Putting an end to zero risk18 mn de lecture

In the name of zero risk, our infantile modern societies have made cowardice a cardinal virtue, bypassing individual and responsible caution. Let’s get it over with.

E pericoloso sporgersi

Let’s look at the photo above.

We are obviously in the mountains, a rugged terrain if ever there was one, on a path or a small road accessible to onlookers. Let’s forget the glacier in the background – the Meije, magnificent, I know – and concentrate on the railing at the bottom of the picture which seems to defend a steep ravine. Wise protection for the distracted walker, admittedly.

But isn’t that more than enough?

It seems not. A pretty sign doubles the precaution of the barriers and reminds us – in case we have forgotten – of this fundamental physical truth: in a void, you fall. Head first. And if possible with a long and frightening aaaaaah!

We won’t be able to say that we weren’t warned – and incidentally, we’ll spare the commune of La Grave from a lawsuit.

So what?

Well, it’s infuriating!

I have the painful impression that I am taken for a moron whose slightest step, even the wrong one, must be carefully marked out before it is simply forbidden. 

You think I’m exaggerating? So be it. But I am not the only one.

Some quotes

I have already mentioned Pocket Adventures – not translated in English yet – in my article on microadventure. Here is what their author, Olivier Bleys, thinks of the above:

“There is much to be said about our precautionary societies and their obsession with control. On the pretext of protecting citizens, we prevent them, we hinder them – we suffocate them. (…) The edges of our cliffs are bristling with railings, swimming pools are surrounded by perimeter alarms (…). It is forbidden to lean out of train windows and compulsory to buckle up.”

How can you not agree with him? In this passage from the Marine Parks story, I was already saying the same thing when I told you about the joy of climbing to the top of the Daedalus lighthouse in the Egyptian Red Sea:

“Chipped cement, no ramp and a rusty ladder to the top. One wrong step and you’ve got an ugly fall. But strangely enough, it makes me feel good to find a place which, although open to tourists, is not disfigured by the overkill of various protections that one finds on every western monument… A perfume of freedom before the insurance contracts and the security delusions. I am very happy about it.

To which I would naively add in conclusion: “I don’t need much”.

Today, I would delete this silly phrase. I don’t need much. That’s the main thing. Let us continue.

Christian Clot, in this indispensable essay…

… summons the precautionary principle and zero risk for an unambiguous clarification, pages 64 and 65 of the French Pocket edition:

Precautionary Principle:

“Initially created in response to ecological risks, it decrees that if the use of a tool or data can, even hypothetically and without it being possible to prove it yet, cause a danger for the environment, it is preferable to prohibit its use. This is an important concept in the light of current pollution, which should not be called into question.

But Christian Clot immediately points out the shift:

“Unfortunately, this principle has been diluted and has extended its scope to almost all societal circles, from medicine to education. It has been deviated to impose itself first of all as a protection of the God-human”.

And here we are faced with Zero Risk:

“perhaps one of the greatest modern intellectual impostures, which seeks to impose the idea that the possibility of a totally absent risk exists with regard to an action.”

Finally, in another book from my library, In Praise of Fear:

Gérard Guerrier also wonders about the place we are left with in our liberticidal and regulated worlds.

“Adventure is an anachronism in our Western societies, which no longer tolerate the presence or even the possibility of risk. (…) Worse, the “precautionary principle” has become the protective God (…). If it is respectable in matters of environmental risk or public health, it becomes dictatorial when it claims to manage individual risks, and therefore our freedom.”

About freedom

Article 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789:

“Freedom consists in being able to do everything that does not harm others”.

When I go walking alone in the wilderness, even if it is rough, when I go down rivers, even if they are in flood, when I dive under the sea, with the skills I have acquired over time, I do not harm anyone because I know the risks I am taking and I am aware of my own limits.

I don’t leave any waste behind me after my bivouacs, I don’t make fires in dry woods and I never commit other lives than my own: I will never go alone on a glacier without appropriate equipment, I don’t go out to sea with my kayak if the conditions are not sufficiently safe, in the same way that I don’t descend sixty meters below the surface without knowing my partner well and having checked his equipment beforehand. I may not be as good as gold, but I am still careful and responsible.

