Give us a break
Summertime - and the pleasure police come out to play.
Every year, the first rays of sun come chaperoned with a host of warnings about the dangers that we face from the sun, the summer, the holidays, life at home or life in general. Most of these warnings are unnecessary; all of them are irritating. What is it about the holiday season that so attracts scaremongers and killjoys?
Maybe the sun has got to them. Maybe the Sun has got to them: in the no-news silly season, overblown panics tend to get a disproportionate amount of publicity. Perhaps they really do believe that summer contains more risks, about which there should be more warnings. Whatever the case, it’s a sign of our miserabilist times that precisely the time of year when there is the most fun to be had is overshadowed by tales of gloom.
The first summer panic to come to light is generally about the sun itself. In Grey Britain, so rarely blessed with the sun’s presence, you’d expect us to welcome it with open arms. Instead, the annual skin cancer panic exhorts us to view the sun with caution, beneath several layers of sun block, and to keep our kids covered up completely.
Pious pharmacies are refusing to stock sun cream below the level of Factor 15, while campaigners wage war on the idea that having a tan makes you look better. The simple message – ‘sun kills’ – obscures the fact that the relationship between sunlight and skin cancer is more complex and controversial than this; that 90 percent of skin cancers in the UK are easily treated and the other 10 percent – the potentially fatal malignant melanomas – usually occur in areas of the body not normally exposed to the sun (1).
After skin cancer, there is the general risk of heat. In Kansas, USA, the ‘SAFE KIDS coalition’ has issued warnings about the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars ‘even for a few minutes’, and ‘even with the windows down’, after a 22-month-old Kansas girl who was left in an SUV for eight hours in the full sun tragically died (2). In Britain, campaigners are generally more vocal on the issue of pets in hot places (3). While common sense should tell us that leaving anything – children, pets, even groceries – in hot cars for a long time is a bad idea (as is leaving a child for eight hours in any car), it hardly justifies the gloomy intonation of news reports telling us: ‘It is another reminder that Kansas summers are killers.’
Beyond the immediate risks of death by sun or heat, the summer abounds with scare stories about – the summer. Hayfever is one thing – ObsessivePollenCountFever a symptom of something less healthy entirely, as the weather forecast turns into a harbinger of doom. Particularly if there are freak storms and floods, as there were in 2000, which prompted the British government and others to issue dire predictions if the consequences of global warming (4).
Never mind that the scale of global warming is likely to be far less than the worst-case scenario figures consistently put forward by politicians and campaigners, or that advanced industrial society should be well able to deal with the consequences of global warming around the world. Never mind that a sunnier summer may – dare I say? – be a rather welcome consequence of global warming for those of us here in Grey Britain. Unless, of course, all our beaches are going to disappear in the next century, as the UK press warned recently (5).
Even in a globally warmed summer, people go on holiday – and this provides no end of opportunities for panics and advice. The journey itself, we are told, provides numerous hazards – aeroplanes carry the risk of deep-vein thrombosis, terrorists or other passengers with air rage. If you are backpacking, prepare to be warned about the dangers of everything from hitch-hiking (not that anybody does that any more) to mugging; if you’re a young person just out for a fun holiday with friends, a whole string of calamities can befall you, from drinking, drug-taking, dehydrating, drowning, and generally dying as a result of irresponsible (aka carefree) behaviour. Now that there are demands for the Foreign Office to issue warnings against going to an increasing number of destinations, from Bali to Benidorm, you may be lucky to get away at all.
The holiday romance has been relabelled sexual harassment and diagnosed as a cause of sexual disease, so you don’t want to be getting too close to anybody else. But be careful, too, about those activities you can do on your own – from water sports to biking to swimming to sightseeing, everything from sharks to crashes to pickpockets could ruin your day. Maybe you’d be better off on a more sedate family holiday in the sun – or there again, maybe not. The myriad of dangers facing young children on holiday, from strangers to insects to hotter sun to swimming pools to getting lost and becoming ill does not even bear imagining. Not that you have to imagine – wherever you go, you can’t escape the warnings.
