Book Review: How to Live Dangerously - Warwick Cairns

How to Live DangerouslyDon’t be misled by the title. This isn’t a book written for adrenaline junkies hell bent on near death experiences. It’s a book written for us all. It explores how the human race, evolved to meet the demands of live on the Savannah, finds it so difficult to correctly evaluate and respond to the risks of modern life. It’s packed with interesting facts and insights and tub thumping rallying calls to look at things differently. For example as a cyclist it’s a little disconcerting to discover that I’m eleven times more likely than a car driver to die in a traffic accident, until I learn that by cycling 25 miles per week I halve the risk of heart disease. As a result for every year cyclists lose through accidents, 20 are added to lives as a result of the beneficial effects of exercise.

The book begins with an assessment of modern life in which more than ever before our lives are filled with fear and a litigation culture in which someone else is always to blame. Countless examples are given where our perception of threats is totally at odds with the actual threat posed. The role of the media in fuelling our worries and the vested interests in maintaining fear are discussed. People afraid of germs are good business and a fancy sounding medical name for a problem will help boost sales. School clothing with inbuilt tracking devices present the tip of an iceberg of change that has seen children’s switched from the free-range lives of the parents, to the closely monitored battery reared childhoods that are now increasingly the norm.

In contrast there are several stories told of how the removal of ‘safety features’ actually makes life more safe. For example the work of Hans Monderman’s ideas of shared-space makes fascinating reading. It seeks to minimise demarcations between vehicle traffic and pedestrians, often by removing features such as kerbs, road surface markings, traffic signs, and regulations. Monderman found that the traffic efficiency and safety improved when the street and surrounding public space was redesigned to encourage each person to negotiate their movement directly with others.

The thrust of the book is that our misaligned perception of risk is actually driving us to damage the things we seek to safeguard. The children kept in to avoid the infinitesimally small threat of abduction suffer physical and mental development that degrades and shortens millions of lives. It leads us to spend astronomical amounts in the theatrical and largely ineffective protection against terrorist attacks at airports whilst we sit unmoved by the death toll of 3000 people killed every day in road traffic accidents around the world.

This is an entertaining read, with some important messages and concludes with the rallying call that to make life safer we have to do what appears more dangerous.

Steve Unwin January 2013.