Therefore, I am neither individually suicidal nor socially irresponsible.

And yet this is what people would have me believe more and more, through this unbearable dictatorship of zero risk: modern cowardice – including moral cowardice, which seeks to establish at all costs other responsibilities than one’s own in the event of an accident – encloses me more and more each day in a concentric perimeter, bristling with various prohibitions.

It is simply, humanly and philosophically, untenable.

Sanitary parenthesis

Remember, last year. The pandemic appeared on the planet and the containment was announced on worldwide television. In the genre of “tremble mortals”, we have reached new heights.

Stay at home, good people, pray to Saint Ikea – CNN is his prophet: outside lurks the Death!

And the panic-stricken crowds rush to the supermarket shelves in roaring herds, devastating the shelves of toilet paper – staggering scenes which will fortunately be the subject of ironic publications on the networks, such as this one, which made me laugh – sour.

NB : La bataille d’Auchan can be translated as the “battle of Wallmart”.

Why does my laugh turns sour?

Well, because I am appalled that we have collectively reached such a low level. The only thing that concerns us from now on, whatever the circumstances, is not to run out of junk food and butt wipers?

At that point, we might as well stock up on rice: double the benefit.

And we might as well ask ourselves whether the Pixar cartoon Wall-e has not already said everything about the contemporary human condition.

© Pixar animation studios - 2008

A useful clarification, however: I have never claimed that nothing should be done about COVID-19. Or worse, to play the unconscious matamores like Bolsonaro or Trump, those pathetic Ubu.

I myself participated in the collective effort and was, to my great surprise, awarded the Ordre National du Mérite for simply doing my job. I therefore have no problem with the fact that public health decisions had to be taken to deal with this epidemic.

But the fact that this was accomplished through the systematic use of infantilisation through fear literally ulcerates me.

And so I laugh sour because behind the mass cowardice maintained by the paternalistic excesses of the welfare state, there is the increasingly plausible threat of my definitive encagement.

Christian Clot expresses this clearly: 

“We no longer accept risks for ourselves, but we also deny them to others, even though this share of randomness is accepted and assumed by others.”

Outrageous outbursts from a few hotheads? Certainly not.

Cowardocracies

I like, among other things, dystopian novels. These extrapolations of our existing societies, set in the more or less near future, always bring me back to the present, to the moment when it still seems possible to stem the tide before it is too late.

Regarding a political system close to ours, which governs by fear and enslaves its citizens in the name of its motto – Freedom, Security, Prosperity – I recommend the excellent Globalia, by Jean-Christophe Rufin – not translated yet.

Brave new world. From the very first sentence, everything is said: “It was five minutes to six when Kate arrived at the new trekking hall”.

Jean-Christophe Rufin, a hiker and mountaineer in his spare time, is not mistaken: a world where trekking is practised indoors is bound to hide something from us…

In his novel for teenagers – you have to read literature for young people, if only to recommend it to them later – entitled Zero Risk

Pete Hautman imagines a society in which all risk – however small – is banned. His characters evolve in the castrating cocoon of the Secure States of America, version 2074. One suspects that the main character, 16-year-old Bo, is not completely happy with this.

Okay, you may say, but these are novels, fables. We’re not there yet. No?

Yes, it is.

The 2015 eclipse

On 20 March 2015, a natural event occurred which, although not so frequent, is nonetheless commonplace on the scale of the cosmos: the moon came between the sun and the earth and “eclipsed” the solar star. A great moment of learning, to be shared with the students.

Except that a week before the said eclipse, the e-mail system of the school I run goes into overdrive: not one of the many cabinets of the National Education machine does not send panicked e-mails: URGENT, VERY URGENT, SIGNALED, VERY SIGNALED, VERY URGENT SIGNALED, etc.

The brains have just realised that the eclipse is going to happen during the morning break: horror. The stocks of protective glasses are insufficient. Children exposed to the event risk horrible, irreversible blindness.

As I read, increasingly appalled, this hysterical accumulation of delirious e-mails, I think of that famous scene from the Temple of the Sun.

