Belmont Club

Risk Averse

One of the attractions of the past is the fact that it has happened. We can visit it. It almost literally a place, different to be sure, but comprehensible. LP Hartley began his famous novel by claiming “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And yet he proceeded to demonstrate that we never knew the past at all no matter how we tried. And maybe not even then. But the illusion remains. Richard Llewelyn describes the past as a Green Valley to which we can return at will when the uncertaintaies of the present grow too burdensome. It is there, waiting for us to come back into its bosom.

There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So I can close my eyes on my valley as it is today, and it is gone, and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the Earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful.

If you can remember, but there’s the catch. The bane of the bureaucrat is corruptible memory and consequently feared by the only known species that actually lives in the past, because the ultimate goal of every functionary from the beginning of time has been to receive that ultimate accolade: he didn’t screw up.

The volcanic ash cloud which was recently projected into the European skies demonstrated that when you don’t know, bureaucrats often don’t act. Even when the costs of inaction are considerable to industry and the traveling public, the fear of risking an activity with an unknown probability of danger for which one might be blamed are enough to paralyze a bureaucrat.

The New Scientist reported that nobody really knew where the ‘deadly volcanic ash cloud’ that was supposed to be lethal to airplanes was. The technology to physically detect it had never been funded, and so policy makers had to resort to computer models to tell them where it might be. In deciding to close the flight paths, the regulatory authorities had to weigh an unknown risk against a known daily cost.

Ever since a Boeing 747 temporarily lost all four engines in an ash cloud in 1982, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has stipulated that skies must be closed as soon as ash concentration rises above zero. The ICAO’s International Airways Volcano Watch uses computerised pollution dispersal models to predict ash cloud movements, and if any projections intersect a flight path, the route is closed.

But although it is certain that volcanic ash like that hanging over northern Europe can melt inside a jet engine and block airflow, nobody has the least idea about just how much is too much. After a week of losing millions every day, airlines are starting to ask why we can’t do better.

It need not be this way, concedes Jonathan Nicholson at the UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority. “There may be a non-zero safe ash level for commercial jets, of so many particles of a certain size per minute,” he told New Scientist, “but we just don’t know.”

The flight paths eventually re-opened when the costs accumulated to the point where the bureaucrats faced a greater political risk from not opening the lanes than the potential hazard of being accountable for a plane crash. Accountable did I say? Sure. Because in the modern world someone is always responsible for a bad or a good thing that’s happened. The past is a place where blames are laid and laid with certainty; it is in the direction of lower entropy. It’s another country where the cases stay closed.

Of all the services that a powerful state provides the least valuable is its putative power to fix the responsibility for every event. Nobody gave it that power. It may not even want it, if it bothered to consider it. That power is simply the consequence of its power to drop rocks on heads. So when otherwise unoccupied it goes around allotting responsibility for past events until that becomes a major preoccupation. For every rock, a head must be found for it to land. After a while stones are used more to dress the past rather than build the future. Paradoxically the less ability a state has to affect the future, the greater its propensity to judge the past.

Once upon a time some things were nobody’s fault. It was even possible for an individual to accept what was called responsibility for an action. That meant you could sail across an ocean, own a gun, experiment with dangerous chemicals and look over the next hill on your own account. Today you need a permit for most of that. We no longer live in an age when things just happen. Nothing happens without being caused by somebody.

But is it true?

A friend recently wrote to me about how hard it was for the survivors of violent deaths to come to terms with the event. Could they have done something different? Was the past their fault? The dead speak to us in different ways and often say a different thing upon each visit. Maybe we’ll never know what they are saying for sure, but it goes hard on modern sensibility to accept uncertainty for an answer. Perhaps the concept of sin and redemption were invented as error terms in which to deposit our store of ignorance. Invented because humanity had to find a way to live in spite of tragedy, to devise a way to go forward despite risk; because it wanted some imperfect coefficient instead of a perfect one which was forever unattainable. Because men wanted to live even if the price was danger.

Perhaps the orderliness of the past is the greatest illusion of all. It is possible that past was never was as we imagined it. Even now, despite Llewelyn’s assurance, we reach out and touch it at our peril. It is precious to be sure, but it bids us depart. For the true past will have nothing to do with men who reject the future. It says “Go. The way back is ahead.”

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