Monday, 15 February 2021

Between the Precautionary Principle and... ‘Oh, Fuck It’


I think we’ve all had our share of grim moments over the last year. We’ve witnessed deaths. We’ve been made redundant and made housebound. We’ve been deprived of the sight of our loved ones, a hug, a Christmas meal. But for all the horror of the official statistics and all the privations of lockdown there was one moment that felt even more tragic, even more haunting, at least for me, over the last year. That was the sight of an entire family shuffling past in the park, all of them wearing facemasks.

Now, it’s a free world; people have a right to do what they want. But there’s something about that sight that saddened me. There’s little proof in the scientific literature that a facemask worn outside will make much difference. In fact there’s rather less evidence than sometimes assumed that even in an enclosed space it’s going to prevent much infection, although of course there’s a possibility it might, and the masks play an important part in our landscape of hygiene theatre to allow ordinary citizens to demonstrate their devotion to lockdown. In other words, they’re both unimportant and deadly important; partially unnecessary and wholly necessary at the same time.

But in a park? In a large grassy area? Urban Britain is a congested, car-fumed kind of place whose endless green lungs – the wonderful civic parks laid down over the last couple of centuries – represent one of our few respites. Breathing relatively fresh air in a park is one of the few opportunities many of us have. That being said, it was a park in Manchester, so maybe they were right to stick to their masks.  

I start with this example not because I think it’s a nice illustration of an important balance between two opposing poles in human behaviour – between the precautionary principle and the principle of throwing caution to the wind.

Now, we all know what being cautious means. And it’s easy to see why it’s so important to our psychological makeup. Evolutionary psychologists have usefully reminded us that we evolved as primates who spent millions of years of our history somewhere in the middle of the food chain. Imagine you’re an ancestral hominid on the African savannah and hear a rustle in the grass. If you assume it’s a vicious sabre-toothed predator and you’re wrong, you just wait waste a little energy running away. But if you assume it’s just the wind, and it’s actually a vicious sabre-toothed predator, you won’t live to have any children. Over time, as natural selection took hold, the foolhardy ones got whittled away. We’re descended from cautious ancestors; perhaps it’s no surprise that we humans have developed a default mental bias towards assuming the worst is about to happen. For much of our history it generally was.

Now, I’d say that caution is far closer to the default setting for most human beings than recklessness. It’s difficult to imagine how we’d otherwise be able to persuade hundreds of millions of people to spend most of their day doing 9-5 jobs, inching forwards in traffic, sweating in offices, toiling in factories or farms or doing any of the countless mundane and patience-heavy activities that constitute modern civilization. How did we ever sell serfdom as a social system, unless people were cautious? Why have there been huge numbers of tyrannies throughout history and relatively few rebellions to top them? Most people do not dream of rebelling. Most people are not rebels. Most people are cautious.

I happen to be in the other camp. While I greatly admire the capacity of most people to grit their teeth and do what’s in their own best interests, I’m the opposite. I do what’s in my own worst interests. I don’t social climb. I kamikaze. I’d rather commit career suicide than do the sensible thing and nod along. And this recklessness – which, by the way, is really more of an instinct than a deliberate strategy – extends into all areas of my life. Most people are reckless and stupid in childhood. Then adolescence or adulthood hits and then they become smart. That never happened to me. I’m old enough to have children and I’m still acting like one. I jump around on railings. I cycle without using handlebars. Most of the default warnings that sound inside people’s heads over a certain age – don’t fucking do this, are you insane? – simply don’t go off in mine. If I was ever marked for assassination, I’m not sure whether the assassin would have a better chance of ending my life than my own stupidity.  

Why am I like this? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I’m in a minority – one shared in adulthood by a relatively small set of social niches: extreme sports, suicides, drunk people. It goes without saying that if most adults spent half their day balancing on railings or clearing gaps on skateboards the highly organized society we enjoy could not exist. Just look at the language. On the safety side of the spectrum we have a pleasantly  reassuring set of nouns and adjectives: caution, careful, sensible. On the other... Well, often we actually don’t even have words. Take the word caution: it’s difficult to find a word that means its exact opposite. Foolhardiness? Recklessness? Carelessness? These are clumsy aggregate words, unwieldy concoctions of Latinate suffixes. They don’t come naturally. They don’t feel reassuring.

