Volume 13: Editor’s Note — Risk

by Alexandra Contosta, Editor

Last month a friend called and begged me to accompany him on a mission. His goal: to launch his kayak from a thirty-foot cliff into roiling whitewater below. Of course, he planned to be in the kayak, diving vertically toward the river and then maneuvering his boat as it careened around rocks and shot through waterfalls. My job in this whole scenario would be to capture his feat on film. I would also be the one to run for help in case the situation went awry. I listened carefully to all his plans, and then to his warning, “You are going to think this is way too dangerous, Alix, but you have to let me do it.”

A few days later, we drove north to Middlebury, Vermont, passing bucolic old farms and villages on the way. I wanted to stop in one of the general stores for a snack, or a quaint little café on a village green for lunch, postpone the journey, wait for rain. But my friend was adamant. He had to launch.

When we finally reached the river, he told me to hurry. Kayaking there was illegal, and so was swimming. If anyone found us, we could be fined or even arrested. He quickly changed into his drysuit, stepped into his spray skirt, slipped his feet into booties. I grabbed the helmet, paddle, and video equipment. We rushed into the woods toward the cliff.

I looked down and realized that only a few feet separated the cliff face from rocks protruding from the other side of the canyon. Below, water hurtled over boulders, churned into a whirlpool, and then rushed down a waterfall. My friend caught up with me and examined the water too. It was much higher than it had been the week before when he had devised his plan. It was too dangerous. He couldn’t risk it.

Risk is a mysterious thing. One person’s adrenaline rush is another person’s fear. We stood, watched the river, and my friend decided that no amount of excitement was worth his life. How did he make this decision? How did he draw the line that separated adventure from recklessness?

In his story of ascending the Lotus Flower Tower in the Canadian wilderness, writer Gregory Frux faces a similar dilemma. Exhausted, with torn hands and an aching body, he chooses to stay behind as his partners attempt the summit. “Mountaineering isn’t about pushing the envelope beyond what’s possible, but about taking oneself as far as is safe and reasonable,” Frux explains. “Fear mediates the implacable forces of nature and tells one when it’s exciting to move forward and prudent to turn back.”

We calculate risks, assess whether they will thrill or harm us, and act accordingly. But what happens when we underestimate the risks we face in the wilderness? In most outdoor situations where people travel in packs, hiking, climbing, and paddling together, miscalculating risk can imperil the entire group. In her essay, “Risk in the 1996 Mount Everest Tragedy: A Group Process Perspective,” Lorraine Mangione describes some of the group dynamics at work on Everest. A lack of logistical and interpersonal safety nets jeopardized the climbers as they attempted the summit and got caught in a fierce snowstorm that blew all night. Similarly, contributor Meera Patankar describes her decision to venture into the Alaskan bush full of grizzly bears. Armed with a rifle she does not know how to use, she realizes too late that she was not prepared to defend herself against the threat of a powerful predator. “No matter how thrilling the adventure and how unique the work,” Patankar concludes, “my life and other creatures’ lives were a foolish wager. This wilderness was raw and violent enough without the addition of my defenses.” Without taking the necessary precautions, both physically and mentally, she had endangered herself and the safety of the animals around her.

While many environmental practitioners have adventured in the outdoors and have encountered the risk, fear, and joy involved in traversing mountains and navigating streams, most of us spend our days under more tame circumstances. Writers, teachers, activists, biologists, and policy-makers alike, we pass our days in offices, in front of computers, addressing students, or carefully crafting arguments to protect our air, waterways, and forests. How does risk — that concept that can simultaneously allure, excite, warn, and harm us — fit into our more quotidian existence? Sometimes risk figures into environmental practice in ways one might expect. Risk is omnipresent when making decisions to log timber from national forests, set quotas for salmon fisheries, or delineate the boundaries of a wildlife preserve. Natural resource managers must evaluate risks to animals, habitat, and local economies before implementing policy.

