Better Sorry than Extinct?
A reader’s response to my last opinion piece raised the paradox of taking action motivated by The Precautionary Principle, or, in other words, taking action because we see the risks posed by inaction. The paradox that he correctly points out is that we can rarely foresee the new set of risks posed by the actions we take.
In 1998, a group of scientists, lawyers, policy makers and environmentalists agreed upon the following definition (known as the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle):
“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
Many years before the Precautionary Principle achieved legal status and long before the link between smoking and disease was scientifically and conclusively proven, many people, especially among the medical community, had strong suspicions that smoking increased the risk of developing lung cancer and heart disease. As evidence mounted, there were those who chose to stop smoking, exercising caution in the face of scientific uncertainty. Governments that subsidized medical care started passing regulations about smoking to control their costs. Others chose to continue smoking in the absence of concrete proof that it was harmful to their health or that second-hand smoke was harmful to others. There remains, however, a third category: those who continue to smoke in full cognizance of the proven risks.
A current example of the Precautionary Principle in action is the debate swirling around genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There are those who are deeply concerned that GMOs may have a harmful effect on human health and there are others for whom the benefits greatly outweigh any potential, hitherto unproven, risk. In Bangladesh, food security depends entirely upon rice production, and no other country in South Asia is at higher risk from sea-level rise and an increasing number of cyclonic surges that cause saltwater encroachment on agricultural lands. Bangladeshi farmers, like the majority around the world, are subsistence farmers. The development of a salt-tolerant rice varietal means the difference between nothing and something, food and starvation, miking a living and living in poverty.
Restated in my own simple terms, the Precautionary Principle is all about trying to constrain or stop the action or behavior of others if they can’t prove to you that the action or behavior is harmless now and into the future. The scientists among you know only too well the burden of proving a negative. The analysts among you will understand the difficulty of making any change without incurring risk. Now we are entering the paradox.
Many impoverished communities in Asia are beginning to grow biofortified rice. Vitamin A deficiency is linked to debilitating illnesses, blindness and death in millions of people every year. According to the World Health Organization, three million children under the age of five die every year from causes linked to malnutrition. For the 400 million people who rely on rice as their main source of nutrition, rice fortified with Vitamin A could dramatically change these outcomes.
It is not my intention to come down on one side of the debate or the other; we have to acknowledge that genetic modification of anything is an emotional issue for many and the jury will be out for a long, long time. However, to declare that GMO crops should be banned in the absence of our ability to prove definitively that they will not, at some time in the future, be harmful, dramatically reduces the prospects for millions of people around the world.
We face a similar dilemma in the nuclear industry. There is no question that nuclear waste is problematic. There is no question that nuclear energy plants can endanger communities at a large scale if something goes wrong. The Fukushima disaster is still very fresh in everyone’s mind. But again, that is not the whole story. The average age of a nuclear power plant in the US is 34. The oldest one still in operation was commissioned in 1969. Their original license allows them to operate for 40 years with the option to extend the license for an additional 20 years. As with many technologies, the advances in the past 40 years have been dramatic. We are right to be wary of the aging second-generation plants currently in operation, but the fourth generation technologies are a completely different beast. Although still largely theoretical, these reactors are more efficient, more sustainable and much safer. They are designed to use materials other than uranium, and some operate in closed fuel cycle, meaning they consume their own waste in the generation of electricity. Yet interest in developing these technologies is indifferent at best and funding is hard to come by. We are more comfortable decommissioning old nuclear plants and replacing them with conventionally acceptable fossil fuel powered plants because we’ve developed a fear based on three or four high-profile disasters. France, still staunchly nuclear and an advocate of Gen IV power, has never experienced a serious incident. In the long run, which approach will pose the greatest risk to humanity? The known and manageable risk of nuclear or the known and mismanaged risk of fossil fuels? (At this point I refer you to the third category of smokers still happily and/or addictively puffing away.)
I acknowledge that GMOs and nuclear power are both highly emotional topics and that I am dipping a toe in potentially volatile waters. Yet the charged emotional atmosphere that cloaks both of these issues is precisely why the Precautionary Principle was evolved. There is merit in being cautious, but there is greater reward for those who are prepared to take the risk.
My biomimicry colleagues talk about the “adjacent possible.” This is the door that opens after a necessary disruption. It is the event that makes another event possible. It is the shock that releases previously bound possibilities. How can we weigh current, unfounded fears against potential, unknown benefits? Are we closing all the doors and bolting all the hatches against a possibly brighter future? And are we unwilling to consider that future, smarter and better equipped future generations will be unable to address the problems that confound us today?
Resilience requires a commitment to the intersection of solutions rather than an iron grip on the ideology that only certain solutions are acceptable. Confidence that we know everything we need to know to solve the problems we face today is the road to ruin. The future is random and chaotic and change, not stasis, is the status quo. Yes, we must be careful and manage risk as best we can. However, the worst precautions we can take are rooted in the notion that the present is the future and things can’t progress.
Energy Manager News
- Local, State and the Federal Government Excel at Energy Efficiency
- CA, MA Tie for ACEEE Top Spot
- Integrated Dimmer/LED from Energy Focus
- In Duluth, This Month’s Utility Bills Include a Little Something Extra
- PSEG Surreptitiously Starts Retail Energy Supplier
- New Refrigerant Rules Will Have Long Term Impact
- Building Data Platform from Leviton
- Athens, OH, Nears $4.28M Retrofit Project