I have my own term for the opposite of caution. It’s not a single word, exactly: rather it’s a state of mind, a stance. It has elements of Zen in it and a soixante-huitard sense of going with the flow. I call it 'fuck it'.

Just like the precautionary principle, the state of fuck it is explicitly woven into the human story. Without some element of fuck it it’s difficult to see how much human evolution would have happened. How would we ever have traversed a river, started a bush fire to clear the undergrowth or hunted a mastodon if some of us hadn’t had a capacity to swallow their fear? How would we ever have left Africa if some of us hadn’t learnt to hang the consequences? Even relatively mild activities like gathering nuts, berries and plants – the main source of human sustenance for most of our history – are actually riddled with danger. How many deaths did it take to learn which mushrooms were tasty and which were poisonous? Or that a food spot might also be popular with large cats or bring unwelcome interest from wolves? Some believe that the taste for spicy or smelly food among some men (and I can’t help personally thinking of family meals here) may be an evolutionary remnant of the fact that the males of the tribe would be sent ahead as advance-tasters. It would explain my father's thing for smelly cheese.

But in recent years something profound has changed. The precautionary principle is no longer just an instinct. Quietly, perhaps insidiously, it’s become the central policy plank of public life.

Until very recently ‘safety’, at least as we know it today in its measured, bureaucratic, socially-enforced form, barely made it into the top ten drivers of human behaviour. People drank from wells that were contaminated. Children worked in factories that tore their limbs off. In a world where disease and death were common barely a thought was given to hygiene. Imagine trying to implement a national policy of hand-sanitization in a nation without running water. Children were given cocaine, adults drank beer because it was safer than water, and thousands and eventually millions died in wars on foreign soil. Putting it mildly, Health & Safety was not top priority.

Today we don’t drink from contaminated wells or send children to their deaths in factories. Our society isn’t one that’s just aware of safety. Our society is defined by safety. We slap on seatbelts. We remove our shoes in airport queues. Ideas unthinkable just a generation ago – amending contact sports because it turns out that being crushed beneath the weight of a dozen grown men in a rugby scrum can be detrimental to one’s health – are now gaily floated by the establishment.

And of course Covid. If there was a moment when the precautionary principle went from background concern to policy plank, it was the time around March 2020 when nations around the world decided that destroying large parts of their economy was worth it to combat a disease that represented a serious threat to some very old and sick people.

Now, of course, much of this is a good thing. Covid is a serious disease. Whether or not you agree that lockdowns really work or not, the guiding principle behind them is a healthy one. After all, if we can’t sanctify human life as the number one policy goal, what else is the point of it all? Do we create human societies simply to produce a rise in GDP? Do we live, love, work and die just for the sake of a national flag? For all my concerns over the rise of the medical police state over the course of 2020 – and, as anybody who follows me on Facebook will know, I have a lot of concerns – I would also rather live in a world where we put a million young people out of work to protect the NHS rather than one where we send a million young people out to die on a battlefield in order to protect the Union Jack.

The problem is that in elevating the precautionary principle to the only principle is that we’ve also forgotten that there are other ways of relating to the world too. The default mode of public behaviour from 2020 onwards has been devout, ashamed, apologetic: we creep around supermarkets in facemasks, run away from crowds, lock ourselves away in our homes and constrain our socialising to a smartphone screen.

All of this has a place. And there are generally altruistic reasons behind all this. But sometimes I think deploying too much caution actually runs another risk: that of suppressing what it means to be a human being in the first place.

We are tactile, social creatures that evolved among animals beneath open skies in every kind of climate imaginable. We thrive on fresh air and exercise. There is nothing in our evolutionary make-up to render the body of Homo sapiens well-adapted to a life of sitting behind screens or slumped on sofas. It may be a good idea in an epidemiological sense to reduce our contact with loved ones to a Zoom call, but it strips something important from us.

When we lock down a population and close off the parks we’re doing more than simply depriving people of fresh air. We deprive them of everything that it means to be human: the right to exercise, to use our bodies, to see others, to touch, to breathe freely. These things cannot simply be quietly substituted by smartphone screens and better resolution. Our bodies evolved for walking, running, crouching, clambering; the more we lock those bodies down, the more we rebel against our own biology. We might live longer than our predecessors or the last few tribes untouched by modernity, but we do so with agonizing back pain, muscle joints and fatigue. Sugar murders more of us than gunpowder. We have more to fear from a sofa than we do from an infectious disease.  Look on the list of top ten causes of death globally: it’s not Covid that’s killing us in the greatest numbers. It’s obesity, diabetes and heart disease. We may fear a novel virus as the scourge of humankind, but we do far worse to ourselves. 

