The Tragic Practice of Prevention

Pol Bargués (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs) and Jessica Schmidt (Independent Researcher)

The ideas of resilience and security are increasingly linked to prevention and early action in global security governance. Policy programmes assist societies to become resilient by preventing violent extremism through inclusive development or preventing conflicts by defusing tensions and engaging with civil society actors. Clearly, preventing a conflict, a disaster, or the spread of a virus is not as epic as solving a conflict, recovering from a disaster or ending a pandemic. Images of prevention are rarely spectacular (the cover of an influential UN report on conflict prevention is just a woman placing a candle in a religious site). Prevention does not mobilise the attention of the media or set ephemerides. Yet the logic is that ‘preventing conflicts is more efficient and effective than engaging with crises after they break out. Once a conflict does erupt, it typically becomes ever more intractable over time’, recognised the EU in its Global Strategy of 2016.

In this short essay, we delve into practices of prevention to draw put some unique features of today’s ever-expanding regimes of governance. While traditional framings of prevention mainly centred on removing immediate threats to international security, via quick and targeted diplomatic, police or military action, today’s logic of prevention is different: prevention assumes both the impossibility to get satisfactory results and the need for further action. It demands prudent people, workaholic policymakers, and sleepless nights. In the following we show this by looking into two examples of practicesof prevention from our everyday experiences (prevention of accidents in forestry and of Covid-19 contagion) that are representative of broader imaginaries of governance.  

 

Little fires everywhere: Preventing accidents in work life

The world of forests, chainsaws and tree felling is embedded in discourses of occupational health and safety.[1] There is a constant concern with prevention. Undeniably, there is a very legitimate reason to be concerned with prevention: accidents occur and, tragically, they are sometimes lethal.

These discourses of prevention are firmly rooted in a Cartesian–Newtonian imaginary where humans stand apart from their environment. In this imaginary, accidents can be reduced to causes. Once analysed, those causes can be eliminated. Choice-making is assumed to be rational. ‘Wrong’ choices – choices that have led to accidents – are a consequence of irrationality: bad leadership, insufficient competences, standard working procedures not fully complied with, sloppiness, etc. Problematised as a function of rationality/irrationality, the underlying working assumption is always: accidents can be prevented.

As part of a global initiative in occupational health and safety that started in 2013, all major occupational social insurers in Germany have adopted ‘Vision Zero’. Vision Zero is based on three principles: First, ‘every accident is avoidable’. Secondly, ‘accidents do not occur at random’, and thirdly, ‘learning is key to success’ (DGUV Prevention Yearbook 2014/15: 31). The proclaimed goal of Vision Zero is to prevent any occupational accident from happening. ‘Considered utopian only a few years ago, this goal is now becoming more and more realistic’, reads the enthusiastic declaration (DGUV Prevention Yearbook 2014/15: 31).

What does this seemingly heroic aim of total prevention imply for governance? It starts with the way accidents must necessarily be framed in the prevention paradigm. Not as singular occurrences – triggered by fate, destiny or God’s will – but as cracks in a potentially perfect system. This system is man-made, controlled and considered controllable by humans. Each accident, therefore, signals the absence of proper regulation, indicates lack of governance and necessitates better procedures to follow (Zwetsloot et al. 201: 43; Hohnen and Hasle 2011). As a sign, each accident must therefore be generalised and abstracted into a new norm, regulation or procedure, a new form to be filled in, a new behavioural guideline to follow. Then the difference between the concrete and the abstract collapses.

Constant failure and frustrations are consequently built into the practice of this prevention regime. As long as accidents are considered preventable – and all else seems inhuman – safety managers necessarily become frustrated by each and every accident. ‘It was preventable!’, they claim. The safety managers have failed, once again, and are called into action, once again.

Each time they take action workers’ work life is intervened upon. ‘You make our work impossible!’, they therefore shout at the safety managers. Workers in such environments of high preventionism become frustrated as they are to be turned into robots. They need to learn not only to fell trees safely but also to hold on to handrails when using stairs, or not to chew on pencil caps to avoid suffocation – all in the name of their humanity. At the receiving end of incessant intervention, they are constantly called upon to diligently follow new procedures and regulations. Workers become constantly problematised in their very decision-making and there is no end in sight. Vision Zero ‘invites us to a process that is never finally completed’ (DGUV Forum (2020): 19, our translation).

It is hard to argue against a vision that seeks to eliminate all accidents in the name of workers’ health, safety and wellbeing. Who would not agree that the prevention of suffering, of bodily integrity and so on is not a basic human right? In the name of human rights, prevention becomes a highly productive, endless, self-reproducing intervention machine. ‘We must intervene more’, proclaims the Director General of the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV Prevention Yearbook 2014/15: 11). The legitimacy of prevention knows no limits. As long as there are accidents, further measures for prevention seem not only to constantly call upon those who must design them, but also are beyond question and critique by those in whose name these measures are taken. 

