Leading Article: Be a devil and take a walk in the sun

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IN A COUNTRY whose inhabitants count themselves lucky if summer lasts for more than a couple of weekends in late July, predictions of good weather used to be grounds for rejoicing. Today, they are clouded by fears for our health. Those previously dull minutes at the end of the news, once the exclusive preserve of predictions of grey skies and intermittent rain, are now the source for warnings of a great range of hazards: smog, ozone, pollution, pollen and worse.

This may be prudent, but it is also sad. The great outdoors is the latest in a long line of human pleasures to be curtailed on the advice of experts. Sex has never been the same since the arrival of Aids. An evening in the pub is now to be frowned on - even if the designated driver sticks to orange juice - because of the long-term damage to the liver risked by those who consume more than the officially approved number of units a week. Even the old-fashioned fun of driving to the country in an open- topped car is no longer what it was: there are seat belts and bull bars to worry about, not to mention the incorrectly adjusted catalytic converter that may be allowing the engine to pollute the atmosphere.

It is partly the fault of science. The more that we learn about the world and the more machines that we bring into it, the more hazards there appear to be. The most benign innovations of one decade - pesticides, for instance, or the chloroflurocarbons used in refrigeration and air-conditioning - become the nightmares of the next.

But the new weather forecasts are also a symbol of how much more fearful our society has become. Fear makes us obey when scientists tell us to give up butter for margarine, until they discover that margarines contain fats that could have a closer link to heart disease than butter. Fear makes us put saccharine in our coffee, until it becomes the scourge of laboratory rats and a substance one should not eat too much of.

It would certainly be rash to ignore informed advice about how to live longer. But it is also desperately dull to obey that advice too slavishly.

Once in a while, especially in weather like that of this week, it is tempting to take a risk - and to go for quality of life rather than mere quantity. Taking a walk in the park on a sunny day has never been so daring.