Episode 23: Carolyn Raffensperger
Carolyn Raffensperger, JD, is the executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network and the co-editor of Precautionary Tools for Shaping Environmental Policy and Protecting Public Health and the Environment. Not surprisingly, she is well known for her work on the precautionary principle (you can find her TEDx talk here), but her thought ranges across a wide variety of questions that address the relationship between law and the environment.
This is the first substantive discussion of law in The Conversation but, as always, we range over a variety of other topics including science as a social institutions, the tension between the individual and the collective, and spirituality. Utilitarianism is a large part of this conversation and Carolyn argues that it is the invisible idea beneath much of our socially and environmentally reckless behavior.
Carolyn’s episode connects to a large number of other conversations in the project, from moments of resonance with Timothy Morton and Wes Jackson to a sharp critique of Max More and Robert Zubrin. The back-and-forth between More’s proactionary principle and Raffensperger’s precautionary principle is especially intriguing.
The episode concludes with a suggestion that The Conversation is not amongst our interviewees, but between interviewees and audience. Does Carolyn’s critique destroy the hypothesis beneath this project? Rest assured, Micah and I will discuss ad nauseam.
Talk about a prime example of self-contradiction.
CFCs inert, not inflamable and safe. People didn’t even know there was an ozone layer. Question: what would the precautionary principle have done for us in this case? Nothing! It could not have prevented any damage at all, because all knowledge, even with the best of intentions to proof otherwise, was insufficient to find any way