In my 2016 book, The Dying Fish, I tried, in Chapter 28, to capture an idea I felt was important as I went on with my long walk and talk on nature and attempted in this chapter to merge those ideas with some much more human concepts. The excerpt below pertains to risk and I never felt the idea was perfectly stated here but it’s a pretty good starting point.
“Animals that don’t move, feed themselves and adapt don’t survive. No animal, to the best of my knowledge, proceeds with a sense of entitlement. No creature has a right to wallow in the life it imagines most comfortable. It’s a truism of the wild, hardly worth mentioning.”
“No creature can have it all. The otter gives up warmth and comfort to dive from the icy shelf and seek a fat scaly minnow six feet below the surface. When that chub darts from a rocky crevice to seize a free-floating stonefly nymph, he exposes himself as potential prey. On an extremely simplistic level, compromises are constantly made between feeding oneself, comfort, and security from predation. And risks are constantly taken. Perhaps the icy plunge of the otter will cause him some discomfort and some loss of calories while his meal deftly vanishes – and there’s no recourse; a risk was taken, life goes on and the otter seeks another meal.”
Of course, the implication here is that these ideas transcend the animal realm and hold true for humans as well. We may pretend for now that there’s no need to provide for ourselves, that we will be provided for by multifarious social services and be caught by the omnipresent social safety net if ever we fall but reality (nature) will always re-assert itself in the end. And we go nowhere if we can’t deal with risk.
Since writing, this passage of my own book has recurred to me often, even though added late in the writing as kind of an afterthought – just a concept I didn’t want to leave out entirely. But it’s come to seem that this is a truly important and fundamental concept we all need to deal with for ourselves – to make decisions about our own tolerance for risk and how great the risks we perceive truly are. Again, our life prospects are greatly diminished if we hide from all the risk all the time – if we habituate avoidance. In such cases, we could only hope to become wards of the state, a condition that’s only a dim shadow of real life.
These were my thoughts before 2020, the year of the “great existential threat” we know as COVID-19. It was described to us immediately as a “novel” corona virus, as though “novel” had any meaning at all beyond the implication that we’ve never seen this one before (much like all corona viruses that have shown up before it). As soon as Donald Trump began to offer words of encouragement, or to downplay the potential severity, it was a foregone conclusion that our media and political machine would ratchet this thing to the most virulent of pathogens. Predictably, this is what they did, extrapolating far beyond good science and ignoring encouraging metrics as they came to light in the months ahead. One had to be smart about the nature of statistics to see the overblown nature of what was being put up on our news screens night after night. And the game being played was anything but novel. I think all reasonably intelligent readers know that media thrives on sensationalism and that they hadn’t suddenly reformed themselves of this.
I’d like to write at least ten pages today on the mounting evidence against the emergency status that’s been bestowed on this actually very typical human pathogen but I’ll spare you and myself as well for today (any reader of this blog knows I enjoy venturing into the “long read” category as often as possible).
I want to keep this simple today and say that the primary issue here is one of risk and that’s the sort of question that only individuals can properly deal with as all individuals are placing different things at risk, all individuals are differently at risk in their own persons and all individuals perceive risk differently. Only you can assess your own trade-offs. Only you know your own values. What can’t be allowed to happen here is for the government to assume this natural right for each and every one of us. Our media would like to portray this all as very novel but there’s nothing novel about authoritarianism. Even the most superficial read of history suggests it’s the norm and that it begins with conjured threats.
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.H.L. Mencken
It won’t stop with this corona virus.