“Stay away from the fire” was a common refrain on my recent camping trip. We camped with a group of friends that included a family with 5-year-old and 2-year-old boys. “The fire will hurt you!”
Fire certainly can hurt you, yet every night we made a fire, frequently a raging fire. We sat around it in chairs, bearing scars from the embers of past fires, wearing our camping clothes, similarly marred. We spent the days hiking, kayaking, fishing, swimming and sailing, all activities that carry risk. I observed, for the first time ever, a giant water bug while swimming. I didn’t know what it was when I observed it and tried to capture it for a closer look. It was Google that helped me identify it and told me about the potential for the inch long predator to deliver a painful bite, one I avoided only through luck and the water bug’s first line of defense, playing dead.
I am safe and sound, a couple of blisters and mosquito bites the only negative reminders of a fun weekend. It was a relaxing time and a time for thought. Camping is one of the few times I have to be conscious of energy. Effort is exerted both in getting wood for a fire and also in making and maintaining the fire. Shows like Naked and Afraid demonstrate that fire making is quite an ordeal without the fire starters, lighter and blowpipe we use. Camping brings both energy and water to the foreground. The flip of a switch or the turn of a tap isn't possible, even in the cushy state park campground we visited.
Fire is common to both home and camping. We have a gas stove, gas water heater and gas heat. A simple turn of a valve gives me fire, but it is still fire. We had a house near us destroyed by fire due to a faulty gas hose. Fire is, both at the campsite and in the house, risky, yet we still use it. We still have fire in spite of society’s quest to de-risk.
Many now agree that mastery of fire is one of the things that served to make us human. The logic goes that big brains require too much energy for a diet of only raw foods. Anthropologists and paleontologists are doing fascinating work comparing our physiology to our ape relatives and studying why the more brawny Neanderthals were outcompeted by modern humans, with fire being one of the variables.
The world of our early human ancestors was certainly riskier than ours today. The lack of car-sized predators eyeing me as a snack is a risk I don't face. I don't face the risk of hunting game with sharp, yet still ineffective weapons. Fire consuming the collection of sticks passing for shelter is also something I don't face. Weapons and fire are likely some of the earliest technologies humans mastered, both being major contributors to us becoming human. Both technologies are themselves risky and both are risky in use.
Humanity developed technologies and most, if not all, came with new risks. We like going faster than our legs carry us. The horse, the wheel, the car, the plane, the Zeppelin and others are all riskier than not moving or walking, yet we overcame any risk aversion in all cases. To this day, transportation is risky. I take satisfaction in the materials of our industry playing a big role in improving safety of travel. Automotive fatalities per mile driven continue to drop, enabled by better materials enabling better engineering.
Car travel is likely as safe as it has ever been. It is also a place where we have raised the bar. I remember cars without seat belts. I remember the world before airbags and the Rube Goldberg contraptions devised as passive restraints in the pre-airbag era. I remember thinking it sounded paradoxical to improve safety by adding an explosive device in the steering wheel – only inches away from my face. We raised the bar on our expectation of what constituted a safe vehicle. NASCAR drives vehicles meant to look like our street-legal cars, yet the expectation for safety is elevated. Installing a roll cage, using a harness rather than a seat belt, and wearing a helmet will certainly increase the safety of car travel, as NASCAR proves. I am fairly certain that electing to wear a helmet in order to increase personal safety while driving would result in adjectives like “crazy”, “looney” or the now archaic “touched” being used to describe me. Helmets while driving, surely improving safety, raise the bar higher than we’re willing to endure. Subjectively we determine there is too little benefit for the extra effort. Zero risk is impossible and not a useful definition of safe. Setting the bar is always subjective. Risky technologies are at the very core of what makes us human. The history of mankind is one of taming technologies and reducing the risks that came with them to acceptable levels, never zero.
Chemical risks have been on my mind, brought there by both work related and ACS volunteer activities. Fire and chemical hazards share some traits. Fire is both an acute and chronic hazard. It can hurt you right now and also over time through inhalation of combustion products. Chemicals similarly can be instantaneously dangerous and pose long term risks to individuals and the environment.
We have many examples where solving an acute problem creates a chronic one. DDT killed mosquitoes that present an acute health risk. Persistence in the environment created a chronic environmental problem. We are becoming far better at predicting risk, with great strides in predictive toxicology allowing focus on technologies where the benefits more than outweigh the risks. In an era where significant numbers of reasonably intelligent, well-meaning folks question technologies like vaccines and GMOs, we simply have to do better. Human progress is due to assuming some risk for a greater benefit. We need to get it right.
Author's Note: Please consider attending the workshop on the risk of genetic modification scheduled for the Philadelphia ACS meeting.
Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.