ZAK asked David Ropeik to answer the following questions:
1. Has our need for security grown or merely our perception of insecurity?
In many ways, of course, we are far safer than we have been. Our food and water are safer and their supply is more certain. Working conditions have improved. Over time humans have become less violent towards one another (with many glaring exceptions, of course). Our health and safety have been vastly improved by incredible advances in medicine and health care. Consider that we are living far longer, nearly twice as long as we lived just 100 years ago.
However, modern advances have created new risks; from overuse of antibiotics, the global spread of diseases via international travel and trade, chemical pollution, the stress of billions of people crowding into cities and competing for space and jobs and resources. And never have humans faced so many demanding challenges from the finite physical system.
Unsustainability poses monstrous new risks of all sorts, from climate change to ocean acidification to deforestation and desertification.
Beyond their physical dangers, these modern risks pose hidden hazards because they are more complex than the simple threats we evolved to recognize. Our risk perception system depends more on feelings and instincts than reason and the facts. It does not do as good a job carefully and rationally figuring out threats like climate change or nuclear power. In short, our risk perception system, which relies so heavily on subjective emotional characteristics, sometimes makes mistakes with complex modern risks, and our fears do not match the facts, and that – what I call in my book “The Risk Perception Gap” – creates additional dangers all by itself.
Further, our new media age makes information far more readily and quickly available than ever before, and in the competitive market for our attention, media providers emphasise the alarming or frightening aspects of life, greatly magnifying our fears.
So physically we are safer from what used to be the biggest threats, more at risk from some new ones, and certainly quite worried. But emotionally, I would guess that, as important as survival is, people have always been quite sensitive to the dangers around them, and have always worried about having more emotional security, more of a feeling of safety.
Our need just seems so great to us because we are more aware of what frightens us than what may have frightened others before us.
2. To what extent are interferences between the different risks on the increase? Is a domino effect recognisable?
The unprecedented interconnectedness of the modern global community creates many new vulnerabilities of its own. Vital infrastructures are woven together such that if one experiences problems it quickly ripples out the many others (consider the dangerous interconnectedness of systems like electricity, communications, banking and finance). Populations are more mutually reliant, more in contact. Many separate parts of some systems, such as banking/finance, are intimately tied to each other and vulnerable to troubles anywhere.
In addition, some risks give rise to other risks, and this is far more widespread in an interconnected global community. We reduced the risk of starvation by modifying wheat and bananas and rice, but becoming so reliant on these few crops we have made ourselves terribly vulnerable should any one of them be threatened by an emergent disease (as is currently the case with wheat and bananas.) And of course the global population of 7 billion sets processes in motion that create new risks, and then new risks as as result of the first ones.