We encounter dangerous things and seek to get rid of them, often for good reason. But what about when doing so makes the world more dangerous?
Consider, for example:
- Parents who refuse to vaccinate create disease epidemics that harm children, including their own;
- School programs that teach children to “just say no” to alcohol and drugs backfire by undermining the distinction between use and abuse;
- Universities that encourage “trigger warnings” to protect supposedly fragile students may make them more fragile and vulnerable to anxiety and depression;
- Nations fearing the dangers of nuclear power turn to energy sources that result in premature deaths from air pollution;
- Efforts to prevent nations like North Korea and Iran from getting nuclear weapons have given those nations greater motivation to acquire one.
While these behaviors are very different from one another, they stem from a view of danger as something to be eliminated rather than utilized. This is a problem because what makes things dangerous can also give them their power to save lives.
Why do we struggle to see the positive potential in frightfully dangerous things? And what can be done to inculcate a more mature view? To answer these questions we must first take a closer look at what we mean by danger.
The current meaning of danger — “exposure or liability to injury, pain, harm, or loss” — replaced an older meaning of danger, which was of a jurisdiction or property, e.g., “You stand within his danger, do you not?” a range, e.g., “out of the shot and danger of desire,” and harm, e.g., “a sting in him that at his will he may do danger with.” (All quotes are from Shakespeare.)
In Shakespeare’s day, danger referred to both a place controlled by a powerful person, a lord, as well as to generic sense of harm. The word danger comes from the Latin dominium, or ownership. To be “in danger” was to be in a place of power — on the land of the lord. Whether power was negative (if, say, you were trespassing) or positive (you were the lord’s guest) depended on your perspective, status, and what you were doing.
The power to harm and to protect were thus often one and the same, or at least closely related. The 19th Century German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, observed that, “Where there is danger, so too grows salvation.” The German word for salvation, Das Rettende, can also be translated as “the saving power,” or “the rescuing.”
And isn’t that what vaccines were — humankind’s salvation? Before we had them disease epidemics would periodically wipe out large swaths of the population. The Black Death (1347–51) wiped out 60 percent of Europe. As a weakened form of a deadly virus, vaccines train the body how to fight more dangerous versions of itself. They are thus a powerful metaphor for the approach I am advocating toward danger in general.
As a society we have largely forgotten how terrible measles, mumps, smallpox, and polio epidemics were and still are, thanks to the efficacy of vaccines. As a result, many parents refuse to vaccinate their children, believing popular myths about their danger. This has resulted in deadly outbreaks, such as the 2015 measles outbreak from exposures at Disneyland.
The upside of disease outbreaks is that they remind us of the importance of vaccines. In response to recent outbreaks, vaccination rates soared, and the California legislature required all students attending public schools to be vaccinated.
Some parents embrace the exposure of their children to sickness. Indeed, the same “helicopter parent” who hovers over her son playing on the monkey bars might the next minute wave away concerns that he is kissing another boy with a runny nose by saying, “It’s okay — it will strengthen his immune system.”
Now, having successfully wiped out smallpox virus from societies, governments are debating whether to eliminate the disease for good. Smallpox killed an astonishing 500 million people in the 20th Century — three times more than died in every war in that century combined. Understandably, then, experts want the U.S. and Russia to destroy the last remaining smallpox stocks.
Why, then, have we still not destroyed the last remaining vials of smallpox? Because, for 25 years, a small but increasingly influential group of scientists has argued that we might one day find a beneficial use to the virus. Their case has been helped by the fact that a modified form of polio is currently being used to treat cancer, and dozens of other viruses are candidates for immunotherapy.
Unfortunately, many parents today do not extrapolate their healthy view of their children’s immune systems to other aspects of their lives. Just a few decades ago, parents and teachers used to let children roam freely, without supervision; experience the pain of losing in sports without the salve of a “participation trophy”; and discuss emotionally charged material without trigger warnings. What changed?
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education partly attribute over-protection and coddling to rising crime in the 30 years after 1960. But many of the students demanding that colleges be “safe spaces,” and trigger warnings be issued, were raised after violent crime peaked in 1990, and started its steady decline. True, parents who kept their children home rather than allowing them to roam freely may have believed crime was rampant. But, if that is indeed the case, why are parents so confused? Perhaps fault lies with the media. Both Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud made the case that rising civilization and pacification of societies would result in ever-more violent and frightening fantasies. Any look at the evolution of Hollywood films and television programming over the last century confirms this.
How should we deal with widespread overprotection of children from moderate levels of danger? Lukianoff and Haidt argue that universities should discourage trigger warnings, encourage exposure therapy, and teach cognitive behavioral therapy. Exposure therapy is a way for highly fearful people, including those who have suffered trauma, to overcome their fears through gradual, low-level exposure to the fearful thing in question — sort of like a vaccine. Exposure therapy helps people overcome fears of everything from heights, spiders, public places, and emotionally charged discussions. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches people to talk back to our inner voices that lead us to “catastrophize” — exaggerate potential dangers.
Challenging young people incrementally, and exposing them to dangers, can make them stronger and more resilient, or as Nassim Taleb says: anti-fragile. Sports — without the participation trophies — offers modest hardship, both physical and emotional (when losing). Nations like Spain, Italy, and France, where drinking wine with meals is standard, were ranked as the least risky by the World Health Organization. And “resilience [drug and alcohol] education” trains young adults to make their own decisions than do inanely authoritarian “just say no” type efforts.
