Sebastián Crespo Photography/Getty Images

The Virus and the Volcano

…And Don’t Forget the Fugu


edward tenner, a research affiliate of the Smithsonian and Rutgers University, is currently a Visitor in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Published July 30, 2020


The Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder of some striking ironies about risk and our tolerance for it in contemporary life. First, in seeking and embracing safety, we have become so confident in our capacity to manage risk that we have inadvertently exposed ourselves to new perils. And second, even as we insist on levels of safety in most circumstances that our grandparents never dreamed of, enthusiasm for risk taking in activities ranging from extreme sports to adventure travel implies that many of us feel most alive at the edge of the precipice.

Traffic Jams on Everest

At the end of February, even as Covid-19 was breaking out of Asia, The New York Times reported predictions of a 40 percent increase in Antarctic cruises during the next Southern Hemisphere summer from November to March. It noted that the maiden Antarctic voyage of the Coral Princess (yes, sibling to the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess and Grand Princess) will offer relatively affordable rates to 2,000 passengers.

This, despite a warning from the State Department on the growing hazards of extreme weather. Indeed, the cruise companies themselves are not ignorant of this new reality; many are requiring proof of coverage for emergency airlift and treatment in the nearest hospital for passengers on their adventurous routes. Evacuation and repatriation from ships hundreds or even thousands of miles from civilization, by the way, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nor was Antarctica the most extreme form of adventure travel still flourishing in the early weeks of the pandemic. The New York Times reported “a growing crowd of Instagram- conscious adrenaline junkies planning to try Mt. Everest, many of them with little to no climbing experience” – and all this despite 2019’s nightmarish traffic jams of climbers at high altitude and, by no coincidence, multiple deaths.

Capitalism, it seems, has led us in into a perilous place: the marketing of perceived safety that lowers our guard to risk and invites our indulgence in dangerous activities, on the assumption that technology will always be there to save us. Cruise ships are a case in point. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that from 2008 to 2014, years in which all international cruise ships stopping at U.S. ports were regulated under the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program, just one in 600 passengers suffered from what was long the bane of ocean travel, acute gastroenteritis. There is still sickness and death on cruises, but not more than on land.

David Sacks/Getty Images

Indeed, patrons had reason to believe that a cruise was safer than air or surface transportation (combined with a stay abroad). Vessels like the Diamond Princess are triumphs of computer-enhanced design, making them among the largest and most technologically complex machines that have ever existed. The latest generation are longer than 1,092-foot Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and can transport more people.

Whatever their environmental impact, the cruise lines otherwise seemed a model of operational competence until the pandemic struck. Last year the U.S. Navy asked Carnival Cruises, the Diamond Princess’s owner, for help in improving the maintenance of its carriers. Statistics show why: in 2019, shiprelated deaths on cruises amounted to just one in 6.25 million passengers, nearly equal to the airlines’ gold standard of one in 7 million.

In 2019, ship-related deaths on cruises amounted to just one in 6.25 million passengers, nearly equal to the airlines’ gold standard of one in 7 million.

Coronavirus demonstrated the Achilles heel of risk management – the difficulty in planning for risk where experience can be misleading. The cruise industry was familiar with management of another pathogen, norovirus, which attacks the digestive system (“food poisoning”) rather than the lungs and is responsible for 400,000 annual emergency room visits in the United States. The far more lethal Covid-19 behaves differently.

In February, the Telegraph of London featured a piece on Carnival Lines’ Center for Simulator Maritime Training Academy near Amsterdam, where the company’s bridge and engineering officers learn to cope with emergencies from fire to collision to terrorism. Keeping an upbeat tone, the writer declared that such realistic training “should also have helped manage” the quarantine of the Diamond Princess after Japanese authorities refused to allow it to dock during the coronavirus epidemic. But it turned out that computer simulation had its limits.

Densely populated crew quarters let the virus spread rapidly, yet the ship would cease essential functions if staff were locked down. Japanese authorities’ refusal to let the ship dock for two weeks made it inevitable that the virus would infect more passengers as asymptomatic crew members continued to deliver meals. During the quarantine, over 700 passengers and crew were infected, and four died.

But the failure to contain Covid-19 on an otherwise well-managed cruise ship revealed a second weakness: dependence on the safety of interconnected systems. In March another Carnival cruise ship, the Grand Princess, was held in quarantine off the port of Oakland after returning from Hawaii. One passenger on a previous cruise to Mexico was thought to have spread the infection to crew members, 19 of whom as well as two passengers tested positive for the virus.