 

Viruses everywhere: Preventing the spread of Covid-19

In 2020 and 2021, national lockdowns that instruct people to stay at home and social distancing measures have been imposed worldwide to control the Covid-19 pandemic. In bouncing forward to a new normality where societies must learn to live with the virus, a regime of prevention has been installed by authorities, doctors, celebrities, the media, and fellow citizens. Individuals must act extremely cautiously, even ‘overreact’ and ‘panic early’, to avoid contagion (Cobb 2020). Even when there is apparently little risk of transmitting the virus, the precautionary principle applies. In framings that call for extreme precaution, one single individual is a potential risk for the whole because of the endless unknowns and what ifs (what if I am asymptomatic, what if the surface is infected, what if the virus travels widely in aerosol particles?) and the high degree of connectivity of our lives (Taleb and Norman 2020).

Like the discourses of safety in the forestry world, who can argue against a regime of prevention? Wave after wave, the virus has decimated entire families, collapsed hospitals, and sunk business, often harming the most vulnerable. An outbreak here may lead to a catastrophe somewhere else. Thus, the need for extreme precaution to prevent contagion has turned into a mantra, an omnipotent social consensus, that is celebrated, lectured, and enforced. 

However, like the discourses of safety to prevent accidents, precautionary approaches to stop contagion only work in theory. In practice, the erratic behaviour of the pandemic constantly frustrates acts of prevention. Unexpectedly, sometimes those who throw caution out of the window are well and healthy, while the most careful, conscientious citizen became infected. ‘Where could this happen? What might she have possibly overlooked?’, ask her colleagues. The disease spreads non-linearly and resurges or disappears startlingly. When an outbreak occurs, the blame is on hubristic, careless, self-centred individuals who were not cautious enough. Everyone seems unsatisfied, regretful, and winces at others' behaviour. Authorities and medical experts lament that their recommendations are overlooked, while neighbours, colleagues and friends tell how others acted imprudently and egoistically. Society is exerting pressure on everyone to act always more sensibly.

The regime of precaution to stop the spread of Covid-19 is maddening because ethically it appears uttermost valuable, indisputable in theory, but even the most sensible, prudent gesture appears insufficient. In times of pandemic, one cannot be cautious or certain enough: How much distance should people keep? Is it save to meet, to travel, open businesses, or organise events? New restrictions, regulations, and recommendations are established. Generally, the more always the better.

 

Conclusion

What is striking in the paradigm of prevention is that it is ever-expanding, propelled by the aspiration to arrest the infinite and anticipate disaster. In practice, the logic is tragic: prevention seems always necessary, but it is always in the wrong. Prevention measures arrive a bit too late, or are insufficient, incomplete. In both examples ­– the prevention of accidents in occupational safety and of contagion in times of pandemic ­– authorities embrace the need to try and fail forward, and demand always more governance, regulation, and control. The idea of resilience finds its expression not only in the adaptation to shocks, disasters or crises, but also in the endless prevention of risks.
 


[1] I (Jessica Schmidt) have been working as manager of occupational competences and certifications of chainsaw operators since 2019 and before that was working as a lumberjack myself. These are reflections on some trends in the practice of prevention in forestry.

References

Cobb, Kurt. (2020). ‘Overreacting to coronavirus? The perverse logic of panic during a potential pandemic. Resource Insights’, available at: http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2020/03/overreacting-to-coronavirus-perverse.html (accessed March 30, 2021).

DGUV Prevention Yearbook 2014/15 (2015). ‘Vision Zero: One world, one vision, XX World Congress on Safety and Health at Work 2014’, Deutsche Gesetzliche Unfallversicherung, available at: https://publikationen.dguv.de/widgets/pdf/download/article/3030 (accessed March 30, 2021).

DGUV Forum (2020). DGUV Forum: ‘Der neue IVSS Leitfaden: Proaktive Steuerindikatoren für VISION ZERO,’ Deutsche Gesetzliche Unfallversicherung, available at: https://forum.dguv.de/ausgabe/10-2020/artikel/der-neue-ivss-leitfaden-proaktive-steuerindikatoren-fuer-vision-zero (accessed March 30, 2021).

Hohnen, Pernille & Hasle, Peter, (2011). ‘Making work environment auditable – a “critical case” study of certified occupational health and safety management systems in Denmark’, Safety Science, 49: 1022–1029.

Taleb, Nassim N., & Norman, Joe. (2020). ‘Ethics of precaution: Individual and systemic risk,’ Unpublished paper, available at: https://www.academia.edu/42223846/Ethics_of_Precaution_Individual_and_Systemic_Risk (accessed March 30, 2021).

Zwetsloot, Gerard. et al. (2013). ‘The case for research into the zero accident vision’, Safety Science, 58: 41–48.

About the Authors

Pol Bargués is fellow researcher at CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs). He was a postdoc fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, Duisburg, in 2015–2016. He is interested in the intersection of international relations and philosophy and critically examines debates on international intervention in conflict-affected societies.

Contact: pbargues@cidob.org


Jessica Schmidt is an independent researcher. She previously worked as a postdoc fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, Duisburg, Germany in 2014–2015. Her research focuses on discourse analysis, posthumanism, climate change, and resilience thinking.

Contact: schmidt.jessica2@gmail.com

 

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