Whatever the risks posed by the eruption of a volcano in Iceland, it seems clear that the shutting down of much of Europe’s air space is not just about the threat posed by clouds of ash to flying passengers. We live in an era where problems of uncertainty and risk are continually amplified, and where our fearful imaginations can make these problems seem like existential threats. Consequently, unexpected natural events are rarely treated simply as unexpected natural events – instead they are swiftly dramatised and transformed into ‘threats to human survival’.
This becomes most clear in the tendency to dramatise the forecasting of the weather. Once upon a time, weather forecasts were those boring moments on the radio or TV when most of us got up to make a snack. However, with the invention of concepts such as ‘extreme weather’, routine events like storms, smog or unexpected snowfall have become compellingly entertaining. Ours is a world where a relatively ordinary technical problem like the so-called Millennium Bug can be interpreted as a threat of apocalyptic proportions – and where a flu epidemic is turned by officials into a kind of plot line from a Hollywood disaster flick. When the World Health Organisation can warn that the entire human species is threatened by swine flu, it’s pretty clear that cultural prejudice rather than sober risk assessment influences much of official thinking today.
I am not a natural scientist, and I claim no authority to say anything of value about the risks posed by volcanic ash clouds to flying aircraft. However, as a sociologist interested in the process of decision-making, it is evident to me that the reluctance to lift the ban on air traffic in Europe is motivated by worst-case thinking rather than rigorous risk assessment. Risk assessment is based on an attempt to calculate the probability of different outcomes. Worst-case thinking – these days known as ‘precautionary thinking’ – is based on an act of imagination. It imagines the worst-case scenario and then takes action on that basis. In the case of the Icelandic volcano, fears that particles in the ash cloud could cause aeroplane engines to shut down automatically mutated into a conclusion that this would happen. So it seems to me to be the fantasy of the worst-case scenario rather than risk assessment that underpins the current official ban on air traffic.
Many individuals associated with the air-travel industry are perturbed by what they perceive to be a one-dimensional overreaction. Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus, secretary-general of the Association of European Airlines, observed that ‘verification flights undertaken by several of our airlines have revealed no irregularities at all’. He believes that ‘this confirms our requirement that other options should be deployed to determine genuine risk’. Giovanni Bisignani, director-general of the International Air Transport Association, describes the ban as a ‘European embarrassment’ and a ‘European mess’.
Also, individuals associated with Europe’s air-control authorities have conceded that they have been interpreting international guidelines ‘more rigorously’ than, say, their American counterparts. British forecasters claimed the volcanic ash cloud could hit the eastern Canadian coast.
Whatever the risks of flying in the wake of the volcano, it seems clear that it is not evidence but speculation that is fuelling the current flight ban. The reluctance actually to weigh up the evidence and act on the basis of probabilities is motivated by fear of making a wrong decision. Of course when lives are at stake it is essential to weigh up the evidence carefully – but at the end of the day, our leaders have a responsibility to make decisions and live with the consequences. The slowness with which EU ministers responded to this crisis indicates that worst-case thinking discourages responsible decision-making. Yet as Giovanni Bisignani said, the decision to close airspace ‘has to be based on facts and supported by risk assessment’, not on the politics of decision-avoidance.
Tragically, this failure of nerve in relation to the volcanic ash is the inevitable outcome of the institutionalisation of worst-case policymaking. This approach, based on the unprecedented sensitivity of contemporary Western society to uncertainty and unknown dangers, has led to a radically new way of perceiving and managing risks. As a result, the traditional association of risk with probabilities is now under fire from a growing body of opinion, which claims that humanity lacks the knowledge to calculate risks in any meaningful way. Sadly, critics of traditional probabilistic risk-assessments have more faith in speculative computer models than they do in science’s capacity to use knowledge to transform uncertainties into calculable risks. The emergence of a speculative approach towards risk is paralleled by the growing influence of ‘possibilistic thinking’ rather than probabilistic thinking, which actively invites speculation about what could possibly go wrong. In today’s culture of fear, frequently ‘what could possibly go wrong’ is confused with ‘what is likely to happen’.
Numerous critics of old forms of probabilistic thinking call for a radical break with past practices on the grounds that we simply lack the information to calculate probabilities. This rejection of probabilities is motivated by a belief that the dangers we face are just too overwhelming and catastrophic – the Millennium Bug, international terrorism, swine flu, climate change, etc – and we simply cannot wait until we have all the information before we calculate their possible destructive effects. ‘Shut it down!’ is the default response. In any case, it is argued, since so many of the threats are ‘unknown’ there is little information on which a realistic calculation of probabilities can be made. One of the many regrettable consequences of this outlook is that policies designed to deal with threats are increasingly based on feelings and intuition rather than on evidence or facts.
Worst-case thinking encourages society to adopt fear as of one of the key principles around which the public, the government and various institutions should organise their lives. It institutionalises insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. Through popularising the belief that worst cases are normal, it also encourages people to feel defenceless and vulnerable to a wide range of future threats. In all but name, it is an invitation to social paralysis. The eruption of a volcano in Iceland poses technical problems, for which responsible decision-makers should swiftly come up with sensible solutions. But instead, Europe has decided to turn a problem into a drama. In 50 years’ time, historians will be writing about our society’s reluctance to act when practical problems arose. It is no doubt difficult to face up to a natural disaster – but in this case it is the all-too-apparent manmade disaster brought on by indecision and a reluctance to engage with uncertainty that represents the real threat to our future.