Learning to Love Risk – BBC Radio 4 talk

This is a transcript of a live talk given by the writer Nick Thorpe in Edinburgh during the 2010 Festival. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20.45 on 20th Oct 2010. Listen Here 

I have a weakness for eavesdropping on buses. Usually it’s fairly innocuous stuff – domestic disputes or one-sided phonecalls – but a few years ago I overheard a conversation that got me into very deep water. I was backpacking through the Bolivian highlands at the time, hungry for adventure and potential newspaper stories, and sitting on the kind of bus that looked like it was held together by the sheer desperation of its passengers. On the day in question, wedged between an Aymara woman and a parcel of live chickens, I tuned in to another backpacker sitting a few seats in front. A young, unshaven Frenchman, he exuded Gallic cool with his cigarette smoke, and was wearing one of those striped llama-wool jumpers only ever worn by tourists. More to the point, however, he was talking about a plan to sail 2500 miles to Easter Island on a boat made of reeds.

In retrospect, I can see how my warning lights should have come on – and not just because Bolivia is a landlocked country. On closer investigation, I discovered that his proposed crew included a tree surgeon and a jewellery salesman. None of them knew how to sail a replica of a pre-Inca reed boat, least of all the gung-ho American ‘captain’ who was, in fact, a mountaineer. “That’s the whole point,” he insisted, when I queried this. “It’s an experiment.” Other worrying factors included the attractiveness of a slow-moving vessel to sharks and the extreme difficulty of rescuing anyone who fell overboard due to the lack of an engine. Oh, and the fact that the 18-metre hull of bundled reeds would begin sinking, inch by soggy inch, from the moment it entered the water.

And yet I found the trip absolutely irresistible – so much so that when I heard there was a place on the crew, I volunteered immediately. As a writer, I was no worse qualified than anyone else. The official aim of the trip was to test the unorthodox theories of Thor Heyerdahl,  the Norwegian explorer who won fame and a documentary Oscar in 1949, after drifting to Polynesia on the Kon Tiki raft. We were going to navigate rather than drift, and show how ancient mariners might have sailed direct to Easter Island from South America. But to be honest, I was less interested in this than the sheer old-fashioned adventure of it all. In climbing aboard that boat, I felt I was kicking away the props of modern society and for once swapping my comfortable, individualistic life for a shared experience of real and exhilarating dangers.

If I had been a little bit older, I could have blamed it on a mid-life crisis. I wouldn’t be the first. But leaving aside the voyage itself for a moment, I’m always interested in people’s reaction to it, which is usually sharply polarised. Some,­ particularly young men ­have expressed a wondering envy; others, usually those with families, are baffled. “You’re mad,” they say, meaning that I was irresponsible.

So I’ve had a chance to think a lot about safety. Was I wrong to expose myself to such hazards, and my wife and family to such potential distress?

Safety is big business in Western society. It’s impossible to switch on the television or open a newspaper without being warned of the myriad risks that surround us. New health scares assail us weekly, sensational reports of murders and muggings make us think twice about going out at night. The digital revolution and a media in hyperdrive fling our fears around the planet in seconds, giving every isolated tragedy the impact of a major threat.

I can’t help wondering what modern Britain would look like to a time-traveller from the plague-ridden Middle Ages. Might they not be puzzled to note that, despite negligible rates of child mortality, unprecedented life-expectancy and a comfortable standard of living, we still spend so much energy worrying about our personal safety?

Parents in particular – and I now speak as one – must now negotiate a minefield of prowling paedophiles, bad diet, hyperactivity and killer foxes among others, if we want to avoid being called irresponsible. It makes you wonder if life itself really ought to be coned off as a safety hazard.

Yet all this protective nannying seems to have a strange side-effect. The very same bored telesalesman who cold-calls to sell you health insurance may well spend his holiday bungee jumping off a bridge. A vast adrenalin-fuelled industry has grown up, offering everything from white-water rafting to paragliding to ice climbing in order to provide the sense of adventure so sorely missing from our over-regulated lives. The experts call it risk homeostasis, or risk compensation. In the same way that the body keeps its temperature constant through sweating or increased blood circulation, it seems each of us has an optimum level of risk, which we maintain often subconsciously through our day-to-day decisions. A famous experiment showed, for example, how the introduction of anti-lock braking systems in cars failed to reduce traffic accidents, because we now tend to drive faster or more confidently in the belief that we’ll have more immediate control in an emergency. In other words, take away one risk, and we’ll find another – even if it means climbing aboard a floating bundle of reeds.

