My news and social feed continues to fill with pictures of US states yet again buried under ungodly amounts of snow, and I am conflicted. On one hand, I'm from Alberta, Canada, which considers these "very cold temperatures" rather balmy in comparison to what we deal with in a regular January. On the other hand I'm now in Perth with Australian summer now in full swing and, as I slowly melt further into the sandy beaches of the Indian Ocean, I can't help but pine for a climate which does not involve my black car bestowing second degree burns on me every time I touch it. First world problems, I suppose…
So, as I valiantly battle with this heat, two locally unique issues have caught my attention. First, the incessant warnings bombarding me about the dangers of UV rays from prolonged exposure to the sun. Australia has the highest incidents of melanoma in the world, and the trend is increasing. This bewilders me! As far as I can tell, previous generations knew very little to none about the dangers of UV rays and definitely did not have the plentiful and cheap supply of sunscreen lotions that we do. And don't we all now work in air-conned offices anyways? What were our grandparents doing all day if not working outside? One of those mysteries my heat-addled mind just not ready for.
Second, as some of you know Australia in general, and Perth in particular, suffers from a rather unique aquatic problem of sharks. This has been at the forefront of my local news for weeks now as Western Australian (WA) government plans to begin culling sharks off the coast of our more popular beaches. For those not in the know, the story goes like this. Since 2010 there have been seven fatal attacks by sharks off the WA coast. The last one, in November last year, in which a surfer was killed by a Great White shark, induced WA Premier Collin Barnett to hastily draft the culling plan despite outrage across most of Australian public. They argue that the increase in attacks come as a direct correlation to more people living in this state due to the local energy sector boom. More people are in the water, therefore more shark attacks. The government, on the other hand, feels it must be doing something to increase public safety as well as revive the local businesses, with recreational diving plummeting 90 per cent due to perceived shark attack risk. Activists, being activists, are not having any of it, with death threats and vandalism making the whole news cycle that much more entertaining. (With some interesting legal challenges which I'm not going to get into here.)
Before I get to my point, quick side note on my stance towards all these shark-related shenanigans: I don't have one. On the one hand, I think its wrong to kill animals, especially rare ones like sharks, for a purpose which smells very much of political opportunism. On the other hand, I'm not one hundred per cent sure I care if every shark in the ocean disappeared. The way I see it, there is no point in which I see myself say: "Boy, I sure do wish the dodo bird wasn't extinct. Think of how much better things would be then!" To say nothing of the fact that I could probably fight off the bird if it attacked me, unlike any shark I've ever heard of! Either way, I try to stay out of this one.
What this disproportionate response to sharks did get me thinking about, combined with the whole melanoma business, was the interesting flaw in human behaviour: misguided perception of risk. Based on instinct and emotion rather than reason and fact, it leads to knee-jerk public and political reaction and colossal misappropriation of money. An old classmate of mine used to point this discrepancy out in terms of US response to terrorism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Between 1985 and 2013 total US citizens who died from homeland terrorist attacks was 3,487 (plus/minus a few depending on your definitional rigidity). That works out to about 125 people per year. Yet according to the US Department of Transportation, 42,196 people died in US car accidents in 2001 alone, with over 3 million more injured. Yet anyone I talk to remembers the time as one of utter terror at the prospect of getting on a plane, even as they were getting into their cars for their daily one hour commute to work. The trillions of dollars sunk into the subsequent wars, as the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration budget hardly moved, reinforces the whole point.
Some might say that none of this is news, and I would agree. Humans are bad at evaluating risk, and we know it. But as I look around at the modern fetish of safety and minimization of risk, from the way we raise our children, to the wars in response to 9/11, to the way we push the final frontier, I feel that 'the cost of doing business' approach is no longer an option. I know Afghanistan and Iraq wars had myriad, complex origins, some of which I would even agree with. And yes, I know that to make a valid risk assessment you must work with reliable and complete data which, for most of us, is in the heads of the media and other 'powers that be'. Yet still, one wonders just how different the world would be if we all had a bit more perspective. Though by the looks of it, its a world with more sharks.