Radioactive Concrete, the Threat of Ebola and Fear

News that a ship laden with radioactive concrete is adrift in the North Sea and making for the Firth of Forth just about sums up the way in which our solutions to one problem tend to create others. Add in the unpredictability of wind and tide, and it is easy to see why some people want to retreat to a pre-industrial world of presumed safety and security in which there is no need for radioactive material to exist, let alone be disposed of. The truth is, of course, that there never has been a safe and secure world, if by safe and secure we mean one in which there is no risk, no danger, no possibility of disaster. As the Ebola epidemic begins to touch the lives of those of us in the West, we are forced to admit that we remain very vulnerable despite all our technological and medical advances. Nature has a way of slipping past our puny pitchforks.

Whether we face a deadly virus like Ebola or a shipload of radioactive material, fear can make us behave foolishly, sometimes even cruelly. Put baldly, we try to run away, either literally or metaphorically, abandoning others in our flight. We try to put a good gloss on it, of course, with our talk of being sensible or taking prudent precautions, but, deep down, we know that we are allowing fear to dictate our conduct. At the same time, such challenges can lead to acts of great selflessness and courage. I don’t know much about those dealing with the Pirada, but the number of doctors and nurses who have volunteered in this country alone to help try to stem the tide of Ebola is heart-warming. Those of us who lack their skills must salute their bravery and do what we can to support them — with our money, our prayer and our concern for their families. That is our role. A single shipload of radioactive concrete may be unlikely to do very much damage; we already know what Ebola can do and can guess at the rest.