Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The problems of precautionary thinking in politics, and why we should stop it

I arrived at this post after writing a short book review [book X]. Although it began as a criticism of environmental thinking, I expanded it into a criticism of precautionary thinking, and hypothesis led doom-mongering in general.

The issue I have with highlighting problems is that is does not, necessarily, lead to action to solve the problem. It may lead to actions which create other problems instead; for example: biofuels and biomass were part of a package of "solutions" aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, but, IMO, it primarily led to more pressure on wildlife habitats. There are better alternatives to biofuels and biomass: which are more protective of nature, economically more efficient, and emit less CO2. Example 2: Banning neonicotinoids will reduce agricultural yields, or lead farmers to adopt worse solutions, and fool us into thinking we've solved a problem we haven't. Recent findings indicate[1, 2] that declining bee populations are mostly a man-made problem nothing to do with neonicotinoids.

The general pattern behind mamy enviro bans, and much rule-making is the "Precautionary Principle", PP. There's also a weak form of this which I call precautionary reasoning. With precautionary reasoning, the hypothetical threat, need not pose an existential danger, just a serious one; or a serious danger viewed by a minority. Let me return to my issues with "highlighting problems": greens see this as raising awareness, and part of a necessary media work / lobbying to change things for the better. In enviro thinking, every problem highlighted leads to a potential problem solved. I disagree. In many cases, it just leads to cynicism, or despair. I first began to realize this long ago from studying post-structuralist, post-modernist and Critical Theory, in the early 1980s. Reading Peter Sloterdijk's CCR[3] only hammered home the issue.

We see the fruits of raising awareness in the anti-nuclear power, and deep-green movements, in people like ... [names deleted!], a bunch of depopulators who lie incessantly. In my view, when we highlight problems which appear to have no solution, we make things worse because we fan despair and cynicism. In order not to fan despair and cynicism, when raising a problem, we are duty-bound to make sure that our solutions are:

  • actual solutions,
  • doable, e.g. economic and
  • beneficial to the majority.
We must apply cost-benefit reasoning. PP and precautionary reasoning are antithetical to cost-benefit reasoning. Precautionary reasoning is often used to short-circuit cost-benefit reasoning. Ideas similar to precautionary reasoning often pop up in other spheres too; especially in debates over crime, and security:
  • "We must pass this law because, if we can save just one child ..."
  • "We must monitor all communications to stop terrorism"
  • "We must take all possible measures (i.e. go to war in a foreign land) to eliminate terrorism. It is an existential threat to us"

At worse, precautionary reasoning often involves making up the existential threats too e.g.:

  • Tony Blair's dodgy dossier with Saddam's WMDs that are just 45 minutes away from striking at Britain.
  • The anti-war movement's nuclear winter.
  • Two-headed Fukushima babies, and God knows what other radiation myths that are really fraudulent products of the deep-green movement.
  • Atomic breeder reactors leading to nuclear weapons proliferation.

When they make up threats, precautionary thinkers think they're being responsible! The invented threats of nuclear power were seen by the likes of Amory Lovins and David Brower as legitimate issues to raise. The anti-nuclear power movement did not begin in bad faith (as a set of deliberate lies). It began to "raise our awareness" by posing hypothetical problems. The anti-nuclear power movement succeeded because the hypothetical risks they raised seemed to pose existential dangers to humanity. Their success was in convincing people that their hypothetic risks were real dangers. Hypothetical risks were taken as real scenarios to be guarded against. For example: atomic weapons proliferation concerns were a big reason why breeder reactor research slowed and became mired in red tape, and rules which actually prevent it.

I discussed these issues without once talking about democracy, or what the majority want and need. In my defence, I'll argue that a focus on precautionary reasoning disempowers democracy because it's used by state institutions to fortify the most anti-democratic elements of the state: the security services. But also, because, as I said, it tends to lead to cynicism, or despair, which can lead to people giving up on democratic change.

  1. Humans To Blame For Declining Bee Populations - Study
  2. Bee health update: Latest field studies again conclude neonicotinoids not key problem
  3. Critique of Cynical Reason, 1983, by Peter Sloterdijk. This book purports to be a critique of cynical reason, but ends up as a manifesto for cynicism. It's an inevitable paradox of posing problems for which you have no solution.

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