© Hergé - Moulinsart 2021

On the eve of the eclipse, the logical conclusion of all this irrational frenzy falls on the screens: we are asked to confine the pupils to the rooms with the curtains drawn and to show them, if necessary, the retransmission of the phenomenon on the blackboard, via the video projectors. We are hardly told to set up psychological support cells.

And while my colleagues in the vicinity activate their Particular Plan of Safety against Major Risks, I refuse to take part in this masquerade. As a responsible adult, exposed to the paradoxical risk of being sued for criminal unconsciousness, I will not participate in this anti-education of children, which consists in telling them that nature is dangerous and that the Great Outdoors only thinks of eating them alive.

My colleagues understand, but they are worried: is there not a risk of me being transferred to Kerguelen for indiscipline? What if a pupil loses his retinas?

I laugh. I looked at the weather forecast: the cloud cover will be so thick tomorrow that to see the eclipse, you’ll have to climb to thirty thousand feet. And indeed, the next day, the ceiling is low and grey on the courtyard where the students are frolicking: the end of a non-problem.

It’s strange that nobody thought of doing what I did at the Rectorate.

About education

I love this drawing by Sempé. It says so many things: about the happiness of children, the neuroses of adults.

I wouldn’t like to be a child today. An object of fear rather than a subject to be raised, bugged from the cradle, tracked by the geolocation of my smartphone, placed under house arrest or strapped down like a hockey player for the slightest movement on wheels, then entrusted to the good care of a child psychiatrist when they are surprised that I am fading away…

These fearful parents, who wrap their precious offspring in rolls of bubble wrap to prevent them from bumping into the world, are unaware that they are, on the contrary, foolishly exposing them to it, by letting them loose in this way without training or decoder.

The role of a parent is not to keep their children in the stifling grip of their own fears. On the contrary: to educate is to accompany, to guide, to show that the world, while sometimes undeniably dangerous, is also of inexhaustible beauty for those who know how to enjoy it with a clear conscience.

Thus, rather than covering them with buoys and forbidding them to swim in the waves, I taught my daughters, who were very young and still non-swimmers, to play with the little rollers on the beach, to let themselves roll like bubbles, breathing suspended, in what we called the “washing machine” and from which we came out laughing because our bathing trunks were heavy with sand.

I dragged them along scabrous paths, later on, showing them how to avoid the slippery traps of rain-soaked roots – roots are not our friends, we sang – or the treacherous stones of scree. I guided them on high altitude ridges, sometimes roped up in the tricky passages, to meet edelweiss and chamois. In my own way, I opened them up to the world without hiding anything from them, but trying to teach them how to move around without systematically putting themselves at risk.

Let’s make no mistake: I am not a perfect father. Freud – who knew about shaky fatherhood, and Anna will not deny it – said it: it’s an impossible job. But at least I didn’t raise my daughters under a bell like battery chickens.

Fear, caution, courage

Fear

If you want to, fear – even phobia – can be tamed. I remember very well, for example, my first abseil on the Burgundy cliffs of Saussois, on a grey drizzle day in the mid-80s. The friend who was initiating me showed me his right hand, under the figure eight – “that’s your life” – before letting himself go into the void. “He’s crazy!” I said to myself, and I went down the steep and slippery path. When I got back to the bottom of the path, my friend agreed that he might have started off a bit strong. So we went to tame my fear on slabs that were less anxiety-provoking. Later, after years of modest practice – too dilettante, I never went beyond 5.10 – I had learned to deal with my fear of heights to such an extent that it had – for the most part – disappeared. This allowed me, one Spanish summer, when the door of the flat had slammed shut with the keys inside, to go through the outside of a neighbouring balcony from the fifth and top floor to let my little family in after returning from the beach.

Was I scared? Yes, but not in the usual sense. As I stepped over the railing, under the watchful eye of the German neighbours who had let me onto their terrace, and found myself with my back to the void, I remember feeling a shiver. But the curbstone protruded far below my feet and the passage of the column between our flats was easy to bypass. Objectively, I was in no danger.

