Stray Thoughts: The Nature of Risk

“All-natural” seems to be a comforting catchphrase these days. I’m not entirely sure why. “Made with all-natural ingredients isn’t as comforting when you remember that arsenic, belladonna, and digitalis are all perfectly natural. To say nothing of amanita mushrooms, blue-ringed octopus, cobra venom….

Disney movies aside, Nature is a hard and unforgiving place. One bit of carelessness and bad luck, and you’re something else’s dinner. The only reliable exceptions to that are created by human culture and technology. We make food, clothing, shelter, medicine. We care for the sick and injured. We look after people who’ve suffered bad luck.

Do we do all that imperfectly? Yes. Are we also violent, horrible and cruel to one another? Of course. The fact remains that we’ve built cultures and technology that allow the option of helping our fellow man. Nature doesn’t. Given that, why do so many fantastic settings persist in holding up “unspoiled wilderness” as the most prized treasure of all?

I have a few suspicions. The first of them being that very few people know what unspoiled wilderness untrodden by man looks like. It’s deadly icefields in Antarctica. A few frozen stretches near the North Pole, strolled by polar bears looking for seals. Underwater caves – some of them – and a few tight acidic squeezes aboveground where the air itself kills a man.

Outside of that, there are very few inches of ground that have not been shaped by humans, and fewer still that have never felt a human footstep. We’ve been on the planet an estimated 400,000 years as Homo sapiens sapiens, and we’ve been everywhere. Add in our ancestors like Neanderthals and the Denisovans, and it’s been even longer.

So. Scratch the “untrodden by man”. There are lots of places you can go that you personally haven’t seen yet, but odds are someone else has. You can’t go out and find completely undiscovered lands to claim. (Drat.) So why else would people long for wild places?

Frankly, humans are exhausting. Moving around in civilized society is a constant performance. You can’t do what you want, you have to do what’s appropriate. And that changes depending on who you’re interacting with under which circumstances, meaning it needs constant attention. It’s very hard to do anything creative when social expectations are hijacking most of your brain. The idea of being able to go someplace no one will bother you – not with a phone call, not with a knock, not with their boombox bass rattling your bones – is very tempting.

The idea of a random bear or mountain lion wandering by and snacking on you while you’re thinking Deep Thoughts, less so.

So you can’t find someplace utterly new, unless you hit another planet, and you can’t just wander lonely as a cloud without the risk of wandering into something else’s lunch. So what can you really do in wild places?

You can risk yourself.

This is not insignificant. For all our centuries of civilization, we’re still creatures that evolved to take risks to survive. We need a certain level of risk in our lives, just as our immune systems need background radiation to stay healthy. If we don’t push ourselves, if we don’t risk part of what we have to try and gain more, or just to prove to ourselves that we are capable – we fade.

To be alive is to risk. Living is never, ever completely safe.

Stories are our way to risk, without risking everything. Perhaps this is why the wilderness threads through them, again and again.

Just remember, when characters find a pretty shell underwater, and tuck it into their wetsuit, it might have an octopus inside.


37 thoughts on “Stray Thoughts: The Nature of Risk

  1. I’ve never thought about risk that way. It explains a lot about what’s going on society right now though. As does the fact that humans are not wired to idle. Some of the most spiritually/mentally damaging things have been come up with by people who are idle. Having leisure time is not the same thing, but it’s still a thing to remember. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hobby or a job, people need to be productive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a strong suspicion that the majority of us are suffering because of a loud minority who realize they’re so incompetent they couldn’t survive a few hours alone in the woods. So they want to remove all risk, everywhere – which is killing the rest of us.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. As was said in a novel that I otherwise find rather kooky (don’t know if you’re familiar with L. Neil Smith, but the guy takes Libertarianism to extremes that would make a bomb-throwing anarchist blush): “You can’t child-proof the world. All you can do is world-proof your children.”

        The people whose ideas are currently forcing me to have trouble breathing every time I want to buy groceries seem not to understand that. Like, at all. Nor Ben Franklin’s commentary about those who would give up essential liberty for temporary safety.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yeah, with a decent understanding of physics, we can tell that trade-offs exist, and that eliminating all risk is impossible.

        Ain’t nothing can be safe enough to prevent someone from injuring them-self if they think that perfect safety can exist.