Meanwhile it was discovered that a smaller cruise ship on the Nile had spread the virus to its passengers from around the world, including six who returned to Maryland and 12 to Texas. A retired couple from Pennsylvania chose Egypt in part because it had reported no Covid-19 cases and seemed as far as possible from the epidemic’s origins in China. By March 17, dozens of other ships around the world with tens of thousands of passengers were reported stranded, and Carnival had voluntarily suspended Princess cruises for two months.

The pandemic affected adventure travel, too. Nepal shut down access to Everest, and the near-paralysis of global air travel alone ruled out similar expeditions. Yet the epidemic helps us see why dangerous activities have been so attractive in the first place. While passengers on vessels like the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess seek safety and comfort, other travelers crave adventure – which entails uncertainty and just the right amount of danger.

Technology has enabled a greater range of people to engage in adventure sports and adventure tourism. Most obviously, it has sharply cut the time and cost to reach the desired venue, and it has improved on-site communication. But technology has yielded subtler improvements, too. In the 1960s, improved parachute designs enabled gentler landings and plastic astronaut-style helmets afforded additional protection, opening sport jumping to civilians. And in the more established sport of mountaineering, a host of apparently modest technological advances have attracted a mass following. Nylon and polyester rope have virtually banished the nightmare of breakage, while the elasticity of these materials has usually reduced damage from minor missteps to bruises. New materials also make possible more extreme sports like wingsuit flying and base jumping.

The Fiery Domain of Hephaestus

The most striking counterpoint to the Diamond Princess ordeal is not climbing but another growing adventure activity: volcano tourism, which has become popular enough to warrant an entire textbook for nature tourism planners, Volcano and Geothermal Tourism. If a luxury cruise between port excursions is an experience of abstraction from terra firma, volcano tourism is the most intense form of engagement.

Nobody embarks on a megaship like the Diamond Princess primarily for spiritual or intellectual insight, but one of the main attractions of volcano tourism is direct exposure to some of the most primal processes at work in a dynamic planet. It reveals that the blue marble seen by space tourists – the one percent of the one percent of adventure travelers – is an illusion. The fiery domain of Hephaestus is closer to reality than the arc of Apollo.

And yes, volcano tourism provides the treasured experience: the perception of wellmanaged danger. The question is whether the perception can be delivered without the risk.

White Island is a privately owned nature reserve off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It is a conical volcano (like Vesuvius) located in the Ring of Fire, where the oceanic plate slips. On December 9, 2019, 47 tourists were visiting the uninhabited island, where the volcano had been dormant for a hundred years. The official threat level was at its second lowest (a “2”), and the tour organizers had an excellent safety record. But with hot magma near the surface, and with a sea-level crater that could be seen without climbing, there was always a small but real chance that a change in the level of sea water, or some other small disturbance, could trigger an eruption.

Whatever the cause, in the early afternoon, superheated steam, caustic ash and boulders the size of beachballs were suddenly ejected some two miles into the air. Twenty-one of the visitors perished. The New Zealand military was able to rescue the other 26, many of whom suffered horrific burns, including lung injuries from aspirating ash and gases.

The White Island eruption followed a pattern all too common in our search for safe adventure. The greatest menace to steamships 100 years ago was fog, not sea ice, and the Titanic sank on an unusually clear night. The Hindenburg had flown nearly 200,000 miles, some during thunderstorms and lightning at sea, without a mishap. And as we have seen, the safety record of cruise lines in the decade before the arrival of the coronavirus had been impressive. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the casualties of the volcano were passengers of Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas, who had chosen the $320 excursion rather than a visit to the Lord of the Rings film set.

Together, cruising and volcano tourism – ironically, sometimes by the same people – embody the complexity of our attitudes toward safety and danger. Before the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 outbreak, we perceived ourselves as living in a world of managed hazards, our lives guided by professionals in medicine, engineering and finance.

Before the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 outbreak, we perceived ourselves as living in a world of managed hazards, our lives guided by professionals in medicine, engineering and finance.

We could not eliminate danger. But we could optimize the trade-off between risk and expected reward by spreading its costs through insurance and reducing risk through regulation when consumers cannot obtain adequate information. Yet there is no collective memory that ties disparate risky events such as the mass viral illness on the Diamond Princess and the White Island catastrophe to a centuries-long process. It is time for a survey.

King George II Goes to War

Risk culture can be divided into three ages: heroism, rationalization and precaution. Recent research suggests that it would be wrong to call medieval society fatalistic. The era saw great successes in managing the environment, especially the control of flooding in the Netherlands. While theories of the plague and most proposed remedies seem bizarre to us now, we are still relying mainly on an innovation from 14th-century Venice, the quarantine, to manage poorly understood pathogens.

