The Risk of Avoiding All Risk

In the town of Milford, Connecticut, in 2005, a grandma named Una decided to build a pool. That way her 14 grandchildren could play in it. Except, she worried: One couldn’t.

He was allergic to nuts and there was the possibility that if he and a nut happened to be in the pool at the same time – a tree nut, that is – he just might have an allergic reaction. So to keep him from sitting out the fun, grandma did what any modern-day American does.

She demanded the mayor chop down all the hickory nut trees near her house.

Yes, these trees shaded the street, the neighborhood, the neighbors…. But still, she said: What if? 

Which is exactly how the mayor framed it: What if  that boy did take a swim and did have an allergic reaction? “It really came down to taking a risk that the child might be sick or even die,” he said. And that is why there are now three stumps where the stately hickories used to be.

In his impossible-to-read-without-steam-shooting-out-your-ears book, Life Without Lawyers, Philip K. Howard explains why thinking this way is wimpy and, worse, wrong. In the name of eliminating one possible risk to one possible person, the mayor was blinded to the greater good: Shade for a whole street. Beauty. Oxygen. Home values!

Howard, a lawyer himself, points out that if the mayor followed his own zero risk policy, he would have to start eliminating all the other nut trees in town, too. And all the bees, because some people are allergic. And any kind of public pool or lake because, of course, someone could drown.

If that sounds outlandish, consider the myriad ways in which fear of risk – even tiny risk – is reshaping society every day.

Last year, for instance, after that whole recall of lead-painted toys from China, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. This law requires manufacturers to prove that almost every part of every single product they make for children under age 12 contains less lead than a Frito. That includes things like socks, bikes, the insoles of shoes – things that very few kids lick, much less munch whole. Rhinestones got banned – they contain an eensy bit of lead. And the sale of pre-1985 children’s books was banned, too – even in thrift shops – because before that date, some printing ink contained lead. So if your child was an avid book-eater, Congress was there to protect ’em.

Like that Connecticut mayor, our lawmakers took a giant chain saw to a tiny risk and didn’t care what they felled in the process. Like, say, reading.

But it’s not just the government that’s gone safety-crazy. It’s us, too. Us grown-ups who used to walk to school, ride our bikes, or sell Girl Scout cookies door to door. Sure, there was some risk, even back then, of kidnapping, rape and murder. But reasonable parents found the risk reasonable, too: The danger was so small that they weren’t going to organize our lives around it. Walking meant active, healthy kids. Selling cookies meant independent, responsible kids — and extra Thin Mints around the house.

But today, even though the chance of danger is still very small (crime rates were actually HIGHER in the ‘70s and ‘80s than now), those same fun things have become “crazy risks” to a lot of parents. That’s why so many neighborhoods are so empty, even in summertime: The outside world is one big risk!

It’s not that I am a fan of unnecessary risk. I love helmets, car seats. I give fire extinguishers as baby shower gifts. But our overreaction to very unlikely dangers is turning us into a nation of nutjobs who see a 1982 copy of The Pokey Little Puppy on par with a loaded pistol.

All life involves some kind of risk – of boredom, disappointment, danger. Try to avoid it and you’ll end up inside, staring out a street lined with stumps. And by the way, your kids will be inside, too. Driving you nuttier than a hickory tree. — Lenore

Sorry, comments and trackbacks have now been closed.