I was at a dinner once where one of the guests gave vent to his objections to genetically modified foods, on the grounds that he didn’t want to eat chemicals. I’ve forgotten what we were eating, and our hostess pointed out quickly that her bill of fare contained no synthetic or other ‘tampered with’ food. I stayed out of that one, but I did wonder what the complainer knew of chemistry. Everything we eat, and indeed everything that we are, is a complex of chemicals. Human beings have become quite skilful at determining the nature of some chemicals, and creating new compounds that work well for us. Our bodies can’t tell whether a chemical is ‘natural’ or ‘synthetic’. The dogs we prize and the sheep that produce wool or meat or both, are all the products of genetic engineering by humans (and a bit of random choice as well.
The current fashion for ‘organic’ food, that which hasn’t experienced nasty chemical pesticides in its growth and envelopment, is another example of the same attitude, common among environmentalists and Greens. A glance at the appearance of the ‘organic’ offerings in comparison with the rest, in a well-stocked fruit-and-vegetable stall suggest, to me at least, that the organic stuff is a poor substitute. A wider attitude is the obsession with the ‘precautionary principle’ (pp), a notion that has become part of our law in some jurisdictions in Australia and overseas.
It achieved fame as part of the Rio Declaration in 1992, where it was expressed as the 15th Principle, like this:
15. In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. 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.
I’ve written about it before in no less than a dozen essays (just go to the magnifying glass icon on the top right of the screen and type in ‘precautionary principle’). I think that it is a piece of intellectual sleight of hand, and should not be taken seriously by anyone. Its origin may lie in Pascal’s wager about the importance of believing in God: if you believe and there is no God, then no great harm has been done; but if you don’t believe, and there is a God, then you risk an eternity in hell. Pascal hadn’t thought about the possibility that there might be Allah instead of God.
The core of the pp is that a decent scare is enough. Who is to decide whether or not the scare is real, or half-baked, or non-existent? In democracies governments are affected a good deal by what the electorate thinks about things, and if the electorate is scared, then governments need to do something, or lose office to a rival party that promises to deal with it. So the pp is a political device, not a piece of worked-out philosophy or law.
A rational elector will do her best to find out what the nature of the scare is, before elevating the scare into an electoral/political issue. To do that she needs to move past the language of the principle and assess both risks and the benefits. With respect to global warming, she would want to see whether warming came without benefits of any kind, and whether the costs of the proposed action were in keeping with the risk.
In fact, the gentle warming of the last century has come with improved food production and a perceptible greening of the planet. The forecast downside is said to be more and more warming, which might finally bring unacceptable changes to human societies. The proposed costs of, say, a carbon tax can be measured, and might seem tolerable. But then one has to see whether or not the costs will produce the desired outcomes. As is plain to anyone who does the arithmetic, no amount of carbon tax will produce a discernible reduction in global temperature. A carbon tax of any size, therefore, will not be ‘cost-effective’ (that is, it will be costly but not effective), and therefore will fail Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration. The forecast doom is based largely on computer models’ projections of future climate states, notwithstanding that climate models have been spectacularly wrong about exactly the relationship of greenhouse gas emissions and warming that is at the heart of the issue. What then is the real risk of anthropogenic global warming? In my view it is quite small for the foreseeable future, and quite unknown for the long term.
All in all, the precautionary principle is not a great help to the rational citizen. As a commenter pointed out on one of my essays, if we took the pp really seriously we might never get out of bed in the morning, because once we did cars could crash, lightning strike us, food poisoning occur, and all — much safer to stay in bed. On the other hand, if we stayed in bed we wouldn’t do any exercise, which would be bad for us in other ways. We would obviously have to assess the risks and benefits of each action. Proverbs illuminate the puzzle: ‘look before you leap’ is countered by ‘he who hesitates is lost’. Both axioms are sensible in particular circumstances, but not in all. You have to think first, then choose.
Aaron Wildavsky calls this the empirical side of the question (in a fine book I will refer to in at least two more essays: But is it TRUE? A Citizen’s Guide to Environmental Health and Safety Issues). There is a moral side to it as well. Wildavsky writes:
The moral issue is: what norm states that health is the only value or even the dominant value? Emphasizing a single value, to which all others must be subordinated, is a sign of fanaticism. Whatever happened to other values? How much is a marginal gain in health worth compared with losses in other values such as freedom, justice and excellence?
In terms of global warming, why is reducing greenhouse gas emissions more important than raising standards of living, which are positively correlated with longer lives and better health for whole populations?
Here is the single-issue problem at its most obvious. Climate Botherers are convinced that climate is the most important issue facing everybody, whether or not they realise it. But there are other values as well — the people’s standard of living, their health, the nature of their democracy, their capacity to live a full and meaningful life, and so on. What if the Climate Botherers are wrong? What if the warming we are having is useful and beneficial? What if fossil fuels are a precious gift that has enabled human populations to grow and live better lives?
Shouldn’t questions like these be asked from the beginning? I’ll finish with another piece of Wildavsky.
The precautionary principle is a marvellous piece of rhetoric. It places the speaker on the side of the citizen — I am acting for your health — and portrays opponents of the contemplated ban or regulation as indifferent or hostile to the public’s health. The rhetoric works in part because it assumes what actually should be proved, namely, that the the health effects of the actions in view will be superior to the alternative.
Ignore the Precautionary Principle as a life rule, and speak against it when you encounter it — that is my advice.