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Why the precautionary principle doesn't cut both ways

The precautionary principle is usually associated with strident environmentalists who believe that those seeking to introduce a new technology or new chemical should be forced to show that it is safe before doing so.

Corporate sponsors of those new technologies and chemicals almost always take the opposite view; until something is proven to be dangerous, it should be allowed. (There is, of course, never any discussion by these corporate sponsors of who should spend money to do the after-the-fact testing. The unspoken assumption is that the entire human population is to be engaged in an uncontrolled experiment to determine the dangers.)

So, it is noteworthy that oil giant Exxon Mobil--so often against any precautions at all when it comes to the oil business and its petrochemical offspring--should embrace its own version of the precautionary principle. (Of course, the company would never call it that.) CEO Rex Tillerson told an oil industry gathering that while global warming is a reality and needs to be addressed, regulation should not be implemented too hastily lest it unduly impinge on economic growth. Naturally, he wasn't concerned about oil company profits or CEO bonuses, but rather "our ability to progress [on] other global priorities such as economic development, poverty eradication and public health."

Tillerson's plea is one that is heard daily in industry circles when any kind of regulation is discussed, especially any that are labelled "environmental." The argument amounts to an economic precautionary principle. We are told that we must not allow any regulation to proceed if it could harm economic activity. After all, what will happen to the poor, corporate leaders say, if we cannot lift them up with economic growth? (There is, of course, no discussion about lifting them up through the redistribution of wealth, say, via public services; naturally, that kind of discussion is considered a breach of etiquette among the world's CEOs.)

But, we should question such arguments not because they come from corporate CEOs though that may give us cause for suspicion. A keen observer might suspect that the problem with the arguments is that apples are indeed being compared to oranges. These arguments assume that two things--the economy and the environment--are contained in some greater whole and that prefering one over the other is a zero-sum game. Only a little more thinking should yield the true situation, namely, that the economy is merely part of a whole called the environment. You might call this the fallacy of confusing the whole for a part. But simple observation will reveal to anyone that the economy is contained within the environment. Disrupting or destabilizing the environment risks crashing the economy altogether since the economy relies utterly on the natural world for its very functioning.

While the captains of industry will find this fact discomfitting, it may be even more perplexing to another group--those proposing that the right technology can give us a bright green future, one in which there is no need to change human behavior except in the direction of using green technology.

It is precisely because we have failed to see the consequences of our technology that we are now ensnared in a perilous ecological predicament. To assume that more technology will solve our problems is to live out Benjamin Franklin's well-known definition of insanity. Environmental education giant, David Orr, is fond of saying that as our knowledge grows, so does our ignorance. His favorite example is our relatively recent knowledge of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which seemed so handy as refrigerants when they were discovered in the 1930s. Over time our ignorance of the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer expanded alongside increasing uses for the substances. The result was a hole in the ozone, a development which, had it not been addressed, would have imperilled all of human civilization and plant and animal life as well.

It should be obvious then that applying the precautionary principle to the economy misses the point. Environmental regulation may indeed retard economic activity. But that damage, if it occurs, is different in kind from the damage our technology and numbers inflict on the biosphere every day. One may lead to a transient loss of wealth; the other may lead to a colossal loss of human life and of the very civilization we have built.

This is not a story about tradeoffs. It is a (pre)cautionary tale about gruesome and unforgivable destruction which we may yet avoid. But a positive outcome depends on casting off the notion that our economy as it currently functions will provide "benefits" that are sustainable with only a few changes here and there. Nothing short of a complete reordering of our priorities will makes us friends with the biosphere again. That is the true meaning of the precautionary principle and the reason why so few have actually embraced it.

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