Risky pilots: common sense and inaction!

Gareth Wyn Jones asks whether we are worrying about the right things.

We are all aware of and take risks, although weighing them up very differently. The recent tragic air crash in the Alps will haunt us when we fly. Is our pilot sane, we will all ask? We fear some irrational, unforeseeable manic event such as a jihadist beheading. But the odds against our being caught up in such madness are in the many, many thousand!

Our acceptance of risk has tended to decline. Our grandparents accepted birth and life as very high-risk activities. Now we don’t. We may mock ‘health and safely’, yet we expect it. Our lives should run smoothly. If something goes wrong we demand a scapegoat. We even demand expensive drugs that may extend our lives for only few months – as of right.

Would we fly in an aeroplane if the risk of a crash were one in a hundred or one in a thousand or even in ten thousand? Maybe but only if the journey was extraordinarily urgent or we might end up as millionaires or perhaps escape turmoil like the poor fugitives in the Mediterranean! Certainly we would be very fearful and careful of letting our children or grandchildren take such risks.

Why then are we so careless of the fate of our planet and the probable impacts of our profligate ways on the children’s futures? Why is this not a hot election issue?

We live on ‘spaceship earth’, although from day to day we are oblivious of living on a thin smear – the biosphere – on a planet rotating at about 1000 miles an hour and circling our Sun at some 67,000 miles an hour which is itself whirls round the centre of our galaxy at 490,000 miles an hour. Enough to make our heads spin, and completely unreal!

But we do exist on a self-contained ‘earth-ship’, very like being in an aeroplane or spaceship with its own complex life support systems. In this case the best experts on the systems that keep our plane flying and, crucially, maintain the cabin in a habitable state are worried. The vast majority of them, better than 95%, tell us clearly that the demands and numbers of the passengers, especially those in First and Club Class, are already warming the cabin and will soon cause dangerous overheating. The odds of us, the passengers, being the cause of the problems, are also put at over 95%: not 1 in 100 or 5 in 100 but 95 in 100 i.e. not a racing certainly but a real near-certainty. The evidence of trouble ahead is mounting remorselessly, so the odds may soon reach 99 in a 100!

So far the effects are very uneven. The impact is much greater in some parts of cabin. Paradoxically, those in First and Club Class and the pilots are least affected. However it is unlikely to remain so. The less fortunate in Economy Class will come off worst. They are already squabbling and migrating and their rebellions will affect everyone.

So why in our risk-averse world is this existential problem largely ignored?

Unfortunately the pilots, some of whom from our local airline are seeking to retain their jobs in process called an election, have a vested interest in minimising the danger. They are, in many cases, in hock to the owners of the airplane and purveyors of the fuel who don’t want their massive profits damaged. Some of their agents are in the business of feeding false assurances to the passengers. We, the passengers, of course prefer good news and a quiet life. We are hardwired to concoct optimistic scenarios to make life bearable – quite essential in an over-crowded cabin. Just as we try the lottery, with long odds, hoping we will be allowed into first class, we and the elite, hope and believe something will turn up. Just as we cannot comprehend the motions of planet Earth hurtling though space, we find to difficult to appreciate the seriousness of our cabin over-heating in the clutter of our lives.

Already some sections of the cabin are suffering from low water supplies while others are in danger of being overwhelmed by too much water. There are threats to the on-board catering system but the First Class passengers are confident that they can buy their way out of trouble. Often events in the remote parts of cabin go unreported but just occasionally major turbulence, such Hurricane Sandy, disturbs the complacence of rich and powerful. But it soon dissipates.

The odd thing about the prognosis for the ‘earth-ships’ flight is that the technicians have relatively straight-forward answers to the problem of overheating and its side effects. Less damaging ways exist to manage our air conditioning and heat balancing systems. Yes, there are other problems such the pressures we are exerting on biodiversity, the other non-human travellers in our aeroplane who are crucial in the long run to our wellbeing. But we must focus on the most urgent issues. Correcting the excess heating will require significant investment and international cooperation but will not be excessively expensive.  Yes, the Swansea and Rhyl lagoons come with large down payment but they will help avoid other much greater costs and turbulence. Immediate repairs are imperative as the longer we leave the re-engineering the more expensive it will be and the greater the danger of terminal run-away damage. There is little doubt that ‘earth-ship’ will continue on its flight but a large number of passengers, including those in the upper sections, may well succumb and the living standards of all on board on board plummet.

Risk management is all about the assessment of possible future problems and taking sensible steps to minimise the risks. In the Alps crash the assessment while protecting against high-jackers, failed to consider an individual pilot’s suicidal tendencies.  Surely our society can avoid such collective idiocy. We must challenge the prospective pilots to come clean about their plans to cool our cabin as we only have a few years to make some major changes and a great deal of redundant infrastructure geared to the current damaging system.

Gareth Wyn Jones is Professor Emeritus of Bangor University.

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