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Tensions between the US and Iran are increasing. I see the threat of a nuclear Iran as a serious one, far more serious than the Iraq threat may have been. Reflect for a moment on the plea by folks to use the Precautionary Principle when it comes to environmental matters. Why, too, is this Principle not invoked in geopolitical matters? The Precautionary Principle would have us take measures to prevent really, really, really bad things from happening, even in the absence of evidence that this might happen. Indeed, the principle is invoked precisely as a way to have us ignore any possible scientific evidence in order to advance an objective.

In the world we typically live in, the kind of precaution we exercise is to not act (at least not consciously and collectively). Indeed, this should be attractive to those folks who understand the complex ordering of modern societies precludes perfect outcomes from being achieved. The precautionary principle is invoked to change the default order for society to being “act, and act collectively.” If you take such propositions seriously, how come they are not applied consistently? Think about global warming. We are being told to reduce carbon emissions by 80% below 1990- levels by 2050 or else … something bad might happen. Fine, let me accept that argument, despite it being a physical impossibility right now. Where are folks out there advocating that we “do something” about other serious threats? Wouldn’t consistency require that we invade Iran right now, or send an atomic bomb over there to flatten every molecule within their borders? Sure, that is costly, but there is a possibility that they will unleash nuclear weapons and bioterrorism on us and Israel. There is no scientific way to prove that they will or they won’t and surely the possibility that they will bomb us is out there, so I say let’s launch our missiles.

If you wish to argue we ought not preemptively nuke the Iranians, why not? Rolling back modern civilization to get an 80% emissions reduction may kill as many people, albeit unidentifiable at the outset, so I am not convinced by the “we are killing people in one case and not the other” arguments. What other threats are out there? I submit that we should eliminate the use of ALL anti-biotics today. Why? Because our overuse of them has encouraged bacteria to evolve to become more powerful and we may end up creating the Superbug of Superbugs – the mother of all infections, that will wipe out far more of the human race than global warming could ever do in the worst scenarios. On what grounds should we not exercise caution in the use of antibiotics yet use caution when it comes to global warming?

Or finally, what if I offer up the suggestion that, “we ought to subsidize the building of millions of churches so that we can all go and pray that global warming will not doom us” as the “do something” response to the global warming crisis. Would you object to such a plea? I’d guess that you’d say yes. On what grounds would you say yes? I submit that you’d say that “praying for less serious consequences will not affect whether we get less serious or more serious consequences.” And I’d ask you, “how do you know?” I suspect you’d have to invoke science. In other words, you’d have to rely on the very axiom you are trying not to rely on in order to justify your preferred conclusion. You can’t do that, at least not if you are interested in being taken seriously. But I don’t suspect many of us really want to be. Well, that’s not quite right. I just think many of us are delusional — including yours truly.

5 Responses to “Sustainability and the Precautionary Principle”

  1. It seems a bit more complicated to me. For one thing, different people and different groups of people maintain different premises and conclusions both within the Global Warming and the Nuclear Iran sets. Just for myself, I believe that global warming and global cooling are obvious facts. Human impact is another question entirely, not proved to me at all. Even if it were true – which it may be – it might not be bad. I was going to open a P.O. Box for “The Michigan Citrus Growers Association” but I moved to Austin. Here, the next stage would be Texas Bedouins. As for Iran, too many of my Objectivist friends think that it is perfectly all right to kill a million innocents just to stop the production of an atomic bomb. To me, that seems like false economy. But when you look at the run-up to World War II, you can’t help but wonder what a hardline stance in 1937 by the democracies would have saved, assuming that Estonia and Finland were as important to them as Czechoslovakia and France. It’s complicated, that’s for sure…

  2. Rod says:

    I’m old enough to have lived under the threat of the draft. After the momentary thrill of being issued a draft card that indicated I was 18 years old and could buy alcohol in New York (the draft part of the card meant draft beer, right?) I ordered my life according to the rules and precepts of Local Board 108.

