[-empyre-] Rigging the Risk Odds

Timothy Conway Murray tcm1 at cornell.edu
Wed Nov 14 15:34:14 EST 2012

Thanks, Stewart.  In light of the devastation caused by Sandy along densely populated upper income coastal zones of the Northeastern US, I'm thinking that we've witnessed something of the revenge of risk, according to your terms.  For the comfort of the suburbs proved to be no more secure from this globally warmed storm than the inner zones of Newark ( although we are witnessing disparities in emergency response along economic lines (the Rockaways still seem to be receiving little assistance).   Most telling is the vulnerability to the digital infrastructure of vast population, commerce, and entertainment zones dependent on shared power grids.  

Interesting that even the institutions most relied on by New Yorkers for their combat of health risk, the hospitals, were brought to their knees by natural threats to the grid -- not immunological threats but power surges and burn outs.  An aging infrastructure sustaining the power grids of Wall Street.

I'm wondering if you could say more about the linkage in your post between securities of health and those of ecology.  Thanks so much.


Director, Society for the Humanities
Curator, Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art
Professor of Comparative Literature and English
A. D. White House
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York. 14853
From: empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au [empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au] on behalf of Stewart Auyash [auyash at ithaca.edu]
Sent: Monday, November 12, 2012 8:04 AM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: [-empyre-] Rigging the Risk Odds

Rigging the Risk Odds

Schools closed, concerts and public events cancelled, travel down to a drizzle of people and no one with a fever allowed in or out, quarantines (forced and self-imposed), shops nearly empty, N95 masks and anti-microbial products sold out, a large hospital devoted only to the diseased, temperature checks in malls, schools, and at borders. Friends, family, and colleagues back home begged, pleaded, and prayed for the expats to leave. “Fear has a mind of its own,” declares the newspaper.  All in the effort to decrease risk.

So how far would you be willing to go to avoid risk in a pandemic that proved fatal to about 10% of all those infected and 50% for those over 65?  Would you be willing to voluntarily quarantine yourself and your family if you thought you might have been exposed? Would you accept a forced quarantine if someone you recently met had the symptoms? Or how would your react if you were not allowed to leave the country if you had a fever? (1)

Be it making choices in a pandemic, avoiding an oncoming storm, becoming more  physically active, or driving old gas guzzlers paying no heed to climate change, why don’t we make better decisions about our health and those around us? Can’t we just do the right thing?

As Bill Leiss said in his plenary talk during Risk at Humanities, we make choices about risks every day. But not all of us have the ability to make the “right” choices to avoid the risks we know. When contemplating future health risks, we are playing a game comparable to lottery as Dan Beauchamp explains in his editorial, Lottery Justice (2). Not everyone has the equal ability to avoid a pandemic, outrun a hurricane, or change our “lifestyle” to lower risks to our health. The lottery is rigged. Geography, for example, is destiny.  Born near the equator or sub-Saharan Africa, we can expect high risk of poverty and illness.  Living in an inner city with no safe recreation areas and lousy schools for your kids, what would you expect? Not everyone can pack up and move.  But live in a clean suburb with playgrounds and good schools and your kids will have a head start.  No need to move, is there?

However, we can change the lottery odds for others to reduce risk. We can make the air healthier to inhabit, quarantine during a pandemic, restrict guns, design safer highways, restrict the size of soft drinks, and provide better primary education to all.  Beauchamp calls these policies “gifts to strangers.”

One could look at the election last week as a way to change the odds of risk in the American lottery. One candidate clearly cared about rigging the odds for the wealthy while the other candidate argued the opposite approach.  As Bhaskar indicated last week, risk does not exist in a vacuum. By changing the odds, we can rig the risk in favor of all.

(1) All these events took place in Singapore and elsewhere in 2003 during the SARS pandemic.

(2) Beauchamp, D. (1981) Lottery justice. Journal of Public Health Policy, 2:3, 201-3.

*Thanks to Renee and Tim for inviting me to participate in this forum.

Stewart Auyash, MPH PhD
Associate Professor and Dept Chair
Dept of Health Promotion and Physical Education
Hill Center 7

Ithaca College
953 Danby Rd |  Ithaca, NY 14850

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