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.