Here's Humpty, Dressed in Green
'When I use a word', said Humpty Dumpty to Alice, in Lewis Carroll's classic children's story, Through the Looking Glass, 'it means just what I choose it to mean'. It was, suggested Humpty, really a question of power. He would have loved 'the precautionary principle', which has become the favoured mantra among environmentalists.
The basic idea sounds sensible---if scientists are unsure whether something might damage the environment, authorities should act to prevent harm from occurring. The Humpty Dumptyish aspects stem from the impossibility of agreeing what this means in actual practice, which allows environmentalists to invoke the precautionary principle to justify any anti-development campaign they fancy.
Over the past two decades increasingly expansive versions of the principle have been formulated and introduced into international agreements. The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 adopted the phrasing 'where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation'.
But the 'cost-effective' qualification upsets the greens, who believe that their ideas of what is good for the environment must be given first priority, irrespective of the costs or consequences. So Greenpeace documents usually omit this qualification, even when they supposedly quote the Rio agreement.
And the most recent international recourse to the precautionary principle, the Biosafety Protocol concluded in Montreal last month by over 130 countries, says nothing about cost-effectiveness. Environmentalists were delighted, hailing the document as providing the strongest formulation of the principle to date.
Many people may think that if environmentalists are happy, we should all rejoice. If the precautionary principle helps to save the planet, surely there can be nothing to complain about.
But following the greens' lead on this matter is most unwise. Part of the reason is to be found in one of the most important insights that environmentalists themselves have promoted---the need to see our world as an intricately related whole, rather than as a collection of largely unconnected parts.
The physical, biological and social components of our environment form an extraordinarily complex and dynamic system, which means that there will always be uncertainty about the effects of any actions, no matter how seemingly innocuous or benign. The fundamental question is how best to deal with this uncertainty, which applies to all aspects of our life, and not just the natural environment.
In arguing for the precautionary principle, the greens urge us to take a 'risk-averse' approach to nature, which they portray as 'fragile' and potentially threatened by any technological changes. On the other hand, they are cavalier about the dangers their utopian political programs might pose to social order, despite indications that human social arrangements are at least as 'fragile'---if not more so---as natural environments, and evidence that social breakdown in modern nations quickly leads to ecological disaster as well.
One way of understanding the dangers of a 'risk averse' approach is to consider the harm that overprotective---or 'risk-averse'---parents can do.
By preventing their children from playing any demanding sports, or by forbidding them from ever going on unsupervised outings with their friends, parents may save their offspring from some hazards, but usually at the cost of stunting their long-term physical and emotional growth. Children from families who take a more balanced approach might run the risk of suffering the odd broken limb or brush with authority, but they will probably be better equipped to cope with the unpredictable crises they will encounter later in life.
The late Aaron Wildavsky, a social scientist who wrote much good sense about risk, liked to point out that we live in a world in which safety and danger are inextricably intertwined. Under certain conditions things which benefit our lives can also destroy them---the electricity which powers our homes and workplaces can electrocute, and the fire which cooks our food or warms our bodies can also incinerate.
Had our distant forebears taken the precautionary principle to heart we would have walked away from every technological advance starting with the domestication of fire, and we would still be living like our primate cousins.
Greens invoke the precautionary principle in order to shift the burden of proof onto the proponents of new technology, who are told they must demonstrate that their projects will not cause any harm before they are allowed to go ahead.
This is an impossible demand, which ensures that any developer who proposes something that greens don't like can invariably be stymied, just as Humpty Dumpty continually wrong-footed Alice. Ronald Bailey, an American commentator on environmental issues, recently wrote about his conversation with a prominent bioethicist and supporter of the precautionary principle who gleefully told him 'whoever has the burden of proof loses'.
There is only one sensible way of dealing with the unavoidable environmental and other uncertainties that we will always have to confront. We should take a hint from nature, and realise that a species' ability to survive unexpected crises stems from its resilience.
Human resilience is strengthened by strategies which encourage a reasonable amount of trial and error and by developments which increase our wealth. Third World countries clearly demonstrate that wealthy societies are in a far better position than poor societies to promote human and environmental health.
Yes, we will make some mistakes, as we have in the past. But the lessons we learn from these mistakes expand our knowledge, ingenuity and control over resources. This increases our chances of coping successfully with the really dangerous, but unknowable threats to the environment that humans are certain to face in the future. Following the precautionary principle would be the greatest risk of all.