Yet there are differences, too. For one thing, there was little understanding of occupational safety and health for the great majority of subsistence farmers and urban artisans. More surprising to 21st-century people is the embrace of danger by the upper classes as a source of prestige, which offers a faint precursor to adventure tourism.

A recent Metropolitan Museum exhibition highlighted the importance of physical danger for the renown of Emperor Maximilian I of Austria (who reigned from 1508 to 1519). Maximilian invited challenges from the most feared professional soldiers of his time, sometimes fighting in tournaments with sharp lances, clad in full body armor while struggling with opponents on foot with swords and axes – and then celebrating his triumphs with works by some of the leading artists of his time despite the ruinous drain on his treasury.

Aristocratic women also participated in the culture of risk. Maximilian’s first wife, the immensely wealthy heiress Mary of Burgundy, was an enthusiastic hunter who succumbed after her horse tripped and fell on her.

The knightly ideal of risk never died in the world’s militaries, but by the 18th century it had faded away among rulers. George II was the last king of England to lead troops personally into battle (in 1743 at Dettingen, now part of Bavaria).

In the same age, what might be called risk management took hold. The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 shocked Europeans, who believed in a well-ordered universe. Was it literally an act of God? If so, why were so many churches destroyed?

The rational era evolved into a preventive age, perhaps symbolized by Ralph Nader’s campaign against the Chevrolet Corvair in the United States, which gave us the ideal of a society that could anticipate future tragedies.

The Marquis de Pombal, Portugal’s prime minister at the time, acted more like a technocrat than a theologian. Pombal may or may not have literally ordered, “Bury the dead and feed the living,” but his book of principles for disaster relief is still cited today. Employing what amounted to dictatorial powers, he supervised the rebuilding of the city as a model of health and earthquake resistance. (One economic historian even argues that the earthquake was, on balance, a net benefit to the Portuguese economy.)

Pombal, and contemporaries like Benjamin Franklin with his lightning rod, introduced the idea that rational planning could prevent, mitigate and speed recovery from natural hazards. Enlarged cadres of bureaucrats began to inspect and manage every detail of life. And private insurance companies – also pioneered by Franklin – began to make danger more tolerable by spreading its costs among subscribers. Vaccination, a technological breakthrough of the highest order, began to control the universally feared smallpox.

Some remnants of an older fatalistic culture persisted. In Redditch, England, a town that long dominated European manufacture of sewing needles, the final stage of polishing filled the air with deadly metal dust and abrasives. The young men who had mastered this art typically died in their twenties, accepting the danger that made them some of England’s best-paid workers. Indeed, they seemed to glory in it, refusing to wear uncomfortable masks intended to protect their lungs from the dust.

The fatalistic, fast-living Redditch pointers eventually had to accept improved ventilation – and reduced pay as the price of longevity. The new workshop fans were just a start. Beginning in the mid-19th century, a wave of patents bore “safety” in their titles: matches, pins, razors, lamps for miners, brakes for trains. Lifeboats and life preservers became standard equipment for both ship’s crews and passengers.

Some of these innovations introduced new perils – what economists call examples of “moral hazard.” At first mine owners seized on safety lamps as an excuse for deeper and more dangerous shafts. Surgeons had to develop special instruments and techniques to extract open safety pins from children’s throats. Even so, few doubted that ingenuity could, on balance, save lives.

Ron Kimball/Kimball Stock
Unsafe At Any Speed?

This age of risk management lasted well into the 20th century, when critics warned that safer design was needed to prevent, rather than just mitigate, danger. Governments, it was argued, were responsible for ensuring the health of all members of society through preventive medicine. The rational era evolved into a preventive age, perhaps symbolized by Ralph Nader’s campaign against the Chevrolet Corvair in the United States, which gave us the ideal of a society that could anticipate future tragedies.

Some social scientists have written about a “risk society” as a new form of modernity in which all forms of danger are managed. Many Europeans embraced the idea in the form of the precautionary principle, which placed a burden of proving safety more squarely on manufacturers than American regulation has done. And the transformation of HIV infection from a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness suggested that technology could master the gravest natural risk.

The Covid-19 pandemic may well follow a parallel course – never has so much technological expertise been mobilized so quickly to solve a biomedical problem. But it has shown how myopic we have been to depend so heavily on science to come to the rescue. The coronavirus pandemic promises to introduce a new era, one we cannot name yet because we know too little about the epidemic’s origins and about how social institutions enabled its spread.

Virus and Volcano, Redux

The virus and the volcano now appear as the two faces of danger in the 21st century. The virus is uncanny – a threat that eludes conventional perception. It is neither a living thing like a bacterium nor an inanimate structure like a mineral. Viruses are so small that all but the freakishly large ones could be photographed only after the invention of the electron microscope. The virus is a vampire depending on living cells to reproduce and harvest energy. Yet natural selection has made some successful viruses alarmingly cunning, staying their effects for weeks as though they had planned a stealth campaign of conquest.