Does this mean we should subject kids to cruelty, or encourage alcohol and drug use? Of course not. Allowing very young children, as opposed to older teens, to sip alcohol may, in fact, create drinking problems later. And while experiencing some amount of hardship as a teenager and young adult makes us resilient, too much hardship too early can be severely damaging. Recall that vaccines are a weakened form of the virus.
Even the most dangerous things hold enormous potential to save lives. Nuclear energy is a dramatic example. It is one of the most dangerous things in the world, if not the most dangerous. But the same mechanism (splitting uranium atoms) can be used to either destroy cities or power them with cheap, clean energy.
Just as vaccines are a controlled and weaker form of the virus, a nuclear plant is a controlled and weaker form of a nuclear chain reaction. In a bomb, it’s the uncontrolled splitting of uranium atoms that results in a massive explosion. In a nuclear plant, it’s the controlled splitting of uranium atoms that results in functionally unlimited quantities of heat that can be used to create electricity, clean water, and hydrogen (for transportation) without air or water pollution.
Intriguingly, the same thing that makes nuclear weapons so dangerous is what makes nuclear power so safe: energy density. Only tiny quantities of uranium fuel are required in a bomb or a power plant. As such, even when something goes dreadfully wrong, such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima, only very small amounts of pollution escape into the environment. Nobody has died from exposure to the radiation from the Fukushima accident, and scientists estimate fewer than 200 people in total will die prematurely (over a period of decades) from the radiant pollution that escaped from the Chernobyl reactors.
By contrast, the burning of gigantic quantities of wood and coal end up caking cities like Delhi and Beijing in particulate matter, and shorten the lives of seven million people every year. As a result, scientists estimate that nuclear power has already prevented the premature deaths of 1.8 million people by avoiding the combustion of biomass and fossil fuels.
What about nuclear weapons? Progressives tend to fear them in general while conservatives fear them in the hands of our enemies. In 2002, President George W. Bush declared Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” and proceeded to invade Iraq with the express purpose of preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The result was 450,000 dead — four times more than were killed in Hiroshima — and worsening terrorist violence across the Middle East. North Korea responded by, quite understandably, obtaining the bomb. Now, Iran may do the same. The saving power in nuclear weapons is in preventing similarly horrendous invasions in the future.
Since their invention in 1945, the number of deaths in battle has declined 95 percent globally. After India and Pakistan got the bomb the number of battle deaths also declined 95 percent. There’s no mystery why. Nations with nuclear weapons pointed at each other exercise greater restraint. They fight skirmishes not full-scale wars. As such, the best part of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran means the U.S. won’t replicate the idiocy of its invasion of Iraq.
But won’t more nations with nuclear weapons increase the chance that a weapon will be used in the future? The opposite appears to be the case. The closest humankind came to nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961 — 16 years after the invention of the bomb. Since then, nations have put in place numerous safeguards to prevent against the accidental, unauthorized, and irrational use of a nuclear bomb. As a result, the number of close calls relating to the fearful technology has declined significantly over the last 50 years, even as the number of nations with the bomb doubled, from five to 10.
Can a kind of collective therapy help us overcome our understandable, but irrational, fears of nuclear power? Something like that worked for me. After Whole Earth Catalog founder and original hippie, Stewart Brand, changed his mind and spoke out publicly in favor of nuclear power, he motivated many environmentalists, including me, to rethink our views. Brand didn’t just talk back to our tendency to catastrophize nuclear power, he exposed us to his own experience of becoming pro-nuclear, creating a pathway out of fear through an evidence-based consideration of potential harms and benefits.
In her 1966 book, Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that our underlying belief systems, or ideologies, unconsciously determine what we believe is dangerous. We fear what we hate, and vice versa. In the late 1960s, environmentalists influenced by the misanthropic 19th century economist, Thomas Malthus, feared that the cheap energy provided by nuclear plants would result in overpopulation and overconsumption. These fears were intertwined and inseparable from fears of the bomb. Anti-nuclear groups began a concerted fear-mongering campaign, which aroused latent fears of radiation and nuclear weapons within the population, and tied them to an ideological vision of a non-nuclear world.
The success of anti-nuclear campaigning was greatly aided by a generational shift in attitudes toward danger in general. The so-called Greatest Generation, which had lived through the horrors of World War II, viewed nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent to preventing future world wars, and nuclear energy as a great improvement over fossil fuels. Their children, Baby Boomers, were by contrast raised in great security and prosperity. Relatively coddled, they were thus less vaccinated against danger than their parents had been. They were receptive to the childlike view of nuclear energy as an unmitigated danger and renewable energy as a way to re-harmonize human societies with a more natural order.
Over time, progressive parents came to adopt a Rousseauian view of children as pure, innocent, and vulnerable, and thus requiring constant coddling and over-protection. Childhood and nature became intertwined realms of fragility and purity. These parents distributed participation trophies, refused to make their children do chores, and supported efforts to make college campuses “safe spaces.”
The good news is that a backlash to such simple-minded and childlike views of danger, including those inevitably faced by children, is underway. Progressive parents are seeking to raise “free range kids” capable of exploring their neighborhoods and cities without their parents helicoptering around them. Professors are leading the charge against trigger warnings and safe spaces. Environmentalists and peace activists are reconsidering the value of nuclear power. Nobody is suggesting that every manifestation of danger is to be embraced. But, there are good reasons to believe that, over time — perhaps a generation — we can train ourselves to look for the saving power in danger.
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