battle over another bad solution, a ban on the export of used goods to poor neighbors.   Whether the neighbors are across a border, or a different burrough of New York, or a crayon line between an older brother's room and his younger sibling, it makes no sense to define trade between rich and poor as "exploitation".   That doesn't mean I don't believe in bad exploitation.   I think there is plenty of extremely sophisticated exploitation going on, and that the environmental community has been hacked, spewing spam in support of planned obsolescence and dictatorial control of internet access.

In Part II, I'll look at the risk of re-serving holiday turkey leftovers (this year I guess it was a hannukah turkey as well as Thanksgiving).   In Part III, I'll take it up with the academy, via a study published in Risk Assessment journal by Hakes and Viscusi.

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