No thrills without spills: why danger is good for us

Charles Arthur meets an author who says perilous pursuits are a healthy reaction to an oversafe society
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Three more people died in the snow-capped Alps last Thursday, bringing the number of deaths in mountain accidents to 20 in the past three weeks. A bad thing? "In the individual cases, yes, but overall it has a positive effect for humanity," says Frank Furedi.

It sounds either amazingly callous or just plain daft. But Dr Furedi is neither. He believes that the people who died were seeking out the thrills and adventure that our tight-laced, risk-obsessed society denies them.

In fact, he sees a direct link between the sort of mindset that insists that smoking cigarettes is a threat to nearby non-smokers, or that a nuclear power station in northern Scotland poses a threat to children in Surrey, and the need of those Alpinists to find some freedom in a place which also carried a risk - sadly fulfilled - of death.

"When risk-taking has been so badly stigmatised by society, there's still an aspiration on the part of humans to do something exhilarating," says Dr Furedi, of the social anthropology department at the University of Kent. "Mountaineering has become more of a mass activity than in the past, because it caters for something that cannot be fulfilled in other ways."

In a new book, Culture of Fear, he argues that our increasingly urban society has crushed external dangers - such as disease - so thoroughly that we are all now harassed by popular opinion which says that to put another person at risk is the worst thing an adult can do.

Letting children walk to school rather than taking them there in a car, having sex without condoms and exposing others to second-hand cigarette smoke are all nowadays seen almost as physical offences. In this way, he argues, we have ceased to celebrate heroes, and instead celebrate victims - those who have survived danger, rather than those who voluntarily expose themselves to it.

Dr Furedi points out that the apparently risky activities that society condones actually pose little or no danger to the participants. "It's a commodified risk, for people who are living pedestrian lives," he says. "Things like bungee jumping or white-water rafting are actually safe, but they carry the pretence of danger."

However, there are growing signs that the lust for danger, which is so corseted by our speed-camera-monitored, childminder-registered society, is bursting out elsewhere. Xtreme, a new British magazine devoted to risky sports and activities, is about to publish its fourth issue since April, with a print run of 70,000 - and its editors accept that some of the readers might die following their pursuits.

"In anything that's worth doing in terms of a sport there's a risk," says Mike Fordham, Xtreme's deputy editor. Jerome Smail, the editor, adds: "The risks some of these sportsmen are prepared to take are incredible." He cites Base jumping - parachuting off buildings, antennas, bridges and mountains - as "possibly the most extreme". It carries a high risk of death or serious injury, since there is virtually no margin for error in judging timing or wind direction.

Other sports Xtreme has investigated include street lugeing - like the Olympic ice version, but on steep hills using skates - which carries a high risk of broken ankles if you misjudge a corner, and tow-in surfing, in which surfers are pulled by jetskis to otherwise impossibly huge waves up to 70ft high. Slip off your board, and your body can be shattered by the breaking wave on the sea bed.

Mr Fordham reckons that the urge to find dangerous pastimes mirrors our "profoundly urban" existence. "Our basic needs are taken care of; there's not much more you can do in a city except live and eat and shop. So people are inclined to do things and discover parts of themselves through experiences that are more visceral."

The quest for risk isn't limited by age or sex, he notes: "If you're 50 or 60 and fit enough, there's nothing to stop you; and women are outstanding in rock climbing, and more and more in surfing."

Women, taking risks? Dr Furedi says that it's something society views with disapproval, citing the death in 1995 of Alison Hargreaves during her descent from the summit of K2, the world's second highest mountain. Though she was arguably Britain's best-ever female mountaineer, "rather than saying that she had a lot going for her, people said she couldn't lead a proper family life because she left her children behind".

While Dr Furedi's ideas seem controversial, he is not afraid to put himself to the test. Walking in the Alps recently, he slipped on a glacier - and could have been seriously injured if he hadn't managed to arrest his fall. He acknowledges that. "If we always live our lives with a view to the worst possible outcome of anything, then we will become a much diminished society," he says. "Every human endeavour has risk attached."