Monday, July 03, 2006

Risk

After several years of living in France, the American expatriate might conclude that the country is more risk averse than the USA. The French – and European - aversion to risk is both very true … and not true at all, Amerloque feels. It all depends on the issue.

In Amerloque's view, probably no recent event symbolizes European aversion to risk as the story of Bruno.


In at least three European countries (France, Austria, Italy), the European Union, over the past decade or so, has piloted a program to reintroduce bears into the wild. Born in Italy just over two years ago, Bruno the brown bear, weighing 90 kilograms (about 200 pounds) apparently migrated sometime in late April or early May to the Austrian Tyrol. For several weeks, he snacked bloodily on sheep, chickens and rabbits, as he moved from Austria into the Bavarian Alps, where no bear had been seen for 170 years. He became a media sensation, providing much-needed counterpoint to the World Cup coverage, while officials became increasingly worried about what would happen if Bruno came into contact with a human. The International Herald Tribune reported:

When Bavarian officials issued an order in May allowing hunters to shoot the bear, they were harshly criticized. The chairman of the German Environmental Protection Federation, Hubert Weinzierl, described the decision as "typically German."

A week ago, Bavaria rescinded the order.


In spite of the continuing media circus, and the fact that in the Tyrol, for example, a newspaper poll found that 90 percent of the respondents opposed killing the bear, Bruno's respite was short-lived. Just over a week ago the shoot-to-kill order was restored … and Bruno was shot by an unidentified hunter near a lake in the southern Bavarian district of Miesbach in the early hours of Monday, June 26. In its coverage the IHT said:

Critics condemned the shooting, with some demanding a police investigation. The president of the German Environmental Protection Association, Hubert Weinzierl, said it was the "dumbest of all solutions." Bavaria had rescinded an earlier order to shoot Bruno after coming under intense public pressure.

Ehlers said the episode would force Germany to develop a policy for handling wild bears, which had not been seen in Bavarian Alps for at least 170 years. Bruno's body, officials said, will be preserved and put on display at the Museum of Man and Nature in Munich.


Amerloque finds the whole episode particularly European – and frustratingly sad.

Here is a well-intentioned, successful European program: the reintroduction of a seriously endangered species into the wild. Bravo – well done ! Yet the movers and shakers and decisionmakers in Germany – supposedly the most ecologically aware, the "greenest" European country - could not even put together and manage a team skilled enough to track one bear, tranquilize it, cage it, and donate it to a zoo ! Furthermore, in their own words, the German authorities don't seem to have thought the consequences of the European bear reintroduction program through very well. What did they think was going to happen ? Did they assume that the wild bear(s) roaming in the Tyrolean Alps would stop at the Austrian border ?

Finally, the authorities are going to have Bruno stuffed and displayed in a museum ! Again, what do they think will happen – that "green" tourists will come to see him ? What is far more likely - this is Amerloque's hope, at any rate - is that at least one politically-incorrect German father or mother will bring the children en passant and say "Here is Bruno, you know, that bear you saw on TV. The pusillanimous, frightened authorities had him shot and stuffed - to protect you, so they say. Don't trust your lives to those kinds of unprepared people. Remember Bruno."

This was European risk aversion carried to a ridiculous extreme, Amerloque feels. The German authorities demonstrated arrogant incompetence, and Bruno paid the price. Museumgoers in Munich will henceforth be encouraged to gloat over his remains.

As far as risk in Europe is concerned, now might be a time to take a quick look at it, at least before Bruno is forgotten by the media.

For years, the Old World, i.e., Western Europe, has been perceived almost by definition as being more risk averse than the New World. The classic view, fostered and maintained by the media for many, many years and brandished as proof time and time again, is that one emigrates from a country in the stale, ossified Old World and arrives in the dynamic, open New World, where there are allegedly far fewer rules and regulations. The "individual" is "emphasized" in the New World, while he or she supposedly is not in the Old World.

By a quick, sleight-of-hand shift in reasoning (extrapolating supposed "individualism" to a general American case), the media, economists and politicians trumpet that the European societal model – and most particularly the French one – is antediluvian, out of date, and, in a word, "kaput". It has been "superseded" and rendered "obsolete" by the far more efficient American system. Columns of statistics and reams of paper are brought out almost ad nauseam to support this view. The pundits say that European economies are "struggling" because the Europeans are not willing to "take risks", that entrepreneurship is "unrewarded", and that Europe must adapt.

Amerloque feels that there are several things wrong with that perception of European attitude to risk.

One error is forgetting that the histories of Europe and the USA are not the same. There is a strong humanist philosophy in Europe, in many cases enshrined in constitution and law, which is absent from American society. One might even argue that this humanism – especially in France - has to some extent replaced organized religion, reserving to the state activities formerly carried out by religion – including but not limited to caring for and educating the poor and the disadvantaged. In the USA, organized religion has remained strong and vibrant, while humanistic values are somewhat absent from the law. Moreover, in Europe, sharing the wealth has become as important as producing it. The individual (as well as personal data about the individual by the way !) is precious and deserves nurturing and protection.

Amerloque feels that a second error in the US perception of Europe (shared by some untrammeled-free-market Europeans, of course) is that Americans simply fail to see how skeptical Europeans are concerning the wisdom of using force in all cases to resolve issues – at least where animals such as Bruno are not involved, Amerloque hastens to add. After two murderous wars in the 20th century, Europeans came together and decided that, at least among themselves, on the European continent, force would no longer be an acceptable method of solving problems. The American economic model is seen as a kind of social darwinism that rewards force and punishes weakness – attitudes which are no longer part of mainstream European thinking. For better or for worse.

