God may be able to prevent floods, forest fires, and earthquakes, but government cannot. So why expect it of them?
There is a growing tendency to believe we must be protected from everything that goes wrong in life. We seem to think that from flu to flood to food poisoning, we must be 100% safe. Worse, the government is responsible for keeping us that way.
This is flat-out idiocy.
Believing you can sanitize the risk out of life is arrogant. Shit does happen, and you can't always protect against it or predict it. If you think it's possible to achieve 100% safety, you are 100% wrong, and you will eventually be 100% dead. That's the way it goes.
Risk cannot be eliminated. But risk can be managed. There are a few key questions to ask that can help put risk into perspective. These originated with Kepner-Trego in their work The New Rational Manager.
1. What can go wrong?
2. What are the consequences if it does go wrong, and how serious are they?
3. How likely is it to go wrong?
4. Is it worth the risk?
5. What can I do to reduce the risk?
If this sounds like common sense, that's because "common sense" consists of considering one's actions in the light of these questions, whether consciously or unconsciously. Failing to consider them at all is foolhardy.
In the case of the campground in Arkansas, clearly flash floods are on the "what can go wrong" list. The severity of the consequences are hard to imagine BECAUSE the frequency / likelihood of flash floods is so low. You can reduce the risk by camping elsewhere or by tethering yourself to a tree, or by finding higher ground BEFORE pitching your tent. But if you're going to camp there, it's a risk, however small, that you agree to take.
It seems to me, and I'll admit to being a tad contentious here, that as a culture we are increasingly relying on government to ask these questions for us, and to hand us the answers ready-made. If this trend continues, we'll wind up like the ship's passengers in Wall-E, cosseted to a point where all we can do is lie in our lounge chairs.
I think that the mass media's insistence on covering every bit of bad news has gradually scared the hell out of us. We feel powerless in the face of so much disaster, so we magically expect the government to save us -- or else we simply pretend there IS no risk, or that we are some how personally immune to all the random bacteria swarming in our social body.
Here are this morning's headlines from the CNN home page:
Absolutely typical. At least there are no beheadings or new volcanic eruptions or sinkholes in Florida this day. My point is that the constant bombardment of such news stories, carried on for years and years, must be wearing a hole in our heads somewhere, somehow.
Where does this notion come from, that complete safety is both possible and a personal right? That risk, any risk at all, is some moral villainy to be hated and feared?
The pioneers who arrived in Virginia and Massachusetts ran risks that are unthinkable today. And as western culture spread across the continent, the grit it took to face enormous risks travelled with us. Avalanche, starvation, disease, hostile natives, just plain breaking a leg and eventually dying either of gangrene or of thirst because you can't get to a water supply -- risks like these were the normal fabric of life from 1620 til well into this century.
These huge risks killed off lots of people, but they didn't deter the pioneers from moving west to farm new lands, or prospectors from flooding into the Klondike around 1900.
We thought nothing of taking risks -- and we didn't blame government every time we lost our bet with fate, or when we did something truly stupid and suffered the consequences. Our forebears had true grit. They couldn't have done what they did without it. We don't have it.
Flash forward. Today every mountain path is supposed to have stairs and handrails, right? Every campground needs a central alarm, and someone to monitor it 24/7 (as was proposed in the aftermath of the Arkansas flash flood) or individual squawk boxes you carry with you to your campsite. We want to see bears, but we expect them to be tame and predictable and cute.
We are the generals of our own lives. To expect that we can fight the battle of living without taking casualties is naive beyond belief. Blaming the government when an avalanche buries a village and expecting them to erect giant snow fences to keep it from happening again is incredibly costly and only leads to failure. It's up to us as individuals to look around and realize an avalanche might bury us, so perhaps we shouldn't live in this particular spot.
As as tribe, Americans have trouble understanding and accepting the inevitability of risk. When something breaks, and people get hurt, we want to 1. find out who to blame; 2. Convene an oversight committee or pass a law to make sure it never happens again. Neither action can do anything about what is called "special cause variation" by business operations managers. All you can do about special cause stuff is clean up the mess, as BP is now struggling to do in the Gulf of Mexico.
Life is a process, and like all processes it can never run without variation. When you're talking about common cause variation, the kind of thing that is going to happen just because life bumps along, blame is useless, but investigation may help you reduce problems in your process. When a meteorite strikes the earth, pointing fingers at the radar operators is just a reflection of fear and frustration that the universe is not in our control. But predicting that cars kill 50,000 people a year and then insisting on strong efforts to reduce drunk driving -- that's good risk management. Government can and should help with that -- but only after realizing you can't eliminate risk, and that trying too hard to do so is not only wasteful, but bad for the soul of the nation.
I say, go ahead and take a few risks -- but try to remember those 5 questions. Thinking beats the hell out of dying, and certainly beats the blame game we seem to play every day in Washington and in the courts.