Preparing for the future: should we be precautionary or proactionary?
Summary: We face so many shockwaves — potentially high-impact events, usually estimated at low probability over years or decades (global warming being the exception). How do we assess the danger and decide how much of our scarce resources to allocate for prevention and mitigation of each? Today we look at two ways to assess these risks so that we can prepare better than we do today (easy since we almost nothing today).
- A new solution: the Proactionary Principle
- Preparing for Shockwaves
- For More Information
(1) A new solution: the Proactionary Principle
Excerpts from Max More’s website, Version 1.2, 29 July 2005. Please read the full description and analysis there. It was written by Max More, based in large part on Extropy Institute’s Vital Progress Summit I, 2004 and the Keynote statements and Summit participants.
People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies a range of responsibilities for those considering whether and how to develop, deploy, or restrict new technologies. Assess risks and opportunities using an objective, open, and comprehensive, yet simple decision process based on science rather than collective emotional reactions. Account for the costs of restrictions and lost opportunities as fully as direct effects. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have the highest payoff relative to their costs. Give a high priority to people’s freedom to learn, innovate, and advance.
(b) Principle Against Progress
The precautionary principle appears to have originated with the German principle of Vorsorgeprinzip. No single formulation of the principle has been universally adopted. Variations exist between influential formulations, such as those involved in the North-Sea conferences from 1984 to 1995, as well as those expressed in the Rio Declaration of 1992 and the UN Framework Climate Convention of 1992. All versions do have in common three elements:
- The possibility of harm to humans or the environment, resulting from a technology or activity;
- scientific uncertainty regarding cause-effect relationships; and
- the justifiability of taking precautionary measures.
According to the popular and relatively clear version found in The Wingspread Declaration (1999), the precautionary principle states that:
- “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not established scientifically.”
In this context, the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
… Variants of the precautionary principle differ in a second important way, depending on whether they include a cost-effectiveness clause. The Rio Declaration of 1992 incorporated such a clause:
- “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures.”
(c) What’s Wrong with the Precautionary Principle?
The precautionary principle has at least six major weak spots. It serves us badly by:
- assuming worst-case scenarios
- distracting attention from established threats to health, especially natural risks
- assuming that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive or neutral, never negative
- ignoring potential benefits of technology and inherently favoring nature over humanity
- illegitimately shifting the burden of proof and unfavorably positioning the proponent of the activity
- conflicting with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.
(d) The Proactionary Principle
We can call this the Proactionary Principle so long as we realize that the underlying Principle is less like a sound bite than a set of nested Chinese boxes or Russian matroshka (babushka) dolls. If we pry open the lid of this introductory-level version of the Principle, we will discover ten component principles lying within:
- Freedom to innovate: Our freedom to innovate technologically is valuable to humanity. The burden of proof therefore belongs to those who propose restrictive measures. All proposed measures should be closely scrutinized.
- Objectivity: Use a decision process that is objective, structured, and explicit. Evaluate risks and generate forecasts according to available science, not emotionally shaped perceptions; use explicit forecasting processes; fully disclose the forecasting procedure; ensure that the information and decision procedures are objective; rigorously structure the inputs to the forecasting procedure; reduce biases by selecting disinterested experts, by using the devil’s advocate procedure with judgmental methods, and by using auditing procedures such as review panels.
- Comprehensiveness: Consider all reasonable alternative actions, including no action. Estimate the opportunities lost by abandoning a technology, and take into account the costs and risks of substituting other credible options. When making these estimates, carefully consider not only concentrated and immediate effects, but also widely distributed and follow-on effects.
- Openness/Transparency: Take into account the interests of all potentially affected parties, and keep the process open to input from those parties.
- Simplicity: Use methods that are no more complex than necessary
- Triage: Give precedence to ameliorating known and proven threats to human health and environmental quality over acting against hypothetical risks.
- Symmetrical treatment: Treat technological risks on the same basis as natural risks; avoid underweighting natural risks and overweighting human-technological risks. Fully account for the benefits of technological advances.
- Proportionality: Consider restrictive measures only if the potential impact of an activity has both significant probability and severity. In such cases, if the activity also generates benefits, discount the impacts according to the feasibility of adapting to the adverse effects. If measures to limit technological advance do appear justified, ensure that the extent of those measures is proportionate to the extent of the probable effects.
- Prioritize (Prioritization): When choosing among measures to ameliorate unwanted side effects, prioritize decision criteria as follows: (a) Give priority to risks to human and other intelligent life over risks to other species; (b) give non-lethal threats to human health priority over threats limited to the environment (within reasonable limits); (c) give priority to immediate threats over distant threats; (d) prefer the measure with the highest expectation value by giving priority to more certain over less certain threats, and to irreversible or persistent impacts over transient impacts.
- Renew and Refresh: Create a trigger to prompt decision makers to revisit the decision, far enough in the future that conditions may have changed significantly.
——————— End of Excerpts ———————————————
(2) Preparing for shockwaves
These are so many shockwaves: scenarios with high impacts but of low probability (over short time horizons; of course they’re seldom sold as low probability by activists). Many studies have shown the people have little grasp of shockwaves’ probabilities and risks. Today analysis of shockwaves is done almost exclusively by special interest groups (often academic or non-profits) who have vested interests in the relevant field.
We need to analyze each to learn the its impact AND probability. Otherwise these are just nightmares, impossible to rationally discuss.
The precautionary principle is usually described as the tool of choice for analysis of individual threats, such as climate change. But it does not work well for the full universe of shockwaves. Also the US and world have many mundane needs that deserve funding, which must be compared with the need to prevent and mitigate shockwaves. Since resources are finite, we must access their relative importance — which few of these special interest groups around each shockwave bother to do.
There is a better way to do this.
To provide Congress and the public with recommendations, the government could create a Commission (with staff, amply funded) to collect as many shockwave scenarios as possible, with a brief analysis of each. Fortunately there are thousands of interest groups willing to pitch in and help! Then they could apply a common analytical framework to rate each shockwave in terms of probability and impact. The proactionary principle proves a framework for doing so.
The results would provide a basis for discussion and further analysis.
(3) For More Information
(a) Responding to shockwaves:
- We are so vulnerable to so many things. What is the best response?, 30 December 2008
- My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009
(b) Posts about shockwaves:
- Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off, 8 May 2008
- Comment: warnings about a reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, 30 December 2008
- About our certain doom from the Yellowstone supervolcano, 11 January 2009
- More shockwave events to worry about, in addition to peak oil and global warming, 15 January 2009
- Bad news for India, probably for China, perhaps for the US as well, 11 September 2009 — About peak fresh water
- A serious threat to us – a top priority shockwave – a hidden danger!, 20 January 2010 — About Xenoestrogens as a pollutant
- More about shockwaves of the volcanic kind, 21 April 2010
- Damn the research! We need to act now to stop global warming., 17 August 2010