Risky Business

A recent report from the insurance company Swiss Re says that there’s a lot to worry about. Three of the six high risk areas Swiss Re identifies are endocrine disrupting chemicals, electromagnetic fields, and nanotechnology. The report mentions two other high risk issues that aren’t covered—namely, climate change and gene technology—because they “are already being tackled” by the insurance industry.

The significance of the report is not that the insurance industry is leading the way to protect our health and well-being by combatting the use of dangerous technologies. Instead, Swiss Re is warning the insurance industry in all its forms (life insurance, health insurance, liability insurance, property insurance, and so on) that trouble is brewing in the near future and the industry needs to figure out how it’s going to deal with those issues.

In other words, this isn’t about the threat to our health and that of future generations posed by endocrine disruptors, wireless technology, and so on. It’s about how insurance companies can continue to make money when the chickens of these toxic technologies come home to roost. It is an example of the rationality, the ratiocination, the rational calculations that guide the capitalist mode in its irrational pursuits.

Swiss Re is an example. The company is not simply another insurance company speaking out for the common insurance industry good. It is what is called a reinsurance company. What that means is that it insures other insurance companies.

Consider, for example, what will happen when wireless technologies go the way of cigarettes and people who have been harmed successfully sue specific companies for what they’ve suffered. Courts will hand down judgments and the specific wireless technology company will have to settle with the victims. That payment will be covered in whole or in part by an insurance policy. The insurance company that holds the policy hands a check (ever so reluctantly) to the wireless company that then pays off the victims.

If the insurance company has too many claims by too many of its client companies its own financial resources will not be able to meet its legal obligations. In order to do so, the insurance company goes to its reinsurance company with what is something like a financial disaster to make a claim about this unforeseen calamity. In that case, a reinsurance company such as Swiss Re writes a check (ever so reluctantly) to the liability insurance company so that it can, in turn, pay off claims to its many wireless technology company clients that have been damaging people’s health all those years and now must pay the piper.

On the one hand, it’s not the job of the insurance industry to care about what damages your health and well-being.

On the other hand, it is their job to know as much as they can about the things that might damage your health and well-being that will cost them money. That, of course, is true for all businesses. They want to avoid those costs, which can take the form of court damages, regulatory penalties, added costs to production, and so on. In addition to insurance, businesses also guard against these kinds of costs by spending time and money in areas such as the election of officeholders, appointment of regulators, passage (or defeat) of legislation, and, often overlooked, the actual implementation of legislation in the rules made and enforced (or not) by regulatory agencies.

And then there are the costs businesses incur that maintain a fog around the harm caused by endocrine disrupting chemicals, wireless technologies, gene technologies, nanotechnology, and so on. These include paying for scientific research that casts doubt on or even openly attacks the science of harm, marketing that includes the ordinary hucksterism of product and brand loyalty up to the promotion of, for example, the conviction that endocrine disrupting chemicals, wireless technologies, gene technologies, nanotechnology, and so on are God’s gift to humankind or at least an inevitable consequence of the way we live now—which is, as we all know, much, much better than the way we used to live without all those gifts.

Businesses, including insurance businesses, know a lot more than you and me about how to avoid paying for the harm they cause. A whole lot. And even if we knew what they know, they still have vastly greater resources to get what they want.

Believe it or not, the point is not to remind you of what Dante says is inscribed over the gate to hell: “Abandon all hope yea who enter here.”

Swiss Re says in its report that social unrest, such as the Occupy movement, poses risks for insurers and the businesses they serve. They say it’s a low risk, but a risk nonetheless. But what do they know?

They might know a lot—even a lot more than we do—about some things—but they’re still afraid of us. For good reason. Instead of worrying about how to punish businesses that harm we should imagine (it’s easy if you try) a world in which our concern for the risk of harm informs what is produced and how it is produced. For that, there’s another inscription: people unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.