        I’m super risk averse, and have made bad mistakes trying to be too conservative with risks.

        Risks you prevent yourself from knowing because you cannot bear to know are often risks blind ignorance makes more likely.

        Fundamentally, good practice in childrearing/education is providing an awareness of risk, trade offs, the practical steps to minimize most risks, and mental process to find new ways to minimize risks. Including risks that one doesn’t know about yet.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Part of why “natural” would have appeal is that it’s coming from humans– and getting something worth the time it took to FIND it in nature is a big investment. So it has to have a big reward– it’s got to be good enough someone would actually pay anything close to what it cost to GET that thing.

    So the “natural fruit” is going to be pretty dang good, because it is the one in a million that’s edible.

    This leads to “natural” being a wealth-signaling measure– since “more food than you can eat” no longer has the same display of wealth– which means it gets slapped on anything folks can find.

    Similar to how “organic” was originally something like “slave like crazy to get near-standard results without most of the tools,” and now means “spray the allowed pesticides twelve times, instead of twice, and still lose a significant portion because of the now resistant pests.”

    Liked by 3 people

  3. “Just remember, when characters find a pretty shell underwater, and tuck it into their wetsuit, it might have an octopus inside.”

    Hmm, usually not the octopus you have to worry about, but the sea snails. Cone shell snail venom is among the deadliest in the world. So, think twice, thrice, before you pick up that pretty shell on the beach, and want to “listen to the sounds of the sea” – it might be the last thing you ever hear.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Doesn’t help that we got rid of dueling a couple of centuries back. The elites have been busily chipping away at egalitarianism ever since, to make themselves untouchable by us worthless peons. Nobles have options, serfs not so much.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t consider myself a bloodthirsty person, but I’ve been lately revisiting all the reasons why we went from dueling to suing each other instead. And seriously wondering if they were good enough reasons.

      Particularly since “no dueling” has metastasized into “if the teachers catch you fighting back you’ll be the one in trouble and ostracized”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed. I’ve long thought that dueling is a perfectly civilized way of settling disputes. If people are going to take their feud that far anyway, why not just make it official and give it proper rules?

        Be a lot easier on society as a whole than what we’ve gotten from letting lawyers run amok, that’s for sure. If we still had dueling, maybe we wouldn’t have ten-thousand-word licensing agreements that nobody reads anyway, or a court system that like as not bankrupts the winner before a case is over.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Dueling was nothing but Might Makes Right with a thin paint of romance over it.

        No, thanks; the same SOBs that give lawyers a bad name did the same with dueling; difference is, you can accurately describe those SOBs now, and they can be treated as scum, rather than doing so meaning that they come to kill you, next.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. It isn’t perfect, but rule of law is the improvement. It “just” has to actually be enforced.

        Starting with charging schools when they cover up violent crimes under the excuse of “they’re just kids.”
        No, attempted murder is A CRIME. That will either be handled via law enforcement– which does have carve-outs for “children are idiots” — or it’s going to be handled vigilante style, likely after more innocents are dead/wounded.

        There’s many reasons that my kids are homeschooled, the behavior of even “good” schools when it comes to illegal behavior by known criminals is part of it.

        Liked by 4 people

      4. Particularly since “no dueling” has metastasized into “if the teachers catch you fighting back you’ll be the one in trouble and ostracized”.

        That’s just lazy teachers.

        The bully usually has a long list of justifications and protections; their victims require that the teacher actually do their job, and manage the class, thus the victim is a much better target of ire. Both in being a safer target for abuse, and in the punishment being more likely to cause the desired change, IE, the teacher doesn’t have to deal with it anymore.

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Homeschooling is the solution I took. I was one of the troubling kids who never did learn that I wasn’t allowed to fight back…and my mom is a holy terror who actually did her research.
        In hindsight, it’s funny to think of the principle that tried to claim that school policy trumped federal laws….

        Along with homeschooling, since there’s likely to be residual contact with the school system or similar, is to completely bypassing the school system when it comes to assault. Don’t trust them to deal with it, file police reports. They do not have the authority or jurisdiction to deal with assault, other than being mandatory reporters of the same. (And yes, we BOTH know that they fail at that, massively; the prior system did worse. This system is suffering from the “humanitarian theory of justice” that CS Lewis wrote about.)