What I found astonishing about the response to the pandemic is how little any of this makes it into the national discussion. Until March 2020 politicians and public health experts treated us to ceaseless mantras about the importance of fresh air, exercise and healthy eating. Yet they suddenly went silent. For parts of last spring and summer public parks were – criminally and sadistically – even cordoned off from the public who pay for them. What kind of toll will expanding waistlines take on the nation’s health now we’ve made heroes of everybody for sitting on their sofas? Getting big is statistically far more dangerous than getting Covid, at least for most of us – so why don’t we have any concern for the deaths that will eventually cause? The NHS beds it will occupy?

Instead lockdown was imposed with zero thought to the health problems that would cause. How much more nausea will be caused by wearing face masks for long periods? Does anybody know? What are the effects of long-term cold on the human body for those of us who were confined throughout winter to homes we couldn’t afford to heat properly? There are few statistics; few care to ask these questions.

I do. If we care about public health, then why wouldn’t we care about the consequences of the largest public health intervention in human history? My point isn’t that preventative measures are necessarily a bad thing. My point is that they should have been considered within a holistic framework – a lens that looks at human wellbeing in all of its rich, nuanced complexity, rather than through a single, all-defining, coronavirus-shaped lens.

We humans are more than just vectors of contagion. We are workers, mothers, lovers; we are fascinating and contradictory messes of emotions and opinion. We need stimulation and socializing. We need fresh air. To make a decision about public health based on a single binary – does this person have it – is to reduce human beings to points on a graph. It makes us no more than data in a model.

I’ve talked a lot about Covid in this article, but I actually think this issue goes far beyond the events of 2020. Not everything can be reduced to a simple ‘safe/unsafe’ binary. Not everything can have its risk factor removed – and nor should it. Heading a football is now generally thought to increase our risk of brain injury, so perhaps it’s a good idea to try not to do that. But where do we stop? Where is the pre-event risk assessment, say, of tossing a Frisbee? Casual grass sports and park games occasionally result in injuries, yet most of us even now would think it draconian to ban them. Almost all of human activity, from riding a bike to getting in the bath, lies somewhere between safe and reckless. Yet all of these activities bring immeasurable benefits. Especially the bath.

In the spectrum of caution to carelessness I swing towards the fuck it side of things. But that doesn’t mean I’m aware of the consequences – as the scars of two metal pins will attest, as well as a pair of knees which still hurt from their bruising in February. I’ve injured myself on bikes. I still ride them. My dad injured himself jogging. He still jogs. That’s because both of these things are so important to us; they’re not just an essential part of our daily routine, but an essential part of who we are. Take them away and you take a part of us away too. I’d say that was important for wellbeing.

I’m dubious about the gradual mission creep we’re seeing towards removing risk from public life. It reminds me of the way some governments in the last century tried to wipe out inequality. Look at how that went. If we really cared about safety above all other things we’d ban both cycling and jogging, along with gyms, athletics, marathons, mixed martial arts, parkour, slacklining, getting out of bed, and pretty much every other kind of movement except for that required to operate a TV remote. In fact, why not ban going outside at all? Statistics show that more accidents happen from leaving the house than staying in it. If we really value the sanctity of human life above all else, then why not recreate society as a Matrix hive of human colostomy bags hooked up to a drip-feed of junk food and Netflix? That already describes life in suburban Milton Keynes, but let’s not make it an objective.

There is always a trade-off between risk and adventure. We know that from the age we first begin to walk. But rather than pretending we can eliminate risk, perhaps we should try to be a little more mature about how we respond to it. People have a right to decide how much risk they want in their lives. In fact, I’d actually make this right a human right, legally enshrined and protected by the constitutions we used to enjoy until governments worldwide overrode them in the name of protecting the public. Determining one’s own relationship with danger isn’t some optional extra to be granted by governments when they feel like it. It’s a fundamental part of being human. Saving lives is a good idea. But, I can’t help feeling as I watch the masked families, the lonely pensioners, the millions of mums who won’t be getting a visit for Mother’s Day – we also need to make sure that life is worth saving in the first place.