Risk also lurks in surprising and hidden places. As Jerry Keir reminds us, “You do not think of violence and risk when considering forest rehabilitation, by far the most prevalent form of ecological restoration in the U.S. today.” In his experience, restoration does not only involve planting delicate seedlings into reclaimed mines. It also entails cutting trees with chainsaws that can amputate fingers, hands, and even limbs. Similarly, in her essay, “Other Voices,” Elizabeth Solet describes some of the risks and ironies involved in studying horseshoe crabs in Maine’s Taunton Bay. In an effort to collect necessary data about the crab populations, Solet and a team of researchers walked transect in the intertidal zone where the crabs lay their eggs. Each step could crush the eggs and threaten their survival. Yet without hard data describing their biology, ecology, and conservation status, the crabs could end up tangled in fishing nets, dead.

Most environmentalists care about the fate of horseshoe crabs and countless other species and habitat threatened with extinction. They also care about other ecological hazards, like climate change, acid rain, deforestation, overpopulation. Why — when so much data exists to suggest that these and other problems pose major risks to the health of our planet — have human beings as a whole failed to take substantial action toward addressing them? Scott and Paul Slovic, authors of “Numbers and Nerves,” offer a compelling reason. They write, “The risks of global climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss cannot be conveyed without presenting quantitative data — and yet these contemporary environmental phenomena may have little visceral emotional meaning for the public unless they are also presented by way of stories and images.” In other words, people will not work to mitigate ecological risk unless they understand it. And they won’t truly understand it until they attach meaning and emotion to the statistical lexicon of scientists and policy-makers.

While important, incorporating meaning and emotion into environmental policy is not an easy task. In a candid interview, Tom Webler points out that a technical and economic way of thinking determines the way we assess environmental risk in our society. “There are a lot of issues that aren’t discussable under that… model, which typically advocates environmental impact statements and having public hearings in which you limit the discussion to a certain epistemological domain, and you don’t enable a discourse about feelings, values, and power.” Such a limited way of analyzing ecological risk presents its own dangers. When, as a society, we base our environmental choices on short-term profit, we end up with cars and housing developments instead of clean air and wildlife habitat. The latter don’t have much value in a free-market system, while the former carry immense worth.

Education is essential to helping us re-orient our principles toward a more holistic environmental ethic encompassing feelings and aesthetics as well as science and economics. In “A Hudson River Immersion,” Laird Christensen and Jon Jensen recount their experiences teaching a field-based class that accomplished this goal. Their semester-long course incorporated the history, biology, poetry, art, and policy issues of the Hudson River watershed, ultimately leading the students to develop personal attachments toward the watershed and its fate.

Literature and art can also help to shift our culture toward a more inclusive, sympathetic view of the environment. In “Dirt and Sorrow,” Sy Montgomery talks about using her books to entice people to care about the world around them. Likewise, Eleanor Briggs’s photographs of daily life in Southeast Asia evoke an appreciation for ancient ways of living with the land. Yet the empathy and awareness that Briggs and Montgomery hope to instill in others can cause sorrow as well as wonder. When contemplating the disappearance of woodland elephants from the Rwandan landscape, biologist Beth Kaplin laments, “I think about when it was the last elephant in the forest and how alone it must have felt… Seeing it gone, seeing the elephant carcass or seeing the uprooted forest is a harsh picture, especially when it’s the last one.” In loving an earth so fraught with environmental quandaries, we risk feeling grief and heartbreak every time another species disappears or another river becomes toxic.

In the end, understanding all the myriad risks our planet faces is less important than knowing when and how to address these problems. When should we be cautious, allowing nature to heal itself instead of causing more damage by manipulating it improperly? When does inaction threaten species and habitat more than our blundering attempts to save them? And how do we reconcile the risks we take in our work with the risks we take in our personal lives? How can we spend our days preaching moderation in resource consumption and our weekends kayaking down class five rapids? In the words of Kathleen Dean Moore, “When is risk-taking a good thing, slipping beneath the still surface into a new world that is beautiful and meaningful beyond imagining, a world closed to those of us who are afraid? And when does risk-taking make no sense at all? What is the boundary, the dancing seam, that separates courage from recklessness?” These are all difficult questions to answer. Climate change, mountain climbing, endangered species, free-market capitalism — we can understand the risks associated with all of these situations. But the meaning of risk itself, this eludes us. This remains a mystery.


Alexandra Contosta is a master of science candidate in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch New England Graduate School. She spends most of her time in the northern hardwood forest, collecting stories and conducting ecological research. She calls the fields and woods of southern Vermont her home.