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Ruin is forever: When the precautionary principle is justified

General Ideas

If you are dead, you cannot mount a comeback. If all life on Earth were destroyed by, say, a large comet impact, there would be no revival. Ruin is forever.

The destruction of all life on Earth is not 10 times worse than the destruction of one-tenth of all life on Earth. It is infinitely worse. A fall of 1 foot is not one-tenth as damaging to the human body as a fall of 10 feet, nor is it one-hundredth as damaging as a fall of 100 feet (which is very likely to be lethal). Walking down a stairway with one-foot-high steps, we are typically immune to any damage at all. Thus, we can say in both instances above that the harm rises dramatically (nonlinearly) as we move toward any 100 percent lethal limit.

It is just these properties–scope and severity–that most humans seem blind to when introducing innovations into society and the environment according to a recent paper entitled “The Precautionary Principle: Fragility and Black Swans from Policy Actions.” The paper comes from the Extreme Risk Initiative at the New York University School of Engineering and one of its authors, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is well-known to my readers.

The concepts in the paper are applicable to systemic problems such as climate change. But the paper addresses only two specific issues, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nuclear power, to illustrate its main points.

The precautionary principle refers to a policy that demands proof that an innovation in not broadly harmful to humans or the environment before it is deployed. We are referring here to public policy issues, not decisions by individuals. The question the paper tries to answer is: When should this principle be invoked in public policy?

The answer the authors give is surprisingly simple: when the risk of ruin is systemic. That doesn’t mean that they suggest no steps to mitigate risk when ruin might only be local, say, the explosion of a fireworks factory. But, they feel that such an event falls within the realm of risk management. An explosion at one fireworks factory cannot set off a chain reaction around the world. Individuals in and around the plant might be ruined. But all of humanity would not ruined.

In the two examples covered in the paper, GMOs and nuclear power, the authors come to the surprising conclusion that nuclear power on a small scale does not warrant invoking the precautionary principle. Small-scale nuclear power does warrant careful risk management and cost/benefit analysis. Whether the damaged reactors at Fukushima would fall into the category of small-scale nuclear power isn’t clear. Their effects were worldwide, even if small in most places.

GMOs, however, offer a classic case of unforeseeable systemic ruin. We will know we are ruined by this untried technology after the ruin happens (perhaps in the form of famine or widespread human health and/or environmental effects). The authors categorically reject the notion that modern genetic engineering of plants is no more dangerous than traditional selective breeding.

This is because traditional methods are tried on a small scale and only achieve large scale acceptance and use over time if they are successful, that is, demonstrate no drastic side-effects or failures. This mimics nature’s bottom-up approach to evolution; the changes affected this way are gradual, not drastic–and, of course, they don’t involve transferring genetic material from completely different species, say, from a fish into a tomato.

Proponents will say that cross-species transfer of genetic material takes place in nature as well. But its scope is limited and its survivability and evolutionary fitness are tested over long periods during which these changes either thrive or disappear.

The top-down approach of the GMO industry introduces GMO crops everywhere across the world in a short period and combines one risk–untested genetic combinations–with another grave risk–monoculture. The long-term product of these two risks is unknown. But it is rightly categorized as systemic. GMO crops are now deployed worldwide and they can and do also contaminate non-GMO crops and wild plants through pollination.

Crops created through selective breeding have long histories of success and toxicities that are well understood and unlikely to change suddenly. As each new GMO crop is deployed, we cannot know ahead of time whether it will lead to systemic health and/or environment problems because there is little testing and, in any case, the amount of experience we have with GMO crops is far, far shorter than for the products of traditional selective breeding.

With each step we take in the production and deployment of new GMO seeds, we are playing a game of Russian roulette. The first few times we’ve pulled the trigger, we did not get catastrophic systemic effects–not yet, at least. But, since there is a nonzero risk of such effects, the probability of creating catastrophic outcomes becomes certain over time. The risk is virtually 100 percent that we will ultimately reach the chamber in the Russian roulette gene gun that causes catastrophic and widespread damage to humans and/or the environment.

Saying that there is no evidence so far that this will happen is a failure to understand that hidden systemic risk can often only show up on very long time scales. And, of course, when that risk does show up, it’s too late to do anything. Remember: when we manipulate a gene or genes inside a plant, we are not doing just one thing. Without knowing it, we are affecting multiple systems in the plant and in the environment the plant lives in. We are creating multiple possible pathways to ruin.

This is just a short preview of the article cited above. The article is quite accessible to a lay reader and, in places, even entertaining. I encourage you to read the whole thing. It is the most rigorous statement to date concerning the precautionary principle and risk in that it outlines clear criteria for judging when that principle should be invoked and when it should not be.

