Every spring the Alton Society which I belong to organises a voluntary litter-pick to tidy up the town. This year it has been decreed from on high that all the volunteers must now sign a legal disclaimer before taking part.
Rather than accepting that this is another step on the great march of progress I thought that it was completely misguided. I care deeply about the dreadful problem of littering in this country and in our town and as an active member of the committee of the Society I have always seen this event one of the best things we do. I definitely wanted to contribute as usual. So I made a point of doing my litter-pick that morning (last Saturday) on my own responsibility, using my own equipment, and I didn’t sign anything for anybody. So there.
Here are my reasons why I think this apparently naughty behaviour is establishing an extremely important principle.
First a picture:
Here are my reasons:
- The document is not signed to protect the volunteer, it is to protect the organisers from the fear of litigation
- It is assumed that failure to perform this ritual would invalidate the organisers’ insurance, but this protection is illusory because insurance companies are notorious for finding reasons not to pay out.
- This is an example of treating a tiny relative risk (the risk of the organisers being sued by a volunteer who hurts themselves) as an absolute risk which must be protected against, irrespective of the cost, financial and otherwise (see below).
- Signing the form does not make it the slightest bit less likely that an actual accident will happen.
- By taking responsibility for my own actions I was able to clear rubbish in a place which would probably have required a road closure if done by a public employee, and in another which probably involved trespass.
- I am told that many of the volunteers who did sign the disclaimer agreed that it was completely bonkers. This brings proper precautions into contempt and breeds cynicism.
- It also feeds the growing trend to see all accidents as someone else’s fault and for people to feel they are victims and entitled to compensation.
- Cultivating the belief, particularly among young people, that you can only pick up litter if you have joined a group, donned protective clothing and signed to make someone else take responsibility for your actions, is counterproductive to the real object of the exercise – to change the culture so that we have a litter-free town.
- It is noteworthy that people who believe proper precautions and rules should be strictly adhered to, as I do, are the same ones who oppose the paying of lip service to token precautions.
- This kind of obsessional aversion to minute, theoretical risks is an affront to people, again like me, who are properly concerned about the all-too-common denial of the unimaginably-larger risk of global warming.
- I worry about the next logical step – the next click of the ‘ratchet of progress’. I understand those who signed the disclaimer, including the MP and other dignitaries, mainly did so without reading it. And that it was actually a general-purpose disclaimer which included the hazards of cliff edges and seashores.
I worry that when the next step is taken down this logical road it will be just as impossible for people like me to argue against it without appearing equally irresponsible.
For example: it is not hard to imagine that in a few years time someone will decide that it is no longer good enough just to obtain token signing of a meaningless mantra in this way, and organisers will start being required to provide video evidence that they really did line the volunteers up and show them how to cross the road. It will then be just as impossible to argue against this increment of progress and avoid accusations that you have failed in your duty of care by not going along with it. Especially in court after an accident, with a lawyer bent on apportioning blame, however freakishly unlikely that accident may actually have been. At that time the manifest failure to comply with the ludicrous ritual automatically becomes the crime, regardless of any other circumstances.
- As I said in my 2001 book Friends in Low Places, after giving an imaginary example of mindless regulations blighting the professional lives of teachers:
“That is hardly an exaggeration and certainly not a joke, the reality is beyond parody – and certainly beyond a joke.“
- And that’s my last reason – I wrote two books and numerous articles about this sort of thing, and lots of people said they agreed with me. So I simply had to make a protest last Saturday to be true to myself – even though it added loneliness to the squalor of the morning’s work.
But, as I said in my first book, The Paradox of Progress, one person taking a stand achieves something amazingly powerful – it stops anybody ever saying again that ‘everybody goes along with it in the end’. That’s why I solemnly record that one person didn’t go along with it this time.