Humanity’s risk profile is changing
The elements of humanity’s global risk equation, which already seem, also thanks to media and informational pressures, to describe an ascending and worrisome trajectory, will change radically in the future (Financial Times, 2007). Among these changes we can cite:
Global climate change (natural hazards): the intensity/magnitude, probability and annual distribution of many natural hazards may change because of global climate change.
Higher air and water contamination (man-made hazards): more people, industries, agro-industrial production areas may lead to increased pressure on eco-systems, contamination of soils, water and air as well as to the dissemination of modified substances and organisms.
Increase of population (human targets): larger cities, denser population mean higher number of exposed people, or small groups feeling they have to assume risks to make life in the cities more agreeable, thus fuelling turmoil and possibly eco-terrorism.
Increase in infrastructure value and density (physical support targets): sophisticated and complex infrastructures and infrastructures networks, vital for the economy and social life increase in number and density all over the world.
Increase in pressure on medical and social organizations to apply more and more sophisticated and costly life saving techniques and devices (risk acceptability): acceptability levels are going down: any death is considered to be the result of someone’s mistake: the egocentric view of many industrialized (or soon to be) countries/societies leads to forgetting that we are not invincible, that not every single life can be saved, and that any attempt in that direction will inevitably fail because simply no society can afford that level of care.
Humanity is facing and will face tough changes.
By analyzing historic choices and decisions one could conclude that adequate risk evaluation had scarce relevance in history. That impression is corroborated by some well known historic blunders, i.e. decisions where critical hazards were not properly identified and by the general awe we demonstrate towards risk takers (when they are lucky).
However, as pointed out in a recent Book “Improving Sustainability through Reasonable Risk and Crisis Management” (ISBN 978-0-9784462-0-8), alternative choices and decisions can only be compared by pairing them with their risk profile, from cradle to grave.
The conditions in which our predecessors operated were very different, as they often were desperate, within no social freedom, under duress of regimes etc., and, as a result, choices and options were in some cases non existent or a mere illusion. Paradoxically however, if today, choices available to an individual seem wider, for today’s decision makers options are often way more limited. For example, no one in an elected position can actually afford to propose a tough choice that would seal his/her political destiny (let’s cite for example retirement age and policies, public health care, counter terrorism etc.).
What lies ahead in the very next future are tough choices, for example when shrinking resources will make it impossible to shelter everyone in a country from natural or man-made disasters, and transparency and clear rules will have to be applied in order to avoid upheavals and turmoil.
Saving lives is good, but which lives?
In our world, very often, large governmental and/or humanitarian efforts are decided, planned and carried out without any measuring of their efficiency.
That way, vast amounts of public/donation money are actually wasted.
Saving a life at certain enormous cost, rather than possibly saving thousands, often works the best from a political/elective standpoint today, but future decision makers will not be able to go that way.
As an example, let’s take a new environmental protection law. Generally such a law (or international ban) that imposes incredibly costly environmental cleanup programs to save a few lives will have more backing than a law that accepts a lesser level (including a number of victims due to residual hazards) but frees funds to mitigate another less publicly vivid, or media-genic, hazard. Humanity does not seem to be ready to accept proper, sensible, sustainable and transparent risk evaluations, no matter what the real costs of its choices are. Thus, very often, risk based approaches, if applied to society rather then corporations are rejected as excessively cynical.
The real question, however, is: can we measure the effects of large scale risk mitigations programs?
Measuring the effects of long term risk mitigation investments
Risk approaches call for more equitable and informed choices in the allotment of funds and mitigation, and are therefore more democratic.
Also some will argue that this thinking does not apply to major strategic decisions (for example fighting the poverty in third world countries, reduce production of opium and other intoxicating substances in poor countries, build coastal protection to protect cities and industries from raising sea-level) which will remain the exclusive sphere of politicians (elected people) and diplomats, but it does apply to tactical and operational level (i.e. choosing where and how to fight poverty, how to reduce production of drugs, where and how to enhance coastal protection).
If that was the choice, we would already have gone a step further towards a sustainable future.
Saving lives is good, but at what cost?
A recent study has shown that it is possible to measure the efficiency of a large scale risk mitigation program (The Case Study was the Japanese Typhoon Mitigation Program over the last 54 years), based on publicly and readily available data, using assumptions and simplification to bridge informational gaps.
So, it is possible to show how, despite the climate change, demographics and other factors, the generous investment allotted by the government to reduce flooding (typhoon related flooding to be precise) victims, has been efficient over the last 54 years.
It is also possible to evaluate the investment per past/future life saved, and to compare it with the “Willingness to Pay” for a life saved of other G8 countries.
Of course appropriate methodologies exist also to perform the evaluation of a future program, for any considered hazard or set of hazards.