A couple of months ago I was visiting friends when a eucalyptus tree fell on my car. I had parked on the street next to a park. It was a very windy day and from the kitchen of my friend’s house we heard a loud crack. This was not the sound of the tree hitting my car but rather the sound of the tree trunk snapping off near its base. We went outside to see what the noise was to find that the top of the tree had hit the car roof. By eucalyptus standards, the tree was not very large; perhaps just under ten metres tall. It put two large dents in the car which, fortunately, did not cost as much to repair as I had expected. All in all, it could have been worse.
My friend said I should see if the local council would pay for the damages. I had a vague recollection that damages were not normally paid for this kind of thing but I decided to have a look on their website. It turns out the council does allow applications for damages but the internet discussions I could find on the issue said it was not worth pursuing. A tree falling on a car is considered an act of nature and the council is not legally responsible, so I didn’t bother with an application.
Some people apparently think this rule is unfair. The tree was on council land and council are paid to maintain the trees. So, it should be their responsibility, they argue. However, this loses sight of the bigger picture. If the council is forced to pay every time a car is damaged by a tree on their land, they are very likely to conclude that it’s simply not financially viable to have trees at all. They might decide it’s cheaper in the long run to cut them all down. Imagine a suburb devoid of trees. Not only would it be incredibly ugly, it would get extremely hot in summer. The birds, insects and other creatures that depend on the trees would disappear. The whole point of the suburbs, the whole reason people moved there in the first place, was to enjoy ‘nature’. To remove the trees would defeat the entire point of the place but that would be the logical outcome of making council, a group of human beings, responsible for what are essentially acts of nature.
An objection could be made to this line of reasoning that council doesn’t need to chop the trees down, it could just spend more money on them. They could go out and hire an army of arborists to take care of the trees and we’d have the best of both worlds. There’s two problems with that. Firstly, it would cost a fortune. How many residents would be willing to accept a massive increase in their council rates to pay for such a scheme? The second problem is practical and relates to what can actually be done by the experts.
I once did a short course on horticulture at Melbourne University and one of our lecturers was Melbourne’s foremost tree expert. He told one of his war stories about a situation at one of Melbourne’s richest private schools. He had been called in to provide advice about the issue of whether some eucalyptus trees should be removed from the school playground. Some of the parents were insisting the trees were an unacceptable risk to the students. The school did not want to fell the trees partly because it’s very expensive to have a twenty metre high tree taken down (we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars) and partly because one of the trees had substantial heritage value. During the discussion, the parents demanded a guarantee that the tree would not fall or shed its branches. The horticulture expert said it was possible to be very sure that a tree would not fall as a tree must first get very sick or even die before falling and that would be quite obvious from looking at it. In relation to the risk of branches falling, there was less certainty as shedding branches is part of the lifecycle of a tree and can happen even though a tree is otherwise healthy. No guarantee could be given but with proper care and attention the risk was very minimal. This was unacceptable to the parents and the school caved in and had the trees removed, something which annoyed the horticulture lecturer. Surely the beauty of the tree, the shade it provides and the intrinsic connection between man and nature which is implied by our appreciation of trees in the first place made the risk worthwhile. What was the alternative? A school play area made entirely of concrete? Well, that’s more or less what the students at that school got.
The point of the story is that, even if you had an army of arborists, even if you have an arborist for each tree, you could not guarantee that a branch will not fall or even that the tree won’t fall. It is simply not within the power of man to know such things with certainty. It you were to hire such an army of arborists, you won’t entirely remove the risk and, in fact, you reduce the risk only a miniscule amount from where it already is. In any rational cost-benefit analysis, the plan simply doesn’t get done.
The concept of an act of nature thus has two parts. Firstly, it represents an understanding of the limitations of human knowledge. Secondly, it mitigates against outcomes like chopping down all the trees because, by acknowledging the limits of human knowledge it also acknowledges the limits of responsibility that may be borne by humans. It protects people from blame and therefore removes the risk of excessive intervention in order to avoid said blame. In this way it acts to protect the commons from intolerant minorities who use the threat of blaming those in power to gain concessions at the expense of the common good.
