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Thoughts on the precautionary principle

Last night I heard an argument used in relation to the climate change argument and Man’s alleged role in driving it, that went along the following lines: We have a responsibility to ensuing generations, maybe even those around 1,000 years or so hence, which means we should do X or Y to curb CO2 emissions etc to ensure that these future generations’ lives are not blighted.

Now of course nothing is more likely to get your humble blogger annoyed than the “Do it for the children” line. The precautionary principle: do nothing if you cannot prove it will not cause harm – would have killed the Industrial Revolution at birth, prevented any life-saving drug from having been brought to market, been used to shut down scientific speculation, space-faring, advanced dental surgery, modern medicine, the whole 9 yards of human endeavour. And the problem with the argument that says “We have a responsibility to generations yet unborn” is that it demands a great deal. How on earth can I or others evaluate the proper limits or scope of such a responsibility? What about the Law of Unintended Consequences? For instance, if we adopt the PP, and we severely curtail the pace of industrial development, scientific advance or economic growth, will we not bring about disastrous consequences for our children, grand-children and so on? In fact, if folk want to bring up the issue of “Do it for the kids”, I tend to respond that if we are to take this sort of multi-generational responsibility, then we should go for as much freedom and growth as possible, and not the other way around.

Another way to think about this is from the position of scarcity, both in terms of time and resources. I only have so much time in my life to make the sort of adjustments that I might hope to benefit my kids, or my grandkids, or whatever. I also only have so many resources at my disposal. And with that in mind, I think that governments – which after all are only collections of persons – have only fixed resources and time at their disposal too, and that there are major tradeoffs to be considered in stifling a technology A to benefit a technology B. Simply repeating that we “owe it to our children” does not take us very far. All too often, in fact, the line about protecting future generations can easily descend into a form of argument by intimidation, a sort of moral bullying.

When it comes to bad arguments used in conversations on topics like this, Jamie Whyte’s gem of a book repays a lot of reading for avoiding pitfalls.

Of course, as a final point, the “Do it for the kids” argument frequently comes from those advocates of greater state controls who are blind to the damage that the state does, sometimes deliberately, to the institution of the family. The ironies abound.

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18 comments to Thoughts on the precautionary principle

  • RRS

    Is it not also interesting how so many (most?) of those who insist on the doctrine of “responsibility to future generations” decry the effects of insisting upon individual, personal responsibility on the part of the current generation – but would pass that latter to the “collective” by actions through the mechanisms of governments.

    There is the constant evasion in facing up to the fact that there are conflicts of obligations (which include responsibilities as a sub-category). Thus, there are conflicts in meeting obligations, as well as the how they are to be met.

  • TomC

    In addition, it should be realised that future generations in all likelihood will be a) wealthier than us, and b) possess technological advantages over us.

    The use of the PP will negate and diminish these two effects, increasing poverty and inequality for present and future generations. Such is the misanthropy of toxic environmentalist dogma.

  • APL

    “We have a responsibility to ensuing generations,”

    Odd that they are not too bothered about asking, nay, demanding that future generations pay off debt run up today.

    That is likely to me far more of a problem for ‘future generations’ than a couple of degrees elevated temperature.

  • Ben Franklin

    Of course you could make the same argument in reverse and say we can’t be sure that CO2 isn’t helping future generations so we should be cautious and produce as much of it as possible just in case. Both arguments are equal from a logical standpoint given the lack of scientific evidence for either position.

    The downside to using this approach is having to swab down the walls after your interlocutor’s head explodes.

  • William H Stoddard

    The precautionary principle seems to be Pascal’s wager under a new name.

  • William H. Stoddard,

    That was brilliant.
    When I use that line in my next barroom argument, I’ll do my best to give you credit.

  • chuck

    How does one control outcomes 1000 years in the future without being able to predict the impact of decisions made now on that future? Apart from the inadequacy of current climate models and the possibility of chaotic dynamics, it seems to me one would have to predict future technology, politics, and economics. Accurately, 1000 years in advance… Good luck with that.

  • Gareth

    Perhaps the precautionary priniciple should be changed from ‘do nothing unless you can prove it is safe’ to ‘don’t change what you’re doing unless someone proves it is harmful’.

    Much like different legal systems in which one tells you what you cannot do and the other tells you what you can do.

    Using warmist theories, burning fossil fuels is wholly good for the planet (more greenery) and the people (warmer, so less deaths in winter, more productive so people get wealthier).

  • Kevin B

    Do it for the future generations? Pah, what’ve the little bastards ever done for me?

    And don’t say they’re gonna pay off the massive debts we leave them. a) I didn’t leave them the debt. My poxy government left them that, and b) Inflation will pay off the debt. A trillion pounds, or euros or dollars, will be chump change to them.

    And anyway, they’ll all be Chinese, or Indian. By the time we finish wrecking our economy, our industry and our environment in the name of the bitch Gaia, they’ll be the ones flashing around in the jet cars and travelling to other planets.

    And yes, we’ll wreck our environment. Trying to keep 60 odd million people alive on this island without a decent energy base will cause an awful lot of damage to the environment. Imagine a winter like this one with a week long power cut in a few major cities. You’d have a job finding a hedghog in the place or a stick of firewood to cook it.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Pascal’s wager it is.

    It’s not so much a principle, more a debating tactic demonstrating a lack of principles, a fallacy, an appeal to emotion, a rhetorical cheat. It seeks to short-circuit the natural requirement to justify one’s claims with the weight of possible consequences in case they could be true. And in practice it is always applied selectively – to emphasise potential costs on one side of the argument while neglecting the costs on the other.

