Intro to sustainability and risk

How we percieve risk: Badly. 

 What you never heard of – it’s probably what’s killing you.

–  Funeral, a song by Aries

It’s not like we’re doing nothing, but overall, the way we handle risk seems shockingly bad at times, as if we’re a species with a subconscious death wish.

We’re not throw-yourself-off-a-building suicidal, though. We’re more like someone who starts their day with a Vodka and Coke, chain-smoking Marlboro Reds in between downing pizza slices as they binge TV, while living in fear of terrorists being the cause of our demise.

We’re not violently self-destructive, we’re passively, ignorantly, apathetically, and indulgently so. Heart disease and cancer, followed by many ailments found disproportionally in affluent countries (lung cancer, for example) are what kills us Westerners, but rarely what scares us.

‘According to the New America Foundation, jihadists killed 94 people inside the United States between 2005 and 2015. During that same time period, 301,797 people in the US were shot dead’[1].

Despite this, Americans are more afraid of terror attacks and government-enforced gun restrictions than they are of gun violence[2].

Comic from Cagle Cartoons[3]

Clearly, and this is just one of many potential examples, we do not manage risk well. As the cartoon implies, influential societal institutions such as the media play a role in that response; in shaping our fears. The same is true of politicians, stoking our fear.

Our response to these types of arguments is often an irrational and misplaced fear based on a warped view of the threats we face. The same is true elsewhere in how we look at, and manage, risks to our species-level sustainability. The question here is a simple one: If we can’t think about and deal rationally with the threats that we, personally, are confronted with then what hope do we have of thinking about and dealing rationally with the threats that we, collectively as a species, face? Given these include serious, potentially civilization-ending threats, avoiding a cold reckoning of the facts could get literally get us all killed.

This failure of risk management is evident in mainstream sustainability too, I’d argue. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[4], enjoy a global profile, are highly resourced, and are operationalized around the world. What we seem to lack, however, are any equally high-profile frameworks that identify and classify threats, and using carefully developed criteria, prioritize them. We don’t have an SDG-type list of threats – and that strikes me as not only odd, but dangerous.

[A comment from our editor here:] Where would you place Rokstroms planetary boundaries in relation to this assertion? Obviously it doesn’t prioritise within the 9, but it suggests they think those are the 9 greatest priorities. [A good point that will have to be revisited someday!]

Focusing on risks might seem like a strange suggestion, but it’s quite a common practice in other areas. Every day on my way to university I pass a fire danger rating sign – an amazingly simple and important risk indicator.

Image from ABC News[5]

If not strange, then it might seem a little paranoid to assemble a list of risks and focus on minimizing them, but that’s what our era calls for. We’re doing things today we’ve never done before.

Tomorrow’s challenges are unlike any our ancestors faced. It’s not (just) dinosaur-killing meteors we must account for now, it’s also things that are closer, nearer-term, and often of our own making. Climate change. Nuclear war. Super viruses. The myriad unintended consequences of AI development or biotechnology. We’re quite good at making brand new problems for ourselves these days. Worse still, we’re not entirely sure which problems are the most threatening. It might end up being something unexpected that wipes us all out.

Recognizing this, there are numerous studies, entire think tanks even, dedicated to a threat-based based approach to sustainability, developed by people who want us to consider worst-case scenarios and all the other negative outcomes our well-intentioned blundering can bring about. With their list of humanity’s potential future sins in hand, they want us to take steps now to avoid mistakes they say could be significant, or even fatal.

This is a new kind of risk identification and management and the body of work around it is growing, but this mode of thinking – a type of triage – is quite a bit more established. It’s going to need to become a lot more prominent in sustainability though, if long-term survival is our goal.


[1] Anderson, J. (2017, January 31). The psychology of why 94 deaths from terrorism are scarier than 301,797 deaths from guns. Quartz.

[2] Chapman University. (2016). Chapman University Survey of American Fears. Orange, California: Chapman University.

[3] Cagle Cartoons. (2019). Retrieved from Cagle Cartoons:{8A2EA4ED-A0BA-4AE0-8B19-3BF903EE1B2D}

[4] United Nations. (2019). About the Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from United Nations:

[5] Doyle, K., Deacon, B., & Locke, S. (2017, December 13). New fire danger rating system set to be trialled this summer to cope with new extremes. ABC News.