The Postcautionary Principle

You-all reg’lar reader types know, by now, that I really really don’t like lazy articles that drum up an impression of a false symmetry where there is none to be had in reality. But I’ve stumbled across a very striking and real symmetry, and one that I think is at the core of our lazy polarization. 

In my talk last week before my trip to Montreal (chilly and drizzly, thanks, it was wonderful) I attempted top take the edge of the partisan global wamring debate by emphasizing that neither “yes” nor “no” are meaningful answers to the question “how much CO2 should we tolerate?” So many people, though, aren’t thinking in those terms.
On the one hand, we have the “precautionary principle”:
No action of any kind should be tolerated unless it can be proven beyond doubt that it has no net negative impact on the earth as a whole system.

On the other, we have a libertarian philosophy which can be summarized as almost the diametrical opposite:

No restrictions of any kind on individual behavior should be tolerated unless it can be proven beyond doubt that they infringe on the rights of others.

It doesn’t really have a name that i know of, but it certainly has some proud adherents.

Now, see, most people think science is about “proof”, which shows what a terrible job we are doing of conveying the stuff of science to the world, but that’s another topic. The point here is that in both cases the person making the claim is asking for a sort of proof that is totally impractical even in the best of circumstances. To take matters further, of course, people who choose not to be convinced by evidence of something they find intuitively distasteful just won;t be convinced. Your evidence, no matter how well corralled and paraded before them, will surely be insufficient, and they will have a vast array of well-formatted pseudoscience, replete with charts and graphs for every legitimate piece of work you show them.

Yes, as I look at it the symmetry to me seems almost perfect.
What’s more, both principles, that of maximum self-determination, and that of maximum respect for future generations, have a core dignity and appeal to them. It’s a hard heart that isn’t tempted to sign up for both sides!
Unfortunately, both principles, however noble in intent, are unworkable. The real world is one of guesswork, tradeoffs, and tightropes. Neither principle offers useful guidance. The implicit contention of the two is doing real, fundamental damage to our ability to compromise and reason about our circumstances.
Life is uncertain. We might just screw up the economy AND get no real benefit on the climate change front. That’s an easier and likelier outcome than the opposite one, really. As long as we are pulling in opposite directions, the odds of us coming through this mess in a semblance of dignity keep going down.
The times don’t call for small measures, but they don’t call for digging our heels in and sticking to absolute principles either. 
You’ve got your rock here, you’ve got your hard place there; don’t be getting all superstitious about where you step at a time like this.

The precautionary principle is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action

The main problem is that “proof” thing.


  1. Michael,Indeed the existence of a consensus is more easily seen from the inside (ie climate scientists in this case) than from the outside (the general public). But for anyone who is genuinely interested, the existence of a strong consensus can be fairly easily verified. E.g. check several polls, search the AGU abstracts, read the literature, just to name a few avenues in increasing order of effort and reliability. An understanding of the IPCC process is more conducive to someone understanding the nature of the consensus than just telling them to read the whole report (which they would push aside as being biased anyway).Perhaps the issue is more so that the existence of a consensus is not accepted as proof that it is correct; and of course it isn’t “proof”. That doesn’t make it irrelevant however, no matter how often Einstein is brought up. If scientific standards have been applied, an emerging consensus is very relevant (see eg this excellent presentation by Oreskes (start at slide 38 for the stuff on scientific methods). Interesting that you bring up the potential existence of an economic consensus. There probably is widespread agreement amongst economists about the leading paradigm (growth imperative), but not everybody (outside of economics) agrees on that. Is that consensus less relevant? Perhaps because the same scientific standards have not been applied, and perhaps cannot even be applied to economics? Is the leading paradigm built more so on faith than on science? And isn’t that the mirror image of how some view the scientific consensus on AGW? If people don’t like the outcome of a consensus in a certain discipline, it’s fairly easy to come up with a set of rules that haven’t been followed, and therefore declare the consensus irrelevant (see eg It is almost impossible to make people accept the validity/relevance of a consensus, if they don’t agree with the outcome. Bart

  2. No, Michael, in my haste I chose the wrong metaphor. It's not so much that you are moving in my direction, it's more that you are starting to look around and then dig in your heels in order to slow the velocity!You are not alone, apparently. Even 'Real Climate' (yes, 'Real Climate'!) are beginning, ever so slightly and ever so slowly to change their tune:'Who'da thunk it?'David Duff

