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The Precautionary Principle

Travis says:

Aldo Leopold wrote: "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” This forms the essence of The Precautionary Principle: “when an activity poses threats of serious, irreversible harm to human health or the environment, we should act to prevent that damage – even if science has not fully worked out the details of the relevant cause and effect relationships.”(1)

I contend that the Precautionary Principle is A) an inherently conservative approach and B) a useful guide for environmental and pollution policy.

Speaking to the Precautionary Principle’s conservative bona fides, John Bliese, professor emeritus at Texas Tech, writes: “For conservatives, the most important political virtue of all is prudence. And right now we face several environmental problems that call for prudence above all else. In several ways we are performing uncontrolled and irreversible experiments with the entire planet, and the results could be catastrophic. Three problems are particularly daunting: global warming, the rapid extinction of species, and the contamination of the entire globe with persistent chemicals that can disrupt our hormone system.”(2) Conservatives are concerned with promoting fiscal discipline – only spending money that we actually have – and minimizing social disorder – through reverence for traditional values. Is it not natural to apply the same logic of prudence to the environment? Current agricultural and industrial practices rely on burning our cache of fossil fuels at an alarming rate. It seems that prudent conservatives would be more reticent to spend down these one-time-only global treasures – especially at the cost of changing the face of the planet that has sustained life for millions of years.

Despite the attention-grabbing egomaniacs on both sides of the global warming debate that try to dominate headlines with pseudo-science and wild claims, it seems that we are moving towards consensus that human activities are causing climate change. Do we have to wait for total consensus before we curb emissions? Throughout human history, societies have destroyed themselves by outstripping their environments (see Collapse by Jared Diamond for many examples). Perhaps technology will delay our reckoning, but I would prefer not to gamble our collective future on uncertain innovations. We would be wise to act BEFORE the oceans are entirely devoid of fish, before the tinder box of the remaining Amazon forest erupts, before the pine beetle destroys even larger swaths of conifers from Arizona to Ontario.

In subsequent columns we might debate the thorny issues surrounding the content and implementation of environmental regulation – areas where reasonable minds can disagree. But can we start from a position that the Precautionary Principle is a reasonable guideline?

Jim says:

Well, I have never looked at anything from a precautionary standpoint in my life, so I’ll have to think about that for a minute. However, your approach did cause me to do a little back-of-the-envelope calculation. I’m not as learned as you, so, I’ll just cite my sources as being the Internet. Follow me here for a minute: If one assumes the Earth’s radius as 4000 miles and the atmosphere as being 19 miles (~100,000 feet) deep, one can calculate the volume of the atmosphere as 3.84 billion cubic miles. Sounds like a lot.

Now, one source said the total electrical generation on Earth from oil, gas, and coal is 12.9 terawatts. We’ll assume that is all on line, all the time. I checked some other sources, and developed a relationship between Induced draft fan volumes and power generation from these sources. For the uniformed, induced draft fans pull combustion products out of the boiler’s combustion side and shove them up the stack. The relationship I calculated was 0.160519 cubic miles/minute per 1 GW of generation capacity. Doing the math on all of this, power plants burning oil, gas, and coal turn over the equivalent of one entire atmosphere of our planet every 11 days, 21 hours, and 47 minutes. Even I have to admit this is not an insignificant number (and readers, if you check my math and come up with something else, please let me know). So, we have to be careful with combustion-based power plants—or convert to 100% nuclear.

As a survivor of Burkitt’s lymphoma, which oncology doctors say I most likely contracted more than 40 years ago as a teenager handling fertilizer, tobacco plants, and drinking farm well water, one might think I would be of the “Precautionary Principle” leaning. I don’t think so. In fact, I strongly disagree with Dr. Bliese and say, for this conservative anyway, the most important political virtue is not as he suggests, but rather getting and keeping government out of our lives on every level. I think one of humankind’s greatest talents is the willingness and ability to explore and try new things, and I would hate to stifle that for a few fears of the unknown.

Now, I will agree that the problems of pollution, at least on the scale we have seen since the beginning of the industrial revolution, have been certain and major. Early industries said or implied that the stuff coming out of their stacks or going down their streams to the neighbors were not something to worry about. That, from the perspective of 2008, is clearly not so and was obviously, perhaps innocently, a lie. My somewhat libertarian, if impractical solution to all of this is to say, “You can do anything you want to on land you own, as long as you keep it there.” It is equivalent to my position about smoking, which is, “I don’t care if you smoke in my presence as long as you don’t exhale.” Either way, it’s when your pollution becomes my pollution that I see we have a problem. Otherwise, I could care less what you do.

