DebateRisk the change

Risk the change

Reading time: 4:45 min | The risk of our life is maximal; it undoubtedly ends with death. The question is, when will death reach us? And the question is, have we become happy people?

What we all want: to keep breathing until death seems meaningful to us, which would typically be advanced old age. If we die at 99, like my grandmother, we humans perceive it as a gift from God (fill in whatever); we then accept death and grief is relatively low. Apart from suffering, not much else would have happened anyway, we think to ourselves. But if someone like my mother dies too early and could still have made a difference, then we miss the person very much; the grief will be great. Grief can become infinitely great if, for example, our children die in our lifetime. To prevent this from happening, we try to keep the risks to their lives as low as possible. To assess our own risk of death, we first ask when we hear of someone’s passing: how old did she get?

One measure of risk is how great the probability is that the most significant possible harm will occur. The other measure is the advantage I gain by taking the risk.

Take skiing. Here, the good to be gained is fun and enjoyment. But the probability is not small that we will suffer a stupid joint or bone injury if we ski for years in winter. The skills we’ve gained over time won’t possibly compensate for the amount of time we’ve spent on the slopes, and the statistical risk of injury will increase. Besides, our physical abilities decrease with age. So at some point, the risk is not worth the fun and we will stop skiing.

If we confront skiers with the figures, tell them about fatal accidents from our circle of acquaintances, the reaction is never abstinence. No one likes rain at the party. Personally, I know two families who lost a child on the hills. The risk of serious injury is not tiny, and yet my children go skiing. I think that’s part of growing up. You can do it; most of them survive it anyway, and today, there are helmets.

Besides, skis are not a saw. With skis, the day will not come when the saw saws. With guns, it’s different. The day the gun shoots will come, as sure as eggs are eggs. It’s just a question of who and when it will hit. The risk posed by weapons is incredibly high. What is to be gained from gun ownership in modern, security-oriented societies, on the other hand, is in most cases minimal. That is the truth, derived from scientific findings, confirmed thousands of times over. Most countries recognise this and have their laws accordingly. In Japan, for example, it is extremely unlikely to be shot because hardly anyone is allowed to own a gun. In Germany, too, the risk of violent death by firearms is comparatively low.

But a large proportion of gun owners in the US prefer not to acknowledge this truth. As always, with things where facts meet with cultural rejection, all the populist stops are pulled out. In the end, the question of freedom is the maximum populist weapon. As for the USA, the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution, a relic from the distant past, fatally corrupts the concept of freedom into an ideology.

My experience with the US gun mania is limited. But at least I once sat in a fancy Audi Avant in Boston, that was in 1991. The driver was a young medical doctor, open-minded, modern, liberal, wealthy. Somehow, he opened his glove compartment at the traffic lights. I’ve never forgotten the dull gleam of the revolver and the strange feeling that it was better not to ask why the hell do you have that gun in the car. But it was clear, this is a cultural thing, a patriotic identification, about which I, as a foreigner, have no say. Undoubtedly, my host would have found a critical question offensive.

In the US, guns in the hands of its citizens killed over 30,000 people last year. Some of those people are prevented from committing dangerous crimes through police guns. They are arrested or killed (that’s ok for much of the population — he got what he deserves). If we abolished guns, criminals would have an easier time, they say. They say we need guns to protect us, the citizens. The more guns, the safer, says the NRA. But because guns are a yin and yang product, more yin automatically means more yang. If you want more safety from guns, you get more death from guns.

Many don’t want to realise this and think it won’t affect us. Industries worth billions, and not only the arms industry, live from this ignoring of statistical truths. Their argument, in the case of guns, is the individual’s fear of death by violence. The fact that every additional weapon in circulation increases the individual’s chance of being shot is quickly suppressed because the collective is so large. What everyone does can’t be that wrong?

If my sister was a victim of gun cleaning, I then know first-hand that guns kill. Now it depends on me and the collective surrounding me as to how I feel about the matter. If I am not an outspoken gun fan, if I am halfway sane and robust enough not to bow to the pressure of the collective, I might realise that my sister would still be alive if this weapon had not existed. If the pressure is substantial, and I am weak and a fan of firearms, I tell myself that my sister’s death was God’s will and buy myself a revolver.

We always find the shouldering of responsibility by the collective, which is so convenient for the individual, beneficial, even if the collective amnesties a behaviour that we individually may already have recognised as not particularly helpful. For many, the social congruence with the environment is more important than almost anything else, let alone facts. Thus, we continue to cultivate habits, even though these habits are obviously not beneficial to me or society.

If we want to change unhelpful habits, we have to change the culture that surrounds them. This is the reason, why seemingly unrelated things like climate protection or the MeToo movement belong together. Only through a change in our self-perception, especially men, will it be possible to change unhelpful behaviours that stand in the way of effective climate action. Many issues come to mind. No speed limit for free citizens on the Autobahn or the barbecuing of tons of meat are only the tips of a giant iceberg.