If holiday dangers are all too much, you could just stay at home. Or maybe that’s not so safe either. In Britain and the USA last year, the story of the summer was child abductions – no less rare than ever, but now a high-profile panic. The UK 2003 has already brought you the non-abduction of little Summer Haipule, whose disappearance provoked a high-profile hunt before she was discovered safe and sound asleep in a neighbour’s house (6). The dangers facing small children from drowning in paddling pools or garden ponds is a familiar scare (even though again, the incidence is very rare); and for older children, swimming Famous Five-style in open-air lakes and rivers is a definite no-no (7).
Long gone are the days when children were allowed to wander off alone – panics about cars, other adults and the behaviour of other children have seen to that. But if you keep them cooped up inside, what about the dangers apparently posed by TV, computer games and the internet? In the wake of 12-year-old Shevaun Pennington, running off with her 31-year-old internet boyfriend, a close eye will have to be kept on children’s electronic entertainment (8). Not that they should be allowed to get bored: if they eat too much food or drink too many fizzy drinks, they could become obese (9); if they spend too much time worrying about fitting into their summer crop tops, they could develop eating disorders.
And the same goes for adults, too. No doubt barbecues are dangerous enough, without the attendant risk that outdoor cooking apparently encourages people to eat too much, drink too much, relax in the sun too much and develop skin cancer – unless they become pale-and-interesting aficionados of the trendy Atkins diet, in which case they could end up with kidney stones (10); or they stick to drinking water, too much of which, we are now told, can kill you. (11).
This is by no means an exhaustive list – but it clearly shows that there’s no such thing as a risk-free summer. At home and abroad, outdoors and indoors, the pleasure police and panic-merchants can turn the most banal aspects of everyday life and leisure time into a cause for alarm. That’s why we at spiked intend to provide an antidote to the safe summer killjoys, by publishing a series of articles dissecting the supposed risks of the sunshine season, and hanging the scaremongers out to dry.
Our risk-averse culture is bad enough the rest of the time. On spiked we have noted its crippling effect on new technologies, the irrational character it gives to international relations, its stifling impact upon children’s development. But the relentless parade of summer-related risks that we are subjected to each year has a particularly miserabilist edge: because its target is nothing more than having fun.
From the point of view of the safe summer killjoys, the real problem with summer is that the risk managers have no place in it. For the rest of the year, every activity can be weighed up and deliberated over according to the level of risk that it carries, and what could be gained (or not) by doing it.
When it comes to holiday season, no such considerations apply. People do things spontaneously, for no other reason that they enjoy drinking/eating/sunbathing/swimming. It is this tendency for people to follow their instincts, to do things for the hell of it without worrying over potential long-term consequences, that terrifies the killjoys. But as anybody with a suitcase and a bottle of After Sun knows, it’s also what makes us feel most alive.
So down with the safe summer killjoys, and up with the summer. Life’s too short to spend panicking – and (in Britain, at least) the summer is even shorter.
spiked-issue: Sun, sea and scaremongering
Summer of the shark?, by Suzanne Miller
(1) The dangers of ‘safe sun’, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick and Bríd Hehir
(2) Hot cars pose threat to children, Salina Journal, 15 July 2003
(3) See Don’t risk cooking your dog, RSPCA, 15 July 2003
(4) Global warming – where’s the consensus?, by John Gillott
(5) Seaside beaches at risk, Guardian, 22 July 2003
(6) Little girl lost (not), by Helene Guldberg
(7) Summer warning on cooling off in canals, Express and Star, 23 July 2003
(8) Grooming law, by Josie Appleton
(9) ‘Junk food junkies’, Don’t panic button, 15 July 2003
(10) ‘Lose pounds, gain stones?’, Don’t panic button, 22 July 2003
(11) ‘Watery grave’, Don’t panic button, 11 July 2003
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.