        That does not help in cases where parents fail their duty– but dueling would not help that, either; dueling just further limited the number of those who could do anything, and freed them from even having to pretend to have a duty to do what was right, with objective measures of what right involves.

        For the folks who are failed by those who have a duty to defend them, the only thing we can do is make sure that they know they have a right to defend themselves, even if they may not have the ability. And follow our duty to help, when possible. An example of that duty would be the “shooting spree ended when a lawfully carrying gun owner confronted the shooter.” (Which does generally result in a final shooting— where the shooter commits suicide, and the lawful gun owner never fires a shot.) Bullies act when they think it’s safe.

        Dueling is just allowing the bully who beats you up to keep doing it into adult years, with legal protections from the results and from third parties helping their victim.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. “Dueling is just allowing the bully who beats you up to keep doing it into adult years, with legal protections from the results and from third parties helping their victim.”

        …That describes all of my life except the past less than a year, and dueling had absolutely nothing to do with it. The current legal system, plenty.

        I’m not going to take this any farther because I’m obviously having a Bad Day.

        Liked by 2 people

      7. Ideal rule of law is certainly better than the reality of dueling. But the reality of rule of law is that the wealthy can spend far more on good lawyers than the lowly. The reality is that as soon as the Bill of Rights was passed, the ruling class immediately began trying to gut the Second Amendment, because the last thing they wanted was to let the common rabble fight back. What the ruling class is afraid of, is what the ruled should fight to keep.

        Yes, there would be bullies ruining lives through the dueling code. The question is not, would that be worse than how the current law is supposed to work? The question is, would that be worse than how the current law _does_ work?


        Liked by 2 people

      8. As I repeatedly pointed out:
        The system as it does work beats, flat out, the dueling system, as it did work.

        I’d say that the reason for that difference is because of the operational theory behind them, so when people of good will try to improve them it actually improves the justice of the outcome, and when bad people try to abuse them it gives more routes to counter them.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Only wrong if one recognizes inherent right and wrong– which I do, of course, which is why I oppose strength based morality.

        Doesn’t mean that a system based on true justice cannot be abused, or corrupted; it means that you are allowed to recognize that the society doing so is, itself, wrong.


      10. As a line in an old SF story goes, after they’d just encountered yet another problem in practice that wasn’t there in theory, “maybe government itself is inherently flawed?” (yes, they included anarchy as one of those forms of government) Pretty much every argument against dueling could have examples found where the same argument applies to the systems that have replaced dueling, just as basically every argument in favor of those systems could be found to have applied to dueling in some historical situation. It’s not “because dueling!” or “because not-dueling!”, it’s “because _humans_!”

        That said, I’ll note that at least in the ideal, one of the points in favor of dueling is “this is dangerous and scary, so most people will avoid it unless they _really mean it_.” Of course, that doesn’t hold true in practice, but it is something to consider.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. Whenever I look into anything presented as “natural” it always comes across as deliberate ignorance.

    “Look at the ingredients on this foot cream, you can’t pronounce any of them! That’s why I use this one, it has cucumber.”

    “What are the chemical names of all the molecules in cucumber? What’s the active ingredient? How much of the active ingredient is present in the cream?”

    “…cucumber has evolved alongside humans for millions of years to be the perfect foot cream. There can’t be anything wrong with it.”

    I think people get confused because most of the dangers they face on a day-to-day basis are man-made, so they’re used to things having warning labels.
    What we need is warning labels on nature.

    Warning, this nature trail may cause:
    Allergic reactions
    Poison Ivy
    Poisonous berries
    Grizzly Bear attacks

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Few things make me shake my head like “death by walking backwards off cliff in pursuit of perfect selfie”. Though “death by updating Facebook while driving” is up there, too.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I recently went on vacation to North Dakota. I went through some of the national parks, and there was plenty of warnings to not get out of your car to take selfies with the buffalo.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Warning this hiking trail may result in: lightning strikes, unexpected blizzard conditions, unexpected falls, major injury and/or death.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Have you heard that willows, if the soil is sufficiently contaminated with heavy metals, will take up sufficient quantities of them into their bark to sicken moose grazing on it?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. “Just remember, when characters find a pretty shell underwater, and tuck it into their wetsuit, it might have an octopus inside.”

    That’s why you *always* check the shell *before* you carry it off! 😉

    Liked by 3 people

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