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Trading safety for peace of mind

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In his 1987 book, Our Own Worst Enemy, psychologist Norman F. Dixon introduces the concept of “trading safety for peace of mind.” It describes a phenomenon at the very core of human nature; our tendency to avoid bad news.  It refers to that person who chooses to believe that there is a fault with the dashboard warning light rather than with the vehicle’s brakes; or the man you once knew, who refused to go to the doctor to get that lump examined; only to discover months later that it was the early stage of cancer.  Dixon gives a string of disastrous examples where people chose to, as it were, blame the messenger rather than respond to the message.  For example, Dixon tells the tale of a steam train engineer who became annoyed at the noise coming from the steam regulator gauge – a device for monitoring the boiler steam pressure.  To resolve the problem, the engineer hammered down the valve, with two consequences.  The first was that the annoying noise ceased immediately.  The second, a few minutes later, was that the boiler exploded, derailing the engine and causing significant injuries to the engineer.  The hubristic long-term outcome was that the explosion had blown out both of the engineer’s ear drums so that he need never concern himself with annoying noises again.

Nor does this tendency to trade safety for peace of mind apply only to individuals.  In the case of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, during which the USA came close to a Chernobyl-type meltdown, technicians at the plant refused to believe the readings on their control panels.  Instead, they opted for the more comforting – but potentially catastrophic – belief that there was a fault in the instrumentation, rather than the reactor core itself.

One of the less-often reported facts about the Black Wednesday crisis in 1992 was that pro-European senior ministers spent a large part of it hidden away from any source of news.  Number 10 Downing Street, the usual venue for high-level meetings, was being repaired following an IRA bombing.  And so they met in a room in the Admiralty building which lacked any of the technology needed to maintain even a semblance of control.  At one stage, after foreign reserves had been exhausted and ministers had raised interest rates in an attempt to shore up the pound, Kenneth Clarke left to return to the Home Office; only to hear his police driver remark, “sorry that didn’t work sir.”  Only later did Clarke suggest that they have a portable radio brought in so that they could at least follow the news.  And only when the radio had been delivered did they realise the game was up.  Once again, a desire for peace of mind had trumped safety, in the shape of a crisis which paved the way for defeat at the hands of Blair’s New Labour and, ultimately, to Brexit.

Dixon explains that the human brain-mind has to operate as a reducing valve; filtering out much of the moment to moment sensory and cognitive information it is presented with.  And, of course, there is bias in determining which information finds its way to the prefrontal cortex where it comes into consciousness.  Dixon likens it to the lofty academic professor sat in an inner sanctum, mulling the mysteries of the universe, and protected by the stern dragon secretary on reception.  Nothing gets past the secretary that might disturb the professor’s peace of mind.

This is no mere analogy.  Organisational hierarchies work this way too.  Whether you are the CEO of a corporation or a government minister, there is only so much information that you can deal with.  And the people who provide you with that information quickly learn which information you will look at and which you are simply not interested in.  The same goes for the people who provide the information to those people. And so on down through the hierarchy.  And at each stage, people are unconsciously trading safety for peace of mind.

From my own dealings with the UK and Welsh governments, one thing that I learned early on is that it is fruitless to approach ministers with a problem… no matter how existential it might be.  Only when you also have a politically acceptable solution for the problem will the ministerial door begin to creak open.  This is one reason why the purveyors of hydraulic fracturing and non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) were able to get climate change onto ministerial agendas.  The former by claiming that fracked shale gas was “greener” than coal and oil; the latter by making the even more outlandish claim that NRREHTs could replace fossil fuels to power the future economy.  Neither claim has any substance to it.   But both – at least until fracking was proved to be too expensive – attracted the support of government ministers around the world.

This gives the lie to the idea that “the government” knows – i.e., is conscious of – the overshoot predicament which is unfolding around us.  It is certainly true that some people within governments are aware of various research papers relating to such things as the threats from: a global banking collapse, climate-related food shortages, mineral resource depletion, future energy shortages and a runaway greenhouse effect.  But it is doubtful that Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron or Joe Biden has the first idea about any of these things.  Nor are you or I going to get an appointment with them to discuss these threats… “Can’t you see we’re busy dealing with a pandemic!?”

Come up with a “solution” to one or more of those problems and it is a different matter… which is where Herr Schwab and his chums at the World Economic Forum come in.  Far from some all-encompassing conspiracy to create a techno-dystopian hell on earth, the WEF is designed to bring together acceptable – i.e., within the neoliberal framework – experts and decision-makers to develop solutions for overcoming the crises that threaten to undermine the system.  Just like fracking for shale gas, it matters not a jot if these proposed solutions are impossible – or at least too expensive to ever be viable.  All that matters is that they offer a politically acceptable alternative to the slow-motion collapse of the neoliberal order.  And so, with no sense of shame, supposed economics experts can talk about universal basic incomes and unlimited currency creation while self-proclaimed energy experts can extoll the virtues of non-existent nuclear fusion and hydrogen technologies to wean us off polluting and fast-depleting fossil fuels.  Mix in a pinch of circular economy and a few self-driving cars and you have exactly the kind of vision that offers the elites the peace of mind they long for.

Meanwhile back in the real world, the Great Orange Ogre may have scuttled back to his Florida man cave, but the growing inequalities that handed him the Presidency four years ago have not gone away.  Now that the energy slaves that created the wealth of the planet’s godzillionaires have begun to leave, the unconscionable gulf between rich and poor cannot be maintained.  And so, one way or another – inflation or wealth destruction – the gulf is going away.  So too is the industrial civilisation that was built on the backs of those energy slaves.  Not that anyone is about to get an audience with the politicians or corporate CEOs who might be in a position to at least soften the coming fall… because they, too, are busy trading safety for peace of mind.

As you made it to the end…

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