I wear my PFD every time I kayak.
That’s Personal Flotation Device, more commonly known as a lifejacket.
Even though I am an experienced kayaker. Even in calm water. .
For lots of reasons. It sets a good example for the rest of the kayaking community.
Two, my PFD has pockets for gear and snacks.
Third, if I become unconscious, the PFD will help keep my head above water.
But mostly, I wear it because if an accident happens, I won’t have time to put it on. By definition, accidents are unexpected events.
So I take prudent steps to reduce my risk of personal injury and death. (Sadly, people die every year while kayaking.)
And honestly, I can’t afford not to wear it. My own health aside, I have a family and friends to think about.
On the flipside, I don’t worry or spend money planning for highly unlikely, rare possibilities. You’d never launch if you did.
Which is why, given my bent, I find Jared Diamond’s New York Times essay on risk and personal decision-making such a good read. Daily life has risks. Humans are famously bad at knowing which ones are likely and which aren’t.
Studies have compared Americans’ perceived ranking of dangers with the rankings of real dangers, measured either by actual accident figures or by estimated numbers of averted accidents. It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops.
At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control (“That would never happen to me — I’m careful”) and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way.
This nexus of risk assessment and personal decision making plays out everywhere. And not just in personal, individual choices.
Public policy essentially boils down to: How much money are we willing to spend, to manage which risks, to protect and benefit which people?
As a simple example, children walking to school. You need sidewalks in good conditions. Crossing guards assigned to key intersections. Buddy systems. Driver awareness campaigns. Street signs in school zones. Altogether, at some cost to the community, these steps mitigate much potential risk and support healthy walking habits. The benefits outweigh the risks, at a cost that is deemed acceptable and appropriate.
Which brings me to thinking about the risk conversation in the larger world.
At what point (how about now?) will enough people be willing to have conversations about appropriately acting on risks from climate change?
Perhaps once they get over the unrealistic fear of what they will have to give up.
But that’s a false assumption. Being cautious in the shower doesn’t mean Mr. Diamond no longer travels.
Likewise, wearing a PFD does not make my world smaller. In fact, being realistic about risks and planning for what is in my control makes my world larger. It’s so worth it to be able to paddle farther because I’m aware and prepared.
I’m interested in being part of the conversation that shows how climate change action is worth it too. For all the positive benefits: clear air, safe water, nutritious food, prosperous economics, connected communities.
Considering what we have to lose, we can’t afford not to.