We can now use this concept of an act of nature and what happens when you forego it to see what has happened with the corona event.
Viral disease, and disease in general was, for most of human history seen as an act of nature. Nobody other than quacks tried to intervene for the simple reason that nobody knew what the cause was and intervention almost always made things worse. The breakthroughs made in the last hundred and fifty odd years have given us incredible new powers to fight disease. In relation to viral disease, the number of people dying, in particular among the young, has nosedived. But all the gains had already been made by the 1970s. In the last fifty years, deaths from viral disease have remained steady and almost all the deaths are now among the elderly for the very simple and obvious reason that as you get old your immune system, and your body in general, becomes weakened and can’t stave off disease so well. There has been no medical breakthrough to stop the aging process. We accept dying of old age as an act of nature. To do otherwise is delusional. But that’s exactly the delusion we got into at the start of the corona event. Remember how if you didn’t agree with the measures you wanted old people to die? That was the sign that we had thrown away the concept of an act of nature entirely.
As of March 2020, the public, or at least a very passionate section of it, was no longer prepared to accept any risk in relation to respiratory viral disease. The government, after a brief push back, decided to pretend that it had the answer to the problem in the form of lockdowns, hand washing, social distancing and masking to name just a few. Many public health bureaucrats are on record from before March 2020 saying that such measures are ineffective but that hasn’t stopped them getting on board and now pretending that they are. It was as if my horticulture lecturer had told the parents at the school that he could, in fact, guarantee that a branch would not fall on their children if such and such measures were done. He would have to know that the measures were useless but, given enough political pressure, he might play along. It’s not just governments now pretending that they have the answers. Employers have a corona policy detailing how they will keep their employees safe and shops and other public venues have their own measures.
All this behaviour is driven by the small but passionate minority who demand that others protect them from viral disease. Such people are just like the parents in my lecturer’s story who demand that the trees be cut down. In such cases, it is up to governments and those in power to stand up for the greater good but in our modern democracies, intolerant minorities have seemingly gained disproportionate power. Partly this is because vested interests have realised that they can co-opt the power of intolerant minorities to bend governments to their will. Partly it’s because the internet has allowed such groups to easily share information. The parents at a school are already networked and able to get results. The internet has allowed geographically separate intolerant minorities to network and get results too.
In any case, there are two problems with our corona response that are directly analogous to the problems with local councils and trees falling over and that follow directly from throwing out the concept of an act of nature. The first is financial. This issue is self-evident. Governments have loaded up on trillions of dollars of debt. Imagine how different corona would have played out if government had required citizens to pay for the whole thing upfront. Instead, our politicians tell us the testing and the vaccines are ‘free’. This kind of self-deception has become very common in modern democratic societies. Corona is different merely in the sheer magnitude of the deception.
The second problem is practical. Just like my lecturer said, there can be no guarantee that a branch will not fall off a tree. Similarly, there can be no guarantee that any person will not come down with viral respiratory disease. Governments were initially happy to allow the possibility of such a guarantee in the form of a vaccine but this was always a fantasy. It’s only now that the holes in this fantasy are starting to appear as we hear about yearly ‘booster’ shots and the fact that the ‘vaccine’ will not protect against infection in the first place. It was as if some group of arborists came into town and offered a treatment for the trees which would guarantee that the branches would never fall again. And we believed them. Only the branches continued to fall and the arborists changed their tune telling us we have to buy another treatment and we’ll have to buy a new treatment each year. The branches will keep falling but they will fall less frequently, whatever that means.
Of course, there’s no way to stop branches falling off trees and there’s no way to stop respiratory viral diseases from circulating. We already knew that. We’ll have to once again accept these basic facts of life as acts of nature and get on with it. We could do it tomorrow if the political will was there. Texas, Florida and others have already shown that. For the rest of us, we will just have to wait until our government feels able to allow reality to once again intervene in public affairs.
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