For most of human history, the focus of society was on the material side. Progress was about increasing the material wellbeing of people. In fact, political philosophy was solely focused on material well-being. The great battle in the West was over what sort of political economy would provide the most stuff for the most people. Eventually, liberal democracy won over communism. Then the debate subtly changed from material well-being to the overall safety of people. Safety is the new goal.
For example, an increasingly common thing if you work in an office is the notice that the vents will be cleaned one night. You are told to expect some disruption of your day or maybe some things will be moved around in the office. A crew comes in to clean the vents for so everyone is safe. Residential rental properties are now required in most states to have the dryer vents cleaned once a year. In some states, home owners are required to do this too. Vent cleaning is a thing now.
It is more than just a thing. It is a booming little niche business. According to one of the rapidly growing vent cleaning companies, the demand for vent cleaning is growing at close to four percent per year. They say that the increased awareness to the dangers posed by home clothes dryers is what is driving the growth. The claim is the number of accidents caused by these appliances is making people suspicious of what’s happening in those vents, so they want all the vets cleaned regularly.
Of course, This is true to a great degree. In the office space, people have come to believe that whatever is being cleaned out of those heat and air conditioning ducts is bad for the people inside the offices. Sick building syndrome is one of those things people have come to accept without question. The same is true of the dangers posed by the common household dryer. Mention this to someone and they will claim that clothes dryers cause a lot of fires every year.
Interestingly, none of this is true. According to the government, there are about 2900 dryer fires per year. There is no data on fires caused by debris or dust in the ventilation ducts of buildings. The damage resulting from those dryer fires total $35 million per year. Only about a third is caused by too much fuzz in the dryer vent, so that means it is a $12 million problem. Put another way, we have a $350 million dollar industry to solve a problem a bit less serious than bathtub drownings.
The other odd thing about the vent cleaning craze is that people don’t bother questioning it. They just assume it is a real thing. If you ask someone about the dryer vent business, they will fight you about the facts, claiming that clothes dryers have always been a menace. If you point out the facts, they get mad at you, as if you are questioning a tenant of their religion. Seemingly out of nowhere, vent cleaning has become an important part of keeping us safe.
That is the key to it. Safety has become something of a religion. After all, you can never be too safe. We know this because we are constantly being told by the mass media and our government that we can never be too safe. We spent trillions waging a crusade against Muslims because we had to be safe from terror. We are now spending trillions on Covid, so we can be safe from illness. We’re all in this together, whether we like it or not, because our safety is what matters.
This explains, in part, the bizarre over reaction we saw from our rulers over the protests in Washington. These are the high priests of the cult of safety. They live the safest of lives and depend on faith in safety for their existence. This reminder that no one can ever be truly safe, especially the rulers of a society, was like telling them that their gods are completely fake. They proved that was a lie by turning their palaces into fortified bunkers guarded by heavily armed soldiers.
An easy to miss subtext to the continued lockdowns is the claim that working at home is safer than going to the office. Children at school skin knees and bump their heads, which does not happen when schools are closed. Fewer people commuting means fewer car accidents. The annual flu has been eradicated, they claim, because everyone stays home, instead of mingling with the public. Even if our heroes defeat Covid, staying home is just safer and safer is always better.
There is an obvious problem with this. It is really hard to run a human society when everyone is locked in their pods. Some people can work at home, for sure, but most people need supervision. We are social animals and our sense of self is tied to our participation in our group. This extends to society as a whole. People in isolation from one another or isolated into little tribes lose their group identity. They begin to take on the mentality of prisoners, rather than citizens.
There are also the diminishing returns. The dryer vent business is a great example of how not to solve a problem. An iron rule of life is the solution can never be more expensive than the problem. The dryer vent issue is a great example of how the price of being safer far outweighs the value of being safer. We have long since passed the point of diminishing returns regarding safety. Since there is no limiting principle to the religion of safety, we keep trying anyway, despite the cost.
An easy to overlook angle here is the fact that these efforts to insulate ourselves from risk must fail. The dominant justification for the current arrangements is that it is making us safer. At some point, something bad happens and people will suddenly be less safe. A recession, for example. The gods of safety will be proven to be false or feckless gods. Faith depends on confirmation and nothing harms a religion like a bit of disconfirmation, which in this case is inevitable.
Then again, perhaps we have reached the point in our development that the Eloi reached in the novel Time Machine. The protagonist, having observed the Eloi, the humans of the future, noted that “strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness.” That is modern people. We are now too weak and feeble to question our arrangements. Instead, all that matters is the sense of safety and security, whether is real or imagined. Safety is now our god.
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