ecostory 27-2004 - "Risk Perception"

Risk Perception - some thoughts after the International Risk Governance Council Inaugural Conference of 29-30 June 2004 in Geneva1.

Risk is a matter of awareness and perception. If you are not aware of a danger, your can't even think about the risk, i.e. the probability that something bad will happen. "Murphy's Law" says: if something can go wrong, it will! Mr. Murphy was an aircraft engineer who was simply fed up with the incompetence of some of his workers. And surely he must have been exaggerating. But in a general sense he is correct. How can that be? Well, actually Murphy says nothing about the point in time that things will go wrong. The accident can happen the next minute or after many thousands of years.

Both danger and damage vary. Some of our modern age environmental dangers are so well-documented that the risk that something will happen has turned into a real certainty. Environmental scientists agree on climate chage, loss of biodiversity, the end of fossil fuels, land erosion, pollution, reduction of fresh water - to name a few. Therefore we would claim that it is no longer justified to speak of risks in these instances, as if we would still have a chance that nothing will happen. "Things" are happening indeed, and both the speed and the size of damages have magnitudes that humans have not seen before. The trends and disasters that we are witnessing are all man-made although we speak of natural disasters. Actually it is nature that has been brought out of balance by us, by you and me.

So we are deluding ourselves - maybe subconsciously - when continue using the neat and neutral sounding "risk" word. In the case of these hugely important environmental trends we have to start talking about damage control - if at all possible. Mitigation is the jargon. We'll have to talk about what needs to be done to stop and reverse the trends. We have to look at scenarios - "what if"s. What could happen if we don't take measures. This, however, takes courage since the worst case scenarios are so gloomy that one may loose hope.

The Probability and the scale of the damage remain a matter of perception and this again depends on one's knowledge. So why should you worry if you see a risk but think the damage and probability are both small?

The Precautionary Principle - "better safe than sorry" - may have to be applied for the scientific risk assessment of new technologies. But one must be valiant, in order to avoid that the notion is lost in money-driven political arguments. One may get the impression that some quarters unjustifiedly claim that the precautionary principle is being used for protectionist purposes. I some cases those who judge may not see or even not want to see the hard facts, because of seductive financial gains. This is discussed elsewhere in further detail. The focus here is on our handling of environmental developments.

This article should be finished by 6 July. Further key words are: knowledge of threats
denial defence escape mechanisms
time frame
comparison of different risks (premafrost vs methane gases from the toundras
symptoms vs. causes
make visble, communicate,
action, what action?
optimism pessimism
who is the messenger, shape of the message... Compare: How to get the message across...
who should be worried? them or us?

What do you think?

1) International Risk Governing Council www. irgc.0rg -

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