From the spirit of Shackleton to ‘cotton-wool kids’: have we become too risk averse?

Saturday 21 October, 15:1516:30, National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EWUK satellites

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This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Edinburgh, a day of debates at the National Library of Scotland. Full details and tickets here.

In 1914, Ernest Shackleton and his crews in two ships set sail for the Antarctic in an attempt to complete the first crossing of the continent. The expedition was beset by problems, however, and the name of Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, was to prove prophetic. The ship was wrecked, but despite near disaster in hellish conditions, only three members of the expedition party died. The expedition is a watchword for ambitious risk-taking and overcoming adversity.

A century on from Shackleton’s return in 1917, has this spirit of risk-taking been undermined? While celebrity adventurers like Bear Grylls draw huge audiences, in everyday life, children have less and less independence to travel and play freely, rarely given the opportunity to develop the self-reliance of previous generations. On the one hand, this suggests a tendency towards avoiding risky situations, but could it also mean an inability to prepare for or cope with adverse situations when they do arise? More broadly, debates about everything from health to fire safety, post Grenfell Tower, seem to over-react to relatively minor risks.

Are we too risk averse today or is a sense of precaution more rational? What are the implications for the future of society if we emphasise safety over risk-taking?