Could it be that, despite all attempts to abolish it, risk-taking is somehow hardwired into us, a part of what it means to be human?

All babies are risk-takers, of course. Only later does fear take over. A child cannot learn to walk without taking the risk of falling, and the pain we are all afraid of has always been our best teacher. The great religions all acknowledge the fragility of life, but encourage us to stop focusing so much on fear and take instead a step of faith. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” advised Jesus. Who indeed?

Our fixation with risk is usually traced to the Enlightenment, though the word risk itself emerged some time earlier in the Middle Ages – interestingly in relation to ocean voyaging. At that stage, it still captured a frisson of human powerlessness before Providence – and the term “act of God” has of course survived in the insurance industry to this day, to get them out of paying wherever possible. Back then, the underwriters attempted only a rough estimate of the likelihood of a storm blowing up or a ship going down, and took steps to reduce the financial impact when it did. But as science and industry squeezed out faith, “risk” took on a slightly different meaning. Our increasingly complex ways of measuring probability, in both nature and society, gave us a sense of control over an otherwise unmanageable cosmos. And hey presto, a couple of centuries later we have today’s vast risk-assessment and insurance industry. It has its own, new morality to replace the old religions and to deal with any uncertainty that persists despite unprecedented levels of safety: now the real sin is not to disobey God but to ignore the risk. So, a shipwreck, for example, became less an existential tragedy than an unfortunate result of ignoring weather patterns – or choosing dried reeds as your building material.

More seriously, however, the morality of risk becomes more corrosive when applied to modern society, often tending to blame the victim for the crime or accident. “What was she doing walking home at that hour anyway?” You know the sort of thing. But might our obsession with safety not itself bear some responsibility for the haemorrhaging of trust and breakdown of community which invites such crime in the first place?

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck here, as always. At its extreme, risk taking can be unthinking and destructive, an abdication of responsibility: drink driving, reckless infidelity and sub-prime mortages spring to mind.

And a certain level of precaution, like a child’s seatbelt or a vaccination, is both wise and freeing, allowing us to enjoy our lives. The problem is finding that balance in a risk-averse culture of blame. The more we know about the dangers, the more we worry about them. The healthier we are, the more obsessed we seem to become with our health.

And that’s the catch with safety. To some extent it will always involve a trade-off, a narrowing of possibilities, something less than the fullness of life in exchange for a little more control. And in the longer term, this may prove more damaging than the original risk. Take the issue of child safety, for example. In England, the percentage of seven- and eight-year-olds allowed to travel to school without parents has plunged from 80 per cent in 1971 to less than 10 per cent today, despite any evidence of increasing danger in that period. That means children have less unsupervised play and fewer formative risk-taking opportunities – little wonder, perhaps that one in five children and teenagers now has psychological problems, not to mention childhood obesity. It all reinforces the suspicion that to make safety a primary goal of life is ultimately self-defeating.

What we forfeit most from our obsession with risk is each other. The streets empty as we retreat into our houses, making mugging more likely. Children learn to see strangers as a threat, and never learn how to make their own assessments of who is trustworthy. Society shrinks into defensive enclaves, and the price we pay for being “safe” is an epidemic of loneliness. What we cannot seem to lose is this vague, low-level fear, described by one writer as a kind of “background radiation saturating existence”.

On the brighter side, embracing a risk together tends to strengthen community ­– witness the nostalgia for the neighbourliness of the Blitz or the popularity of outdoor pursuits for corporate team-building. Even the “extreme sports” brigade ­- tombstoners, basejumpers, free-divers -­ so often criticised as selfish and irresponsible may actually be motivated by a desire to transcend themselves. The sociologist Deborah Lupton goes so far as to compare the buzz of shared risk with the “communal effervescence” of a revival meeting, in which “participants may lose a sense of their autonomous selves, becoming, at least for a brief time”, part of a group with a common, shared purpose.