The shudder I mention was, however, very useful: it was a timely reminder that I was venturing into a place hostile to wingless beings, where caution is required.

Lunch Atop a skyscraper - 1932 - Anonyme

Caution

All extreme sportsmen – who are mostly modest and far-sighted people – will tell you: confidence = distrust. In other words: fear is useful, because its corollary is caution.

The absence of fear – linked to routine, overestimation of one’s abilities, not to mention altered states of consciousness or group dynamics – is a perfect antechamber to disaster. 

However, prudence does not mean doing nothing – or even staying on the couch and, as far as adventure is concerned, being content with the distressing developments of tattooed rednecks who play the pseudo risk-taker in scripted programmes – another debate. 

So let’s go out and play. But let’s remain aware of the superior power of nature over our fragile abilities.

An example, from my recent experience. Tour de l’Oisan by the GR54. Halfway along the route, I learn that the Aup Martin’s pass is still covered in snow; I am advised to avoid it and to go through a valley without danger. But this is out of the question. Either the track is made – and at this time of year, there is a good chance that it is – or the slope is icy, in which case I would turn back, having brought neither ice axe nor crampons. We’ll see. Unaware? Of course not. I am well shod, my bag is light, I have poles and I know anyway how to recognize an impassable passage. At worst, I will grumble my way back and all this will have only cost me a couple of extra bivouacs. 

It turns out that the pass goes very well – but I have to be careful, i.e. humble and concentrated.

At the rate things are going, I don’t dare imagine the same scene in a few years: at the start of Entre-les-Aygues, on the bridge over the torrent…

… we will probably have built an eco-hut that is as discreet as it is unavoidable. Sworn rangers will check that we have all the legal equipment, duly accompanied by experienced user certificates obtained during expensive training courses. We’ll then be asked to sign triple flashcoded environmental disclaimers and charters and, after paying an exorbitant fee, we’ll be watched through binoculars as we set off up the cable and railing protected pass. Perhaps we’ll even get some discreet stress-relieving music on our obligatory connected phones.

Dystopian delirium?

Not even that: this is already how we hike in South Korea, only in the morning, at fixed times, on very well-defined routes from which it is formally forbidden to deviate. It is interesting to note that South Korea, the current laboratory of future surveillance societies, is regularly presented to us as a model to follow in terms of health crisis management.

It makes one envious.

Courage

Gérard Guerrier, quoted above, has just published a new essay, complementary to his In Praise of the Fear.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve already ordered it and am looking forward to it. Anyway, what is courage?

For me, it has nothing to do with the manly rodomontades with which it is usually associated, such as the – totally fictitious – ability to face one’s own death with a smile. Victorian fantasy! We don’t smile at such times. One laughs, eventually, with a Nietzschean laugh, and this is usually a bad sign.

During my years in Nîmes, thanks to my banderillero neighbour, I frequented the bullfighting milieu – and whatever one thinks of bullfighting, as far as courage is concerned, I was able to see to what extent bullfighters are extraordinary beings. I saw them in the callejón before they entered the ring. Well, despite their bravery, it was no time for jokes, believe me.

But even if not everyone – starting with me – is cut out to go dancing around half a ton of muscle with razor-sharp horns, courage is nevertheless a human quality that it is up to everyone to cultivate. To his or her own measure.

Tame your fears without denying them. Commit to your decisions and take responsibility for them afterwards. Recognising mistakes as formative experiences. Standing up to life on a daily basis. Accepting reality as it is, looking it straight in the eye.

You might think that this is just a banal story of pride. Wrong. It is a story of dignity.

The very dignity that cowardice takes away from us, especially when it is set up as a way of governing our freedoms, both collective and individual.

Here: all this gives me a new idea for an article. It will be called “In Praise of the Cutting Claw”.

Did you like this article? Or not? Don’t hesitate to leave me a comment or to share.

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On a complementary subject, I advise you to read the article on microadventure.

About micro-adventure

Launched in 2012 by an English adventurer, Alastair Humphreys, micro-adventure is a hot trend. Yet, does it really have everything to seduce us? Let’s take stock, as the sailors say.

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