Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Risk, Tradition and Change

What is familiar may not be safe.

This is a difficult thing for us humans to understand. In our minds, familiarity means comfort; comfort means safety. When John Snow locked London's Broad Street pump in 1854, he was cutting off the source of a deadly cholera outbreak; but he was also cutting off the local people from their familiar water supply.  It was not easy for some to accept.

In the eighties, climbers enthusiastically embraced new low-stretch, high-strength synthetic materials like Spectra and Dyneema for runners and anchor slings.  But then came this video:

It turned out that the high-tech material with which we'd become familiar carried risks that we had not clearly perceived. When the time came to change out my slings, I went back to nylon.  Many others did the same.

What's the point? Three take-aways from this little story.
  • Though we shouldn't be too quick to assume that we are the smart ones, we also shouldn't assume that "traditional practices" are always the best.  Air pollution from cookstoves is an obvious example here.
  • A gripping presentation of the risks (like the DMM video above) can change community practice quickly. (We had had technical discussions about tensile strength and modulus of elasticity before, but they didn't have the same dramatic effect as watching a sling fail in a drop test.)
  • But - another thing that made it possible for the climbing community to switch so quickly was the ready availability of an alternative.  We just had to buy something else (which was already on the market) - a small change within a larger paradigm that remained the same. 
If the paradigm itself needs to change, how easy will that be to accomplish?

1 comment:

Russ deForest said...

Not easy, but possible.

We've been close before.


The first time I came across this speech, I found it hard to believe this was a campaign speech by the leading presidential candidate. The necessary shift is so tangible here and so far from the language of economic growth that dominates political speech today. But I maintain some hope that this type of leadership may manifest again.