Resource Insights by (Kurt Cobb)

15 Comments on "Ruin is forever: When the precautionary principle is justified"

  1. Makati1 on Sun, 31st Aug 2014 8:10 pm 

    “… the authors come to the surprising conclusion that nuclear power on a small scale does not warrant invoking the precautionary principle. Small-scale nuclear power does warrant careful risk management and cost/benefit analysis…”


    And then there are countries like”
    “…Historically, this latest eruption of American militarism at the start of the 21st Century is akin to that of America opening the 20th Century by means of the U.S.-instigated Spanish-American War in 1898. Then the Republican administration of President William McKinley stole their colonial empire from Spain in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines; inflicted a near genocidal war against the Filipino people; while at the same time illegally annexing the Kingdom of Hawaii and subjecting the Native Hawaiian people (who call themselves the Kanaka Maoli) to near genocidal conditions…Today a century later the serial imperial aggressions launched and menaced by the Republican Bush Jr. administration and now the Democratic Obama administration are threatening to set off World War III….”

    True. Ruin IS forever … GMO or nuclear.

  2. Bandits on Sun, 31st Aug 2014 10:18 pm 

    Few have little idea………..
    When the first atomic bomb was detonated, there were some scientists that calculated a less than zero possibility that the explosion could runaway, yet they did it anyway. Then we made enough nuclear bombs to wipe out everything on Earth, we still live with that possibility.

    We brought back rock samples from the moon, there was a danger with unknowns there, yet we did it anyway. We manufacture pathogens for germ warfare, we burn stuff relentlessly and inject CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans in life ending quantaties.

    There are 400 odd nuclear reactors and several thousand waste cooling ponds requiring grid supplied electricity. We continue to devastate with depletion and pollute the land, rivers, seas, oceans and their inhabitants. We have sent and continue to send to extinction inumerable species of flora, fauna, fish and even insects.

    We have built a world so complex that even a mediocre disruption to BAU could crash humanity into a runaway die off.

    Humans for seventy years have been living with the inevitability that we will one day send ourselves to extinction. We must be used to it now. As they say “could get hit by a bus tomorrow” so let some other *ucker worry about it.
    I know I do because there is sweet FA I can do about it. There are too many crazy *uckers out there and too few, that even entertain me for more than a few minutes when I try to explain…..

  3. Makati1 on Mon, 1st Sep 2014 3:04 am 

    Bandits, we have a few on here with the same limited ability to listen and understand that our days are numbered as a species no matter what we do at this point. We are Wile Coyote standing in air and many of us refuse to look down, as if it will change the ending if we don’t acknowledge it.

    I don’t fear it. I have lived 70 years. I could die while I type my reply. It is liberating when you accept death as a constant companion and don’t fear it. You are open to the reality that others prefer to not see or acknowledge.
    I know more about the East than most as I live here. it is my Mexico and Canada, so I pay attention to what is happening here. I also see what is happening in the USSA as I get a two week ‘snapshot’ of the changes when I visit family and friends annually. What I say/write is what I see at the moment.

    That some disagree does not change my observations or thoughts on the future. I read those who disagree with me, to get their viewpoint of reality. Sometimes it is so far off base that I laugh and move on. Others show proof of their assertions and I reconsider my viewpoint. That process was once called learning. So many in the West are not able to learn. The mind-washing has been too effective. I am a world citizen, if such is possible. All countries are equal. None are “exceptional”. And life is exciting…

  4. JuanP on Mon, 1st Sep 2014 8:24 am 

    Mak “It is liberating when you accept death as a constant companion and don’t fear it. You are open to the reality that others prefer to not see or acknowledge.”
    I agree, Mak. My cronic and acute clinical depression has had me suicidal for most of my life, since I was a very small child.
    I have realized that the fact that I don’t give a shit about anything is one of the causes of my extraordinary honesty and lack of prejudice. As far as I am concerned the whole world, myself included, is completely fucked up. That is why I am not for or against any people, countries, or ideologies. It is a lonely place to be, the middle, in today’s world.
    I agree with many of your comments and the way you see many things, but I can see that you resent the US government and its people, and I can understand. I resented many things about my country for close to two decades, until I stopped caring. Letting go of that resentment has increased my peace of mind, I hope you do, too, someday, let go of it. I like your mind, you are a good thinker.

  5. Perk Earl on Mon, 1st Sep 2014 8:45 am 

    “Walking down a stairway with one-foot-high steps.”

    Ah, no. Stairs typically have a ~7″ rise and a ~12″ tread.