  3. I think I could write a book about why I hated that thing, Michael. And I don't think that's an exaggeration.For one thing, the reason most countries, including the US, have the food and drug laws they do is because of the precautionary principle. In many ways, it's an extension of things like the Hippocratic Oath.No one but the die-hards want NO FDA, etc., but what we have is more along the lines of the precautionary principle than some sort of hellish compromise between nothing and that.Also Wiki got it right, the Precautionary Principle is starting to be incorporated into EU law, and I don't see any tragedies ensuing.Iceland, on the other hand, went the libertarian route and it ended quickly in tears.There's no symmetry between a pea and a brick.Also, the implication that the precautionary principle is some new extremist wild-eyed thing being foisted on people is absurd.The idea of not placing too great a value on future generations was a staple idea for C. S. Lewis (in his right-wing fussbudget discussion of the "Last Man") and for Rush Limbaugh, and ages and ages ago.A lot of the struggle environmentally is already about discounting losses over generations to reflect the way people's sentiments run.It made me wonder about your lack of respect for Jeremy Rifkin's, to my understanding, infinitely superior work, Michael. I think his "Entropy," both the original Bantam New Age edition and the "Into the Greenhouse World" edition not only got out the bad news to entire segments of the population (the positive-thinking Esalens, etc.) who'd never have been exposed to it, but also very much anticipated Jared Diamond's work. Neither are perfect, but both contributed a counterweight to the techno-fix, whizbang cornucopian mainstream.I note, too, that Dyson has always been part of that optimistic vague crowd, and he shares with that article a complete inability to estimate differences of orders of magnitude, apparently.And duffandnonsense is quite right, I am too excitable sometimes, alas. That particular article pushed all my screaming illogic buttons at once.I promise that will be my only far less polite than I actually want to be comment for the year.

  4. Who has espoused, and used one of these principles as a guide in ALL of their personal decisions and actions? Or, are they a hypocrite?If they do not use the principle they cite as a rule for ALL of their own actions, why should they impose it on society?In practice, both principles stifle action, to the extent that life becomes impossible. Each camp would have us exempt certain activities from their principle; and, thereby would have all of use become hypocrites.

  5. I believe the opposite of your statement of the precautionary principle should be equally exaggerated.If you keep your first one:"No action of any kind should be tolerated unless …"It would be aptly balanced by something like:"… anything we want … and we get to hide the bodies and choose and pay the people who investigate us."Or to put it another way, it'd make more sense to contrast real definitions.For examples, not arguing particularly for these:, again just as examples, these:—–But I think a better approach is to consider an old favorite, _Overshoot_.I think this excerpt below sums up the problem better than either of the above notions:—————-Some years ago, I read of a species of tiny woodland wasp that lives on mushrooms. It seems that when a wandering female wasp chances upon the right kind of mushroom in the forest, she deposits her eggs within it. Almost immediately, the eggs hatch and the tiny grubs begin literally to eat themselves out of house and home. The little maggots grow rapidly, but soon something very odd happens. The eggs in the larvaes' own ovaries hatch while still inside their immature mothers. This second generation of parthenogenic grubs quickly consumes its parents from within, then breaks out of the empty shells to continue feeding on the mushroom. This seemingly gruesome process may repeat itself for another generation. It doesn't take long before the entire mushroom is over-filled by squirming maggots and fouled by their bodily wastes. The exploding population of juvenile wasps consumes virtually its entire habitat which is the signal for the largest and most mature of the larvae to pupate. The few individuals that manage to emerge as mature adults then abandon their mouldering birthplace, flying off to begin the whole process over again.We wrote this book in the belief that the bizarre life-cycle of the mushroom wasps may offer a lesson to humankind. The tiny wasps' weird reproductive strategy has apparently evolved under extreme competitive pressure. Good mushrooms—like good planets—are hard to find. Natural selection therefore favored those individual wasps and reproductive traits that were most successful in appropriating the available supply of essential resources (the mushroom) before the competition had arrived or became established….–

  6. Mr. Winter, no, my idea of "consensus" is not unanimity. When the majority of scientists agree that the real problem we are likely? probably? maybe? facing in the next decade or two is global cooling I will not be claiming a "consensus" for that either. This whole AGW panic remains typical of the history of science (and other fields!), from time to time a 'zeitgeist' seizes the imagination and lots of people commit themselves to something foolish and then have difficulty changing their minds.If I may say so, Mr. Winter, you reveal rather more of yourself than you realise when you write: "I think the question comes down to, "How close must we get [to a consensus]?" What does it matter? Did Einstein worry about a consensus when he was the only man in the world to understand the nature of energy and mass? You appear to derive comfort from crowds, they fill me with fear and loathing!In the meantime I watch our host's inch by inch intellectual journey with both admiration and amusement.David Duff

  7. David Duff, If your idea of a consensus is unanimous agreement, then would you say scientific consensus has ever been achieved?Though he's been quiet lately, I'm sure that Gil Levin still believes the Viking landers discovered signs of life on Mars. Personally I side with the consensus that they didn't. (Which is not the same as saying there cannot be life on Mars. But this is only an example, not meant to sidetrack the discussion.)With respect to the AGW consensus, there is certainly no unanimity. I think the question comes down to, "How close must we get?" To my mind, we are close enough.Recaptcha says "shomi" — and I'm not even from Missouri.