    Overuse of the precautionary fallacy may cause the universe to explode, as its logical foundations are eroded by this nonsense. We cannot quantify the risk of that, or say for certain when it will happen, but that should not stop us taking swift and decisive action to prevent such irreversible, irreparable harm to the fabric of reality. We may be nearing a tipping point, so before engaging in precautionary thinking, think for a moment of the danger posed to the baby polar bears. Thank you for complying.

  • Laird

    The “precautionary principle” is merely the environazis’ attempt to shift of the burden of proof to those of us who favor technology and economic growth. Instead of their having to prove harm, they are requiring us to prove the lack of harm. If we accept that it’s game over; one can’t prove a negative.

    The PP is like the “prevent defense” in (American) football: the only thing it “prevents” is winning. Only instead of just losing a game we’re at risk of losing western society as we know it. Its advocates are at best fools and at worst traitors to civilization. They need to be called that to their faces, loudly and often.

  • veryretired

    Even if one accepts the precautionary position, for the sake of argument, the logical result would be support for serious and severe restrictions on the power of the state, not individuals.

    One of the reasons I don’t bother debating with dedicated collectivists is that their assumptions are necessarily counter-factual, i.e., they are required to construct a false reality in order to advance their arguments.

    In this case, the false reality is that technical, industrial, commercial development has been dangerous and harmful to human life on this planet, and that the regulatory, political powers in society are a repository of wisdom and morality whose efforts are required to save us from the predatory activities of commercially interested individuals.

    But any rational examination of the last few centuries clearly shows that it is the activities of totalitarian political entities, whether controlled by hereditary ruling groups or revolutionary political parties, which pose the most direct and dire threats not only to human life, but the ecological and environmental balance on the planet as well.

    Aside from the wars, pogroms, purges, famines, gulags, cultural revolutions, and cleansing campaigns based on ethnic or cultural or political/economic reasons, the most destructive environmental catastrophes on the globe occurred under the auspices and within the territories of the most totalitarian, repressive, statist regimes.

    The precautionary principle, then, if it were valid at all, would require first and foremost that the powers of the state and political classes be severely and ruthlessly restricted to very minimalist areas of public safety and prevention of violence, as it is that group and their activites which present the most serious threat to present and future generations.

    As I have said in other contexts, everything in the recent history and current situation of human development supports the expansion and enlargement of individual liberties, and the restriction and rigid containment of the state power.

    Literally hundreds of millions of voices call from innumerable unmarked, mass graves to warn us that the true threat, in any age, is from those who would wield the sword of the state against the individual, regardless of the claimed nobility of the cause.

    There are entire seas, and vast expanses of the territories of former collectivist, totalitarian states which are now so poisoned as to be uninhabitable, just as there are vast tracts underwater where there used to be small villages of people trying to live their lives, until some faceless commissar(s) decided a lake should be located there to serve a higher purpose for the “common good”.

    As Strelnikov said so clearly, “The personal life is dead in Russia.”, and, indeed, the lives of many persons, and the formerly hospitable environments they lived in, were destroyed utterly by the untrammeled abuse of state power.

    There is a cautionary tale indeed, from which could be derived several precautionary principles. None of them, however, would logically suggest turning the fate of our entire social, cultural, and economic lives and posterity over to the control of an amorphous group of venal, corruptible politicians.

  • why would the left want us to “do it for the children” when they spend so much time keeping the killing of the children legal?

  • Vercingetorix

    The precautionary principle is the same as Marx’s love for ‘humanity’ but hatred of actual people. Whatever obligation we as individuals possess towards everyone, we possess greater duty towards those closest to us: friends, family, companions and even acquaintances. No amount of philanthropy mitigates utter desertion of your children, for instance.

    Sometimes I think these Anointed, for want of a family, crusade for causes.

    My solution: more puppies! Fill the empty nests, responsible parents do not have time to campaign for BS.

  • William H Stoddard

    Gareth, I kind of like that version. “We can’t know if this particular act of the state will have good or bad effects; but the power of the state to do harm is so great that letting it do this risks immense damage to many people. Therefore the only safe course is to have it remain inactive.” It’s perfectly logical. Thank you for pointing it out.

    Bill Stoddard

  • Micha Elyi

    Ben Franklin’s remark that the PP can be worked both ways means Bill Stoddard’s attempt to liken the PP to Pascal’s Wager really cannot get off the ground. (Turn the conditions of Pascal’s Wager around and consider a God that demands one be disobedient to His will…)

    The preceding Theology Minute has been brought to you by someone pleased to not be the first one here to ask what have the little future generation bastards done for me. Thanks, Kevin B.

    The precautionary principle would not have killed the Industrial Revolution at birth because the PP fools would already have killed off the Stone Age at its birth. The PP more-caring-than-thou crowd would have bleated, “Can’t use up those flints, they’re a non-renewable resource; what about future generations, blah blah blah.”

    Enter anti-spambot Turing code:

  • William H Stoddard

    “Ben Franklin’s remark that the PP can be worked both ways means Bill Stoddard’s attempt to liken the PP to Pascal’s Wager really cannot get off the ground. ”

    I don’t think that that follows. Surely the fact that an argument can be used equally well to support entirely different conclusions from the same evidence is a defect of the mode that argument is in. As has in fact been illustrated for the original Pascal’s wager by pointing out that it can be used just as well to argue for Islam or Protestant fundamentalism as for Pascal’s Roman Catholicism. I don’t really see how “the precautionary principle can be used to argue either for shutting down all industry or for shutting down all government regulation of industry” fails to be parallel.

  • Surellin

    It seems to me that the Precautionary Principle contradicts itself. After all, we obviously cannot be certain that applying it will not cause untold suffering in future generations. I think that mentioning this in debate would result in another lefty-head-exploding scenario.