Every activity or course I have ever taken that I really enjoyed began with a discussion of risk. Almost all of these included a formal waiver of some sort that was included to protect the person or company that I was working with from legal issues that could arise from my not understanding the risk discussed.*
At the end of 1993, I started down the road to become a certified cave diver. Each of the three of us had completed our basic scuba training with Coach Brown so we were lucky to be starting from similar skill and knowledge levels. I still remember sitting in the classroom beside the pool at North Carolina State University listening to my instructor go through the risks involved. After the paperwork was completed, we began to go over gear configuration and the use of guidelines.
By the time we arrived in North Florida for our first cavern dive, we had practiced skills for hours in the local quarry and blacked out in the campus pool. We could hardly sleep in the week before the trip because we were going over everything in our heads. What happened next was not what any of us expected. Coach Brown walked us to a picnic table and handed each of us a mason jar over half full of pennies.
We were instructed to pour the pennies on the table and spread them out. Once they were all arranged so that none touched the others, he wanted us to make sure they were each placed “heads” side up. “Each of these pennies represents a diver that has died while diving in a cave” he told us. We then proceeded to count each penny as we put them back in the jar.
Even though we had been introduced to the concept of “accident analysis” in cave diving and knew the basic rules introduced by Sheck Exley in 1977, this exercise made us slow down and examine our own risk tolerance as well as motivations. We went on to spend the rest of that day running drills in the open water and cavern. All these years later and I still remember how this one drill made me reflect on the experiences of those divers as well as define my own risk tolerances.
In outlining the goals and objectives for this experiment in sustainability, I have found myself discussing the concept with numerous people that are either excited or horrified by the risk they perceive. As a cave diver I am used to seeing people react this way. People are either fascinated by what we see there or want to know everything we do to stay alive. Fortunately for us, we have training and mentorship systems in place that help us focus our learning and define our risk (Check out the great new book on risk in diving from Steve Lewis). There is a similar network of educators and mentors in the financial markets that have been a huge help to me in my own trading.
I have spent most of this month setting up our account and signing the paperwork that defines the risks we will be taking in this experiment. We have defined our risk and counted our pennies. Today the money was transferred and we are making the final preparations to begin our sustainability experiment. With this step we have defined our ultimate risk. Check back for updates describing our training, mentoring, and methods as we begin this exciting next step in our journey.
* Some debate on the utility of waivers in recreational diving can be found in the Rubicon Research Repository here.
Gene Hobbs is a technical diver and founding board member of the non-profit Rubicon Foundation. Hobbs has served as medical officer for the Woodville Karst Plain Project since 2004 and was named the 2010 Divers Alert Network/ Rolex Diver of the year. Hobbs is the medical simulation coordinator for a simulation and patient safety laboratory at a major university medical center.