Dundee, where I grew up, is currently among the world’s coolest small cities. It has a V&A and hotels surrounding the V&A, not just to mask the city centre from visitors. In my day, Dundee was post-industrial, reliant on a few failing employers, full of health and social risks, particularly for the poor. But my mother was employed as a teacher, so even after her divorce we felt safe. Of course, even very average days have risks – from accidents, crime, disease. Mum and I were cautious, lived in a nice neighbourhood and we were lucky. Multiple dangers never even crossed our minds and that made life liveable – endlessly anticipating danger is stressful. We all share that experience now, the burden of vulnerability, it reminds us of how precious we are, each to the other, but it’s also unbearable, something we long to forget. That’s part of why we’re bad at assessing risks. We prioritise them according to emotion and information, but our emotions cloud our judgement and our information may be patchy, absent, or misleading. We can end up ignoring or denying some risks and overreacting to others. Familiar risks can get minimised – even though they’re familiar, precisely because they’re often around. As we all know very well in these strange days, we may simply not bother to prepare for risks which are inevitable, but seem distant. It’s easier to assume someone else will have to deal with them, not us.
I grew up unharmed by multiple risks – enjoying the way Dundee nestled in countryside. Every spring red squirrels would reappear and run along the back fence. Our apartment block had illuminated entrance panels and on summer nights they would be thick with moths. I would often hear and even see tawny owls. All this was commonplace in our very average suburb.
I was a moody teen – prone to writing poetry – and teenage depression can be a real risk, but my mother got me a dog, an Irish setter, an animal friend. Rain or shine – but mostly rain – the dog and I took exercise. Our favourite haunt boasted kestrels, shrews, hares and even – one memorable evening – a barn owl which hovered silently over my oblivious setter for long moments, as if calculating her weight. Taking our walks after dark alone was a risk, but unavoidable in winter months. The dog helped keep me safe, though luck played a part again. Nothing bad happened and I felt invulnerable. The walks were a chore, but they were wonderful, too – finding a tiny leveret in its grassy form, hissing up at me as if it were a tiger, watching the broken winged playacting of lapwing parents, drawing possible harm away from their young. I’d come home restored, maybe even easier to live with. My walks weren’t in some specially nurtured reserve – they were on reclaimed land at the riverside, regrowth over landfill, right next to active landfill – a dump. But nature had found an absence and filled it.
Then one spring, there were no red squirrels. But that was just to do with disease and grey squirrels. I didn’t suspect any underlying, urgent risk. I went away to University and became a moody twenty-something. I continued to survive all kinds of risks and the years moved on. I moved to Glasgow – a large city of beauty but occasional urban brutality. I stayed lucky, though – no relevant risks, all rewards. I ended up in a neighbourhood of Victorian trees and gardens. Wrens nested under creepers a few doors along from my flat, troglodytes troglodytes – the only Latin bird name I can ever remember. But the birdsong was becoming muted. People talked about predation by domestic cats and magpies and that felt like a risk we could remedy with relative ease.
Meanwhile, I was in love but in a bad relationship. My emotions swamped my understanding of any risks. It took me years to get out and once I had, my emotions meant I recalculated all relationships as unacceptable risks.
In my thirties, I started to feel incomplete. No children. But I still couldn’t face a relationship’s risks, a single mother’s risks, an insecure profession’s risks added to the burdens of parenthood. My ability to make decisions was swamped by my emotions. I avoided making any decisions at all. But I couldn’t delay being a mother forever. I passed the point of no return. I’m not a mother. But I’m part of a culture that wants to eliminate risks to children. The things we buy for them are garlanded with labels about allergies, safe operation and cleaning. Parents up and down the country are still trying to create a risk-free bubble for our children, teachers are risking their lives to keep feeding vulnerable children school lunches. We put rainbows in our windows to keep little hearts happy – and toy bears to remind them of Michael Rosen and not being afraid. We want to save the next generation from the risk of despair.
When I see the bears and rainbows they cheer me, too… But they also break my heart a little. Because, I didn’t notice a risk so enormous it was impossible to see – the one threatening everyone’s children. Our dawn chorus faded. The evening chorus, too. At first I didn’t notice, working, travelling, living – I was distracted. I didn’t notice when I drove that insects never spattered my windscreen as thickly as they had when I was a kid in my parent’s car. I didn’t notice when moths stopped coming to my lighted window at night. But climate change has meant everything has changed – and we were told it would. Our depleted insect populations, floods, newly savage storms, failed crops, fatal summers and increased risk of pandemics shouldn’t surprise us.
I only realised how strange the mainland UK had become when I began to spend time on two islands – Sark and Colonsay – two isolated ecosystems with a history of limited pesticide and fertiliser use that has allowed them to remain relatively robust despite changing conditions. Defended against C-19 and therefore people, nature on both islands is thriving even more. Otters returning to Colonsay beaches, bird and insect populations increasing on both islands. All over the world changes in human behaviour have benefitted the world’s life and all over the world, peace, clean air, nature has consoled us. We can’t stay like this forever, but we know we can change how we work, eliminate much of our business. We’re learning whose jobs actually matter, who helps, who hinders. We’re seeing what happens when we ignore reality and what happens when we adjust ourselves to survive it and get each other through. We have a chance, when this terrible storm has passed to change some of our behaviour forever. We have to. We can choose to offer our children safe car seats and rainbows or we can rob our children and grandchildren of secure food supplies, survivable temperatures, stable communities – even the chance to ever raise their own children. Ignoring this won’t make it go away.
We are bad at risk, but not always. When we understand we’re facing life and death challenges, we fight to survive, we fight for each other. Faced with a hole in the Ozone layer, we took note of a worldwide risk, found solutions and applied them. Faced with the Y2K risk, we set an army of experts working long hours worldwide to save us from potentially dire computing problems – so we didn’t have any. Lately, malign commercial and political influences have encouraged us to bicker with reality or despair, but in these last weeks we have seen how much good ordinary human beings can do – the bravery, sacrifice, ingenuity, compassion and joy of our species. We really don’t deserve to go extinct. If our leaders aren’t leading, we have to lead them. We have a handful of years left – by some calculations a handful of months – before we pass the point of no return. Beneath the current crisis we are still facing existential risk, but we’re a species that rises to challenge – we cannot flee, we must fight, fight for our children.
A.L.Kennedy was born in Dundee. She lived for almost 30 years in Glasgow and now stays in North Essex. She has won a variety of UK and international book awards, including a Lannan Award, the Costa Prize, The Heinrich Heine Preis, the Somerset Maugham Award and the John Llewellyn Rees Prize. She has written 9 novels, 6 short story collections, 3 books of non-fiction and 3 books for children. She also writes for the stage, screen, TV and has created an extensive body of radio work including documentaries, monologues, dramas and essays. She also performs occasionally in one person shows and as a stand up comic.
‘On Risk’ was first broadcast on Radio 4’s Point of View on 10th May. The producer was Adele Armstrong.