Naomi Klein: Addicted to risk


Naomi Klein is a Canadian author and social activist known for her political analyses and criticism of corporate globalization and of corporate capitalism


BP Oil spill in gulf of Mexico showed that despite our talk we can’t control nature – despite our best efforts we could not stop the oil from spilling once it started. At the same time, BP’s CEO convinced themselves that the Gulf of Mexico was big enough to absorb the pollution without problem. There was a clear lack of planning to prevent the issue – we have become far too willing to gamble without a plan B or exit strategy. The same culture exists in declaring war or the financial market – where people optimistically pile in and then seem unprepared when things go sour. This becomes expensive for the government, which inevitably bails them out.

At the moment, climate change is the biggest risk game we are playing. There is a lot of doubt about the models which show warming of 2-4 degrees: people asking “what if we act and they are wrong”. Naomi suggests we should instead be asking “what if the models are right”. Why should we wait for perfect certainty in the modelling – we should act if there is a compelling case that we are on track for massive damage to the environment and human health. Instead the arguments have been hijacked by economists who ask bizarre questions to protect economic growth: How late can we act to minimise damage and what is the most temperature change we can accept? In doing so we are accepting a massive risk, when in truth the modelling isn’t accurate enough to perfectly answer these questions.

Risk is accepted in today’s society – we often acknowledge that taking larger risks gives more money if it pays off. Tony Hayward: BP’s former CEO had a plaque on his desk “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail”. Such an attitude is good for attempting a personal achievement like a triathlon, but we should ask our business leaders to consider the possibility of failure and respond to it.

Humanity’s story is about it’s dominance over nature with technology, that we can “slap mother nature in the face”. At the same time, we have a view that the environment is limitless and it can take the damage easily. We have a master narrative that we can do no harm, and if we do then technology will save us. In response to climate change, there are often new technologies that are spruiked as the solution – for example geoengineering which sprays chemicals into the atmosphere to deflect more solar radiation and decrease temperature. These technologies are untested, but are leapt upon as a low effort solution.

We need a new narrative, with heroes being the people willing to take on risky ideas.

My Thoughts

I’ve read some good books on the psychology of operators on shift during the Gulf of Mexico drilling disaster (“Disastrous Decisions” by Andrew Hopkins). What was fascinating is noone thought of themselves as taking a risk. They made mistakes, but the overriding feature was a confirmation bias: that they twisted the alarms and feedback to conform to what they already believed should be happening. For example they suspected the cement job didn’t work, but only tested one failure mode – and when that was ok they carried on without further testing. Everything after that assumed the cement job was fine. They also put an overreliance on a blowout preventer (which pinches the pipe to stop flow) to fix their mistakes, despite knowing this had a high failure rate.

To me it is interesting hearing Naomi’s comments in this context: that people will carry on assuming everything is normal, and ignoring the alarms that say it is not. Once they have internalised what they are doing, it is no longer risky and people become complacent.

Unfortunately, her talk is more a series of examples rather than a solution. Some of these examples are counterproductive, I’ve not summarised a nonsensical rant in the middle against men.

So what is the solution? Is it enough to simply expose people to the risks they take? It is hard enough to convince people that driving a car is dangerous, not to mention the economic system itself.


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