The volcano, by contrast, is sublime – a defiant force of nature sometimes literally in your face. Philosophers, at the dawn of the romantic age, defined the sublime as the aweinspiring, terrifying, mysterious features of the world that remind us of our mortality, but thereby paradoxically affirm the power of our reason in their presence. This seems prescient in explaining the growing popularity not only of volcano tourism but of tornado chasing.

The rationalists of the 18th century saw the volcano as a symbol of the secularization of the world view. No longer was lava evidence of the nearness of hell, as many medieval churchmen considered it. It was a natural process, and demonstrating a lack of fear of it could signify faith in the Enlightenment and the age of reason. In 1767, the archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann and two aristocratic friends defied the fears of their pious Neapolitan guide and servants by organizing a picnic on Mount Vesuvius during an eruption, stripping off their own clothing in the heat before their perilous meal. It wasn’t the first naked lunch, but it was one of the first recorded episodes of adventure tourism.

Put another way, there may be a paradoxical relationship between the precautionary society and the quest for risk. Science and technology sometimes seem to make the sublime safe – a danger, but in manageable form. Tourists in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, reopened by the Ukrainian government for limited tourism, can hear the click of Geiger counters with only a frisson of peril.

Rowell Porrad/Eyeem/Getty Images
… And The Fugu

The most telling example of the market for controlled danger is blowfish gastronomy. There are many species of poisonous fish of the family Tetraodontidae, slow swimmers that discourage predators by inflating themselves with air – and harbor a deadly poison as further insurance.

Daring fate by eating fugu (one of the Tetraodontidae) is not an ancient Japanese tradition. It is more a product of the modernization of the Meiji era of the late 19th century, when Japan’s first prime minister, himself an aficionado, lifted a centuries-old ban. (It remained illegal to serve it to the Emperor.)

The species favored by Japanese gourmets ever since contains a neurotoxin 1,200 times more deadly per milligram than cyanide, and many Japanese, mainly fisherman unaware of the danger, have died from consuming them. But victims have also included risk-seeking celebrities like the kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, a “living national treasure” who ate one blowfish liver too many times and succumbed in 1975.

There may be a paradoxical relationship between the precautionary society and the quest for risk, that seem to make the sublime safe – a danger, but in manageable form.

What makes fugu such a perfect study in the appetite for risk is that, according to those who have tried it at restaurants offering carefully regulated preparations, the flesh of the fish is not exceptionally tasty. Fugu chefs have many ways to enhance the appearance by the most delicate slicing, and the taste by exquisite sauces. But the point, as with tourism to active volcanoes, is a controlled sublime experience in sidling up to the edge of death.

Farmed non-toxic blowfish have long been available, but purists dismiss the concept. What diners are buying is the knowledge that the chef has spent years in training to safely remove the poisonous parts of the fish, a triumph of human mastery over nature and death. While in principle all traces of the neurotoxin should be removed, chefs sometimes leave a very slight amount on their special knives by accident or design. A buzz to the diner’s lips signifies the real deal.

The fugu tingle, as it might be called, is evidence of our ambivalence toward danger. The caustic ash near the White Island volcano is another form of tingle.

Conservation of Catastrophe?

Going back to the Diamond Princess and White Island, both tragedies remind us of the limits of our knowledge. Epidemiologists and microbiologists cannot anticipate the full range of viral and bacterial threats and are constantly surprised: the Legionella bacterium, for example, was unknown until the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak of 1976.

Likewise, volcanoes are sometimes predictable, and the CDC was prepared for the Kīlauea eruption on Hawaii in 2019 (yes, the CDC does volcanoes, too). But often, they are not, and volcanologists and experienced tour guides are killed, as during the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 and on White Island.

As in bridge design (and emergency medicine), technology sometimes advances one disaster at a time.

Volcano tourism displays both a desire for a brief break with the safe world that experts have promised for us on the giant cruise ships as well as a reliance on experts from volcano guides to fugu chefs in giving us a prickle of danger. It may be that the precautionary society was a mirage all along, that humanity must advance by going through wrenching cycles. As the University of Chicago historian William H. McNeill wrote after the 1987 Wall Street crisis: “It certainly seems as though every gain in precision in the coordination of human activity and every heightening of efficiency in production were matched by a new vulnerability to breakdown. If this really is the case, then the conservation of catastrophe may indeed be a law of nature like the conservation of energy.”

main topic: Human Behavior