  6. shortonoil on Mon, 1st Sep 2014 9:14 am 

    Birds have wings, turtles have shells. Nature has provided each creature with a survival mechanism. Humans were given complex culture, and the subsequent ability to develop technology. This has been the most successful mechanism that nature has ever devised. Our species has exploded across the planet, taking every niche, every square foot as its own terrain.

    We have evolved what we call “relational cognition”, the ability to think, but like all other creatures that we share this planet with, we are driven by our instincts. Those four basic instructions that are coded into our DNA. Territorial dominance, social status, reproduction, and survival are the fundamental imperatives that we must obey. When we think that we think we are only using our survival tool to fulfill our most basic instinctual mandates.

    We like to think that we are free creatures. That we are given the ability to choose, and decide our own fate. That we are “the captain of our fate, and the master of our souls”. Our instincts say otherwise. Our limits are not internal, they are external. They are coal, oil, fresh water, arable land. We have used our cleverness to extract every possible benefit from them that they can provide. When we have reached the limits of nature’s new experimental tool, relational cognition, we will have reached the end of our reign on this planet.

    Will our species go extinct? All species are taken by nature to a state of oblivion; apparently their usefulness to Her is only temporary. Things do look grim; we have broken our own wings, dissolved our shell, and fouled our own nest. But, if She is finished with us, is something we will never know!

  7. Davy on Mon, 1st Sep 2014 9:32 am 

    Juan, I admire you honesty and fortitude with an illness. I have had a rough life also. I have found everyone has demons. It is those who can turn their demons into angels that excell in life. Those who face challenges and adversity and survive tend to have mental and physical strength.

  8. JuanP on Mon, 1st Sep 2014 10:00 am 

    Davy, I like my life because I am extremely curious, and my curiosity defines me in many ways. More than anything I want to understand what’s going on around the world today. We are creatures of habit. We can get used to almost anything. I can tell from the way you think, your mind has been around a bit more than most. 😉
    Life is full of surprises. If anyone would have told me a year ago that I’d be focussed on Russia for months this year, I would not have believed it, but here I am. Russia is a subject that I have ignored and discriminated against all my life, never particularly cared about the place or people, it was too far and irrelevant to my personal life, and I don’t speak the language. After the end of the USSR I totally lost my interest in Russia and Russians. Now I am studying them very carefully, trying to learn more about them, and also understand them better.

  9. JuanP on Mon, 1st Sep 2014 10:02 am 

    Putin being the only exception. I have always found him very interesting. A terrible enemy to have, IMO.

  10. jmb on Mon, 1st Sep 2014 4:22 pm 

    Mr. Cobb obviously believes life on earth was a huge accident, and it’s the survival of the fittest.
    The extinction of all life on earth does not mean the end. It is my conviction that if something can be done once, it can be done twice.

  11. Bandits on Mon, 1st Sep 2014 4:52 pm 

    Accident or not, it matters very little. The Sun is a normal variable star and is brightening and Earth will be shifted out of the habitable zone within a half billion years. Life struggled to take hold for several billion years, the burst of life we are now experiencing occurred over a relatively short period.

    The eruption of life on Earth was a one off event. There is no “done twice”.

  12. Makati1 on Tue, 2nd Sep 2014 9:53 am 

    JuanP, I can understand your viewpoint. I could just ignore the US and it’s actions, but I cannot. It disgusts me as I called it home for most of my life and resent finding out that most of it has been a lie.

    Now that my eyes have been opened, I can see the brainwashing that started in my early years and got progressively stronger as I grew older. The whole system has been nothing but a scam run by the banking cartel and a few greedy, powerful people who have no morals or feelings of guilt.

    I’m comfortable here in the Ps and will stay here even if I have to live in a bamboo and palm frond hut, eating coconuts, fish and bananas. ^_^

  13. R1verat on Tue, 2nd Sep 2014 10:47 am 

    Juan~Completely agree with your philosophy & subscribe to this myself.

    Mak~ Completely agree with most of what you say, other than the continual diatribe against the US. Once we’ve all heard this a zillion times, you’d think you’d get it that we all know your position. You are like a reformed smoker! Too bad you discredit yourself & your views by tainting most of what you say with the anti-US raving.

  14. JuanP on Tue, 2nd Sep 2014 11:21 am 

    Mak, reading your words, was like reading my own thoughts about my country. I am still horrified when I think of all the lies and falsehoods I was told when growing up. I haven’t gone back to my country, Uruguay, in more than 18 years. I am forever pissed with them.
    Same thing, different countries. 😉

  15. jmb on Tue, 2nd Sep 2014 8:13 pm 

    250m years ago there was a major extinction where 90% of all life was extincted. It took about 10m years for new species to appear. It doesn’t matter if it’s 90% or 100%, it will happen again

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