  8. Thanks to James for the "proactionary principle" reminder. It is not exactly what I mean since it is actually to some extent a reaction to the precautionary principle, rather than a fundamental philosophical stance. As such, it is an attempt at a synthesis.I could argue that its failures are precisely in failing to observe the flaws with the libertarian position, flaws which Tidal sums up nicely. A synthesis that would satisfy me would account for risks more seriously.

  9. Duff has a point this time. While I consider IPCC WGI to be a highly successful effort to codify the consensus position of the relevant sciences, my belief depends on the fact that I am already in a position to perceive that such a consensus exists.Consider what a consensus document about economics and sustainability would look like. (I think it would be very thin in fact. Consider, though, what it would have looked like 15 years ago.) Consider what the WGII documents look like, for that matter.We are faced with an impedance mismatch between science and policy. The "consensus" process has always been implicit. Attempts to formalize it require that the consensus actually exist. If there is consensus on physical climatology, the IPCC WGI represents it. I believe this to be the case. If there is no consensus, then necessarily the IPCC WGI does not represent a scientific consensus, but rather the consensus of an interest group, as Duff and his sort have been trained to see it.It is my opinion that the WGII document does not represent a consensus so much as a political compromise, a very different beast.(WGIII is intermediate in character.)It is far from clear how the political process is to distinguish between these cases. The existence of a so called "consensus document" is useful only if one accepts the existence and validity of the consensus it describes. If one questions the existence of the consensus, the existence of the document provides little in the way of additional evidence, as the "NIPCC" documents demonstrate.

  10. w.r.t. the natural tension between the two "principles"…In the near term, this is going to be "resolved" based on politics and power, as these sorts of issues always have.But in the long run, it will be resolved in accordance with our physical reality. If, say, it turns out that the projected thermal and acidifying effects of CO2 turn out to have been just some sort of weird, bad dream, then the libertarian "ideals" might well be the "best" philosophy/organizing principle for human (and environmental?) affairs. Like you say, there is a core dignity and appeal to it. And, for thousands of years until quite recently there's much to be said for it and it didn't apparently matter much about our assumptions about the physical reality, 'cept for seasons and stuff. But, if it turns out that CO2 is a well-mixed gas with deleterious thermal and acidifying properties that persist for millenia, then it is rather unlikley that "every man for himself!" is going to map very well to that physical reality with any reasonableness.And between POPs and heavy metals and nitrogen and HFC's and CFC's and NF and on and on, I certainly know which reality I think we are living in… but I don't have "proof", I suppose…Anyway, my only "contribution" here is something I keep struggling with/mulling over. I keep thinking that there must be some shorthand way of conveying this, that gets people thinking.The best that I have come up with is – as analogue – is McLuhan's "The medium is the message"… i.e. our governance and market organizing principles will inevitably be a function of our physical reality. They will have to interact in a way that maps to the physical reality.McLuhan's phrase doesn't quite fit, and I don't think anything I mangle like "The physics is the politics" quite catches it either. But at some level, I think that people know in their gut that this is true, and if we could message that in a tight way, then maybe we get some productive dialogue. Or not.I know I am not the first person to realize that much of the libertarian antipathy to AGW science is because they fully comprehend that the philosophy does not map well at all to problems like well-mixed, long-lived harmful waste gasses. But that's not what is going to determine physical reality. It's the other way around. The physical reality will eventually determine which philosophies are "fit". Let's make sure that they "maximize" or "optimize" individual liberty while "fitting".

  11. The "proof thing" is not the only difficulty, the 'consensus thing' is just as tricky. When it comes to AGW, neither exists. To paraphrase the excitable Marion Delgado, not so much "quelle bizarre" as 'quelle problem'!(I have just noticed that my verification word is "driveler". I trust that's not a personal attack!)David Duff

  12. You (rightly) point to the problem with the word "proof", but the wiki definition specifically states that the existence of a scientific consensus is valid as answering the "burden of proof". No problem there, I think, since they clearly don't have an absolutist definition of proof in mind. And it (rightly) gives important consideration to the existence of a scientific consensus.

  13. That is smug, pretentious, despicable, valueless crap and twaddle.The strawman depiction of the precautionary principle alone is the worst piece of moronic sophistry I've seen in ages.God knows what you see in it. I'll just assume you're not off your rocker, but really, quelle bizarre.

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