A third error is misunderstanding – or simple ignorance of - the facts. Even some French politicians, CEOs and commentators (who should know better, after all, given the complexities of French society !) are prone to joining their American counterparts in mistaking their desires for realities. Take, for example, the incessant referrals to "the Scandinavian model", its alleged virtues and its possible adoption in France. On closer examination, the inadequacy of such as course for the current (economic) situation becomes apparent, at least to Amerloque: for the economic success of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden has everything to do with the fact that they are small countries with relatively homogeneous populations.

Denmark -- 5,450,661 (July 2006 estimated population)
Finland -- 5,231,372
Norway -- 4,610,820
Sweden -- 9,016,596

Total: 24,309,449 (estimated population)

That's something like 38% of the French nation (population is approximately 63,000;000) … and about 5% of the total population of the European Union (approximately 460,000,000) !

It's as though an American, referring to problems in California and Arizona and Texas, were to say "Hey, look what they're doing in New Hampshire as a solution to the suchandsuch problem – let's do it here ! We have the same problem !" without seeing a) what the problem really is and b) just why whatever "solution" it is works in New Hampshire and c) just what the ramifications are (e.g., brown bears don't stop at borders marked on a map, right ?). In France, upscaling Scandinavian procedures and solutions to the entire heterogeneous population – and the host of problems - would be no easy task, nor would it necessarily be successful. Danish unemployment is not the same as French unemployment, nor are Finnish natural resources the same as French natural resources, for example.

Finally, a fourth and last error in the American perception of Europe is simply disregard of human nature. Europeans – at least Western Europeans, and more particularly the French - basically have built societies they want, are comfortable with and intend to improve, slowly but surely. Voluntarily selling, giving away or otherwise disposing of the putative bird in the hand for the hypothetical bird in the bush is simply not the French way (un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras), notwithstanding the French foundation and continuing membership of the European Union, of course. Not until all remedies, plans and correctives have been exhausted will the French accept certain aspects of the American model to relaunch the economy. Nevertheless, hearing politicians and pundits say "It'll be better tomorrow if you do this today !" is beginning to wear a bit thin in Paris. The French saying "promises only commit those who listen to them" (les promesses n'engagent que ceux qui les écoutent) is beginning to take on all of its meaning nowadays – and this will probably be reflected in the elections next year.

Perception of risk is different, here in Europe.

As Amerloque previously, there is a program to reintroduce bears in France, too. It's happening down in the Pyrénées, in the Ariège where in November, 2004, the last, the final, remaining native bear, Cannelle, was "accidentally" shot by a hunter during a boar hunt. Since then several Slovenian bears have been freed in the mountains, their traditional habitat.

The local French hunters and herdsmen have repeatedly demonstrated loudly and somewhat violently against the "new" bears, the last two of which were recently released in secret so that they wouldn't be blown away "by accident". The French Minister of Ecology has supposedly postponed the release of the fifth and last bear until the situation calms down … which is why the affaire Bruno was not overly emphasized on French TV and radio. To minimize the risk for French bears.

As Gabriel Schwaderer, director of the European Nature Heritage Fund, said after the shooting of Bruno:

"We consider the decision by the Bavarian government to be wrong, because it was based only on the fact that the bear was getting close to human habitation," Schwaderer said.

"If this is to be the yardstick for the right to life of brown bears then the outlook is bleak for European bears."




L'Amerloque

Update on July 24th: Off on a break to prepare for vacation ! Back soon !


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque
Photo © Copyright 2006 by Anton Hoetzelsperger (AFP/AFP/DDP)

4 Comments:

Blogger LASunsett said...

Hello l'Amerloque,

Take, for example, the incessant referrals to "the Scandinavian model", its alleged virtues and its possible adoption in France. On closer examination, the inadequacy of such as course for the current (economic) situation becomes apparent, at least to Amerloque: for the economic success of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden has everything to do with the fact that they are small countries with relatively homogeneous populations.

When I encounter the argument for the implementation of the Scandinavian model in America, this is precisely the argument that I make.

It cannot work here, for the same reasons that it likely will not work in France.

Good article, sir. I really enjoyed it.

5:53 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi LASunsett !

It cannot work here, for the same reasons that it likely will not work in France.

Yes. One can call it "The Scandinavian Myth" ! (wide smile)

Thanks for stopping by - and, of course, you are welcome anytime !

Best,
L'Amerloque

12:01 AM  
Blogger junonjul said...

'tis a rare pleasure to read such a thoughtful, well balanced analysis on the net.

Merci de la part d'une française qui a passé pas mal d'années en "exil" aux Etats-Unis!

4:32 AM  
Blogger La Rêveuse said...

Excellent post! Even from the POV of an americaine d'origine norvegien--very interesting take on the French society.

I have to say, the Scandinavian culture is definitely different than many others--I grew up in a fairly homogenous scandinavian area, and things that are just "normal" to us, are not necessarily that way for the rest of the world. (And you can't just choose to be like us, either--but honestly, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it!)

Have a great vacation, Sven! (in honor of this post, of course.)

1:39 AM  

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