In essence, following the Precautionary Principle and trying to use it to align one’s self with conservatives, seems to me to be practicing selective conservatism, and following an unstated liberal principle that says in the effect, “humans are bad, everything else is good.” I had this driven home the other week when I got into a blog fight with a liberal on The Economist Web site.

The argument went like this: I was bemoaning the situation that here in Georgia we have to release water from Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s primary water supply, to keep some little creature alive in the murky waters of the Apalachicola River in Florida. He argued vehemently that this was right and good, that no matter what this creature was, we must keep it alive, even if it was just a few cells of living matter and even if Atlanta dries up and blows away.

My response was this: “Okay, you want to keep a few cells alive in the murky waters of the Apalachicola River. How do you feel about abortion?”

“Abortion, what does that have to do with anything? That’s just like you conservatives—always bringing up abortion. But, since you asked, I am Pro-Choice.”

“Okay,” I said, “then please tell me the difference between a few live, helpless cells down there in the Apalachicola and a few live, helpless cells in murky amniotic fluid in a human uterus.”

Long story short, he finally decided those few live cells in the Apalachicola were far more important than the ones in the uterus. What an astounding statement!

If the world wants to apply the “Precautionary Principle” maybe we should—but let us apply it everywhere, including that most precious environment, the human uterus, and not by being arbitrarily selective. Such a move would go a long way towards taking the politics out of plans for preserving the planet—and causing this conservative to be dismissive of some environmental concerns.


1 http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/Pubs/rp/PrecautionAHTAug02.pdf.
2 http://www.repamerica.org/opinions/speeches/8.html.

Members Opinions:
December 19, 2008 at 6:35am
I would question Jim's assertion "I have never looked at anything from a precautionary standpoint in my life"
Does ANYTHING not include SAFETY?

Does the potential of 0.5 to 2 metre increase in sea-level impact the safety of millions?

To bring abortion into a global issue (whatever the significance in the Apalachicola River situation) is a real irrelevance.

The ideal may be to keep government out of our lives, but that requires responsibility from all of us.
Unfortunately, corporations have shown over the years that responsibility can be thin on the ground. A few examples:
Tobacco - direct suppression of research that clearly shows the health risks of smoking.
Energy industry - purchasing political favour to delay the inevitable recognition of global warming.
Sub-prime lending.

Responsibility is not only there when it is convenient and corporations have many years to go before the public will allow us to police ourselves.
December 19, 2008 at 10:28am

Regarding safety, good point, Chris.

Regarding global warming, I am sorry, I am not yet convinced. There is too much data on both sides of that argument to be convincing either way. The best place I can get to is, "it needs more study."

Regarding abortion, I think as follows. If one goes out twenty years and asks, "Who, missing due to an environmental catastrophe, is not here and what environment were they in in 2008 that caused their death?" the answer for the majority of the missing is that they were, unfortunately, in a human uterus in 2008--the most dangerous environment on earth.

Putting all this aside, though, what concerns me most is the lack of freedom of speech that has developed in scientific matters. What happened to the scientific method? If you want to see a startling examination of this, rent Ben Stein's "Expelled" which came out a few months ago. Regardless of where one is on the subject he discusses, freedom loving people everywhere should be concerned about the shutting down of free speech in the scientific community.

Jim Thompson
December 21, 2008 at 11:50pm
I just want to re-state my initial point. I believe that we can/should act even if the evidence has yet to be fully proven. It took millions of years to get all the oil, gas, and coal in the ground but it's only going to take hundreds to pump or dig much of it out to burn for fuel. It seems self-evident to me that such activities could have negative unintended consequences.

Let's not genetically modify heirloom crops, let's not clone humans (or farm animals), let's not change the nature of our atmosphere. Let's walk softly on the earth and leave something left for our kids (or grandkids).
January 07, 2009 at 6:23am
Jim – On global warming:
Every counter argument I have seen conveniently leaves out some important factor and fails to provide explanation for what we are seeing today in terms of ice retreat and temperature increase. What is needed is focus on new technology and life-style and change in our ways rather than finding excuses to consume more than our fair share of resources. Oil is such a useful chemical feed-stock that we should not be burning it but allowing future generations their share, while, hopefully, slowing pressures on our planet.
On abortion:
I still cannot see that abortion has relevance in this argument. On a world scale, the numbers of babies that die in the first five years of life is many multiples of the number of unnaturally aborted foetuses; and these babies will be the most impacted by addition pressures of climate change.
On scientific method:
I do agree that it is more difficult to get people to accept scientific method and real logic in decision making. We only need to consider pseudo-science as used to support their Creationist dogma and deny large numbers of children a proper education.
There is also a large element of laziness on the part of the public and difficulty in communication on the part of the scientists.

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