This is why those who condemn “pointless” risk-taking may themselves be missing the point. In my experience, physical danger is rarely undergone for its own sake ­- there is almost always something much more important happening beneath the surface, and it usually involves reaching out from ourselves, either towards others – or towards something ineffable we may only begin to understand.

All of which brings me back to my own journey on the reed boat Viracocha. There, the physical danger turned out to be the catalyst for far more important lessons. I’m actually a bit of a worrywart at heart, and in the first, neurotic days of broken sleep and endless safety checks, I realised how rusty I was at trusting other people. The threats of sharks and storms seemed minor alongside the emotional risks involved in sharing 18 metres of deck with seven other people for six weeks. I discovered that for me the real challenge was open and vulnerable engagement, particularly with other men.

As I lay there at night, listening to the creak of our homemade cabin, or chatting quietly at the helm, trading confidences beneath the speckled night sky, something quietly shifted inside me.

I realised I was getting quite hooked on this risk business, as I hauled out 15lb tuna or dived into the fathomless blue a thousand miles from any vestige of my comfortable life. When I eventually returned to it, after navigating successfully to Easter Island, I found the courage to go freelance and write a book. I began my journey in fear and ended it in awe.

Of course, you could argue that it’s easy enough to say this when the risk has paid off – but what if it had all gone wrong? It’s a fair point. Death is the ultimate act of irresponsibility, the one risk nobody’s yet worked out how to eliminate. But the real possibility of death can also have a valuable focusing effect. In the weeks before I set off, my wife and I faced it squarely, and talked about what our lives meant. I’ve rarely felt so spiritually and physically alive, aware of the privilege of being here at all.

Years ago as a cub reporter on a local newspaper, I sometimes had the unpleasant duty of visiting people who had suffered sudden bereavements, often only hours previously. Understandably, most were distraught with the shock of the unthinkable; but one woman stands out in my memory as different. Her husband was a keen climber who had just fallen to his death from Ben Nevis. “We both knew the risks,” she told me, with a stoical sadness. “But we decided that if we were going to die anyway one day, we wanted to live life to the full.” It seemed to me a clean grief, because they had faced the possibility of death, rather than allowing it to creep up on them, as death often does.

The illusion of safety often makes us put off mending broken relationships, following a vision, or talking about what really matters, yet in reality we are a split second from possible death every time we cross the road. Conscious risk taking can clarify what is important in life before that life is taken away.

Having said that, my wife is still a little baffled why I seemed to need to cross the Pacific just to learn to open up a little to my fellow men. Women just need a coffee shop, she says – and she’s probably right. Sometimes the most courageous risks we can take are emotional ones – and as a man they’re the ones I find most difficult. Faced with a choice between vulnerable honesty with a new friend and bungee jumping off a bridge, many of us would, I suspect, take the latter. In that sense, the most terrifying and rewarding risk I’ve taken in recent years, is to become a dad. I’m not sure I would have boarded that reed boat if my 5 year old son was around then – I’m not sure I would have needed to. He calls on me constantly to take the risk of intimacy, challenges me to play rather than plan, pushes me into new situations with no map.

He also reminds me that risk-taking paradoxically relies on a foundation of safety. In the same way that a mariner needs to be able to trust his harness, children need to feel fundamentally undergirded by the ultimate insurance of love before they fully embrace the risks they need to grow. It makes a lot of sense.

But if we accept, as any psychologist does, that children playing will need to be exposed to a certain level of danger if they are to grow healthily, is it really so irresponsible to allow ourselves to go on doing so throughout adulthood, climbing the mast as we once climbed trees? Or are we supposed to have stopped learning by then? Sometimes, recounting another adventure to my son, I remember just how frightened I was, clinging to that reed boat in the midst of a storm – and how it finally forced me to trust my crewmates and find our way through.

As the mountaineer Pierre Beghin put it, if you become smothered by that society and lose the ability to take risks, you become obsessed with the future: “You are old already.”

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