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Go to: spiked-central spiked-riskColumnMick Hume

Column
14 May 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Who wants to live under a system of Organised Paranoia?
The principle of safety first has become the major barrier to social advance.


The New Labour government's policy towards issues such as bio-terrorism or SARS in the UK is now to be based on the principle of 'Organised Paranoia'.

At least, that what was what Geoff Mulgan, head of the powerful Downing Street performance and innovation unit, told spiked's Panic Attack conference at the Royal Institution on Friday 9 May. Mulgan had a wry little smile on his face when he used those words. But he definitely was not joking.

Mulgan suggested that, through elevating the policy of Organised Paranoia, the government hoped to get better at spotting new risks such as SARS, BSE or bio-terrorism 'before they become evident'. But how exactly do you identify a potential risk before it has even become visible? By gazing into a crystal ball, perhaps?

Almost. The modern political equivalent of the crystal ball is the 'What if?' scenario, and this is increasingly becoming the stuff of policy planning discussions on both sides of the Atlantic, especially post-9/11. It means that policymakers dream up fantasy disasters (what if a terrorist infected with SARS crashed a petrol tanker into a nuclear power station?), and then try to plan to deal with these hypothetical crises. Under the policy of Organised Paranoia, government and society are continually being re-educated to expect a worst-case scenario. And that has the potential to become a real disaster.

The advance of what Mulgan has now dubbed Organised Paranoia, of a heightened culture of fear and aversion to risk, was what prompted spiked to organise the Panic Attack conference in the first place. It proved a timely event, taking place in the middle of the global SARS panic.

The reaction to SARS has become a powerful symbol of what is wrong. Here is a new but relatively minor epidemic that, in a sane society, would demand a serious response from the medical and epidemiological authorities.

In our apparently less-than-sane society however, officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) downwards have treated SARS as a cross between the black plague and a bio-terror attack, quarantining entire cities and damaging whole economies, while people have been walking around wearing useless paper masks, the equivalent of Medieval amulets used to ward off evil. The SARS panic is an outstanding example of the cure being worse than the disease, the panic causing more damage in the real world than any 'What if?' scenario.

The precautionary principle has escaped the laboratory to infect discussion about everything
Take another example of advancing risk-aversion which occurred around the conference: on Monday 12 May, spiked's managing editor Helene Guldberg was asked on to Radio 4's Start the Week programme to discuss our concerns about the obsession with risk. Appearing with her was Martin Rees, the UK's astronomer royal and a leading scientist. He was there to plug his new book, entitled Our Final Century: will the human race survive the twenty-first century?

Rees argues that human civilisation has no more than a 50-50 chance of surviving the twenty-first century, because of the alleged 'dark side' of scientific and technological advance, and because our 'interconnected' world makes us more vulnerable to new risks. Not very long ago, this would have been rightly considered the stuff of science fiction fantasies. Now it is put forward by a leading scientist, and taken seriously by many of his peers.

Not very long ago too, the notion that The End of the World is Nigh would have been the preserve of a few religious nutters wearing sandwich boards. Now it is offered up for serious consideration by the astronomer royal. If this kind of stuff is allowed to go unchallenged, the end of the rational world may well be nigh enough.

Then, on Tuesday 13 May, the BBC broadcast a TV docudrama entitled The Day Britain Stopped, about how a simultaneous series of events supposedly brings the entire transport system crashing to a halt at the end of 2003, with disastrous consequences. It was a striking example of a dramatised 'What if?' scenario. Yet, reflecting the difficulty we seem to have distinguishing between real and imaginary risks today, the fictional programme immediately became the subject of a serious Newsnight discussion, where experts pontificated on whether its fantastic scenario was 'plausible' or not.

Almost every day, it seems, we are confronted with fresh evidence of how far the obsession with risk and risk-aversion has gone. It all goes to reinforce our view on spiked, that this has now become the major barrier to social, scientific and technological advance. It is humanity's most powerful self-imposed constraint on its own potential liberation. A century or more ago, we might have said that organised religion played that role. Half a century or more ago, it might have been right-wing nationalism or Stalinism, depending on the circumstances. Now it is risk aversion and the culture of fear.

As the old political and religious systems have lost their purchase on society in recent times, risk and precaution have emerged as the focus for an attempt to create a new kind of morality to guide human behaviour. Safety-first has become a virtue for its own sake, to be repeated like a religious mantra, regardless of the practical consequences. And especially since 9/11 brought these underlying trends to the surface of society, Organised Paranoia has now become a policy principle guiding government planning and discussion.

In the run-up to the Panic Attack conference, spiked asked leading scientists to name any historic advances that they thought could not have been made, if the 'precautionary principle' which constrains science and technology today had been in place in the past. They came up with a scary list, starting with A for aspirin and going through to X for x-rays (see Science, risk and the price of precaution).

The elevation of safety-first into an absolute virtue disorientates society
Yet as we have often discussed on spiked, the better-safe-than-sorry spirit of the precautionary principle is not confined to the scientific sphere. It has escaped from the laboratory to infect public discussion about everything from how we should raise our children, to why should governments start wars and how armies ought to fight them.

When the quasi-religious belief in safety first touches so many disparate issues, from mobile phone masts to GM foods, it is clear that the problem must be bigger than the science of the specific disputes. It is feeding off far wider cultural assumptions about human vulnerability, and our supposed incapacity to cope with risk and uncertainty. This is what is really new.

Humanity has always faced risks, and there has always been a debate about how to manage them. Today, however, unlike in the past, risk is seen not as something we can handle or perhaps even turn into opportunity, but as something that we suffer from and must be guarded against.

Who benefits from the culture of fear, the belief in human vulnerability, and the politics of Organised Paranoia? Apart perhaps from some compensation lawyers or paper mask manufacturers, nobody does really. The elevation of safety-first into an absolute virtue disorientates society, to the point where a one-off accident can close down an entire railway system, or where senior judges can refuse to consider parole for a man who shot a burglar, on the grounds that he may pose a risk to other toe-rags who try to burgle his home.

Even the New Labour government can discover that the precautionary principle comes back to bite it from behind. So when the global SARS panic broke, the British authorities tried to reassure the public that there was no real risk in this country. But having already put Britain on a permanent state of alert about the alleged threat of bio-terrorism, they could not get away with such a sensibly low-key response.

Immediately the government found itself accused of complacency and of putting the public at risk by not doing enough in the way of airport checks and quarantine. On this as on many other risk-related issues, the Tory opposition proved that there are now no depths to which it will not sink in search of a populist cause.

Challenging Organised Paranoia and all the rest of this risk-averse irrationalism is a cause very close to spiked's heart. It is why we organised the Panic Attack conference - and why we are now discussing how to ensure that its success becomes a platform for launching further initiatives. To do nothing in the face of this danger would be to risk squandering the great potential for society to change and move forward. And that is one risk that it is really not worth running.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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