    The military draft, I thought then and now, was a peculiar kind of slavery — you could behave in order to qualify for various deferments or you could simply submit to induction into the army, one of those voluntary acts you would commit or else go to jail. One could also volunteer for service in the Navy, Coast Guard or Marines. My Agway fieldman told me that he enlisted in the Coast Guard, thinking his assignment would be guarding the coast of the United States (Newport, New York, Fort Lauderdale, etc.), but instead he got to guard the Mekong Delta as a bow gunner on a swift boat. At any rate, there were limits on what you could do according to Local Board 108, and grad school, including law school, was not one of them.

    Also, it was common knowledge that the United States was fighting a “limited war” in Vietnam, which meant that the sacrifice of one’s life would likely be for nothing resembling a military victory over the communists in Vietnam. Robert McNamara and LBJ did not want to win the war for fear of drawing the Russians into World War III (one of those things that might have happened, but that, it turns out, grossly overestimated the Russians’ ability to keep up with us in the military technology business).

    Well, I managed to avoid the draft without being a draft dodger and a Canadian, and I vowed to myself that I would never advocate going to war unless there were very, very, very good reasons to do so.

    So now it appears that the Iranians might either develop nuclear weapons on their own or buy them from the Russians or the North Koreans. Ron Paul supporters cite Israel’s possession of 60 or more nuclear missiles as a reason why we need not worry about threatening Iran with wholesale destruction ourselves, but the Iranians proclaim that a nuclear exchange with Israel would be the conflagration that would usher in the return of the Mahdi and the ascent of all card-carrying Muslims into heaven. In other words, mutually assured destruction is not a principle that would deter the Iranians.

    It’s also possible that Israel will go ahead and bomb Iran’s nuclear development facilities and assassinate the Russian scientists who know how to make atomic bombs. But that will not prevent the Iranians from just buying nukes from Putin or Kim Junior.

    The iranians could also buy intercontinental missiles from Russia, China or NK. They could then launch nuclear weapons aimed at the United States. Again, would MAD work while mad men rule Iran?

    Now, we just can’t afford to fight wars for far-flung nations that are not dependable allies. It has to be the Afghans’ concern to keep the Taliban from imposing islamic law onto the people of Afghanistan, even if it means women are treated like dirt there. Iraq is another thing, however: I worry that we are about to squander what we’ve gained there, and that Mookie will make it possible for Iraq to be a client state of Iran.

    So vote for me, the perfect alternative.

  3. chuck martel says:

    What’s with all the “we/them” rhetoric? If some individual or group wants to put a big parasol over their section of Nevada, it’s OK with me, as long as I don’t have to pay for it. I don’t really care if a privately financed group of anxious paranoids sets about ridding Iran of nuclear scientists, I can’t do much about it anyway. The Iranian population is hardly monomaniacal when it comes to intimidating the rest of the planet, most of them are worried about a 19% inflation rate and the fact that their money is turning into wastepaper. As usual, it’s the power-mad politicians pulling the levers of state machinery that endanger the well-being of the normals. A compulsion to control the lives of others should be recognized as a mental illness requiring therapy or institutionalization, not as qualification for elective office.

  4. Harry says:

    The Kyoto folks proposed a reduction in CO2 to 80% of 1990 levels, but there was a catch: if, for example, an American power company needed to exceed their base level, they could buy carbon credits.

    I doubt that anybody (except for a few) expected US power companies to cut production and black out the country. Rather, it was likely that along with the price of fuel, the power company would buy a permission slip to burn whatever, and pass the cost on to the customer.

    Either way the idea was to cripple the US economy by increasing the cost of energy, and simultaneously ship money to the holders of the carbon credits. So what if there was no evidence supporting the belief that CO2 reduction was the solution to a problem? The UN members were excited about all that money coming their way.

  5. Harry says:

    And above I spent time on the IPCC and mere trillion dollar problems that may or may not defeat the West.

    Mark Helprin has a great op ed in the Wednesday Journal. Maybe wintercow can use his blog power to provide a link. I wish we had developed the neutron bomb, and hope we have not stopped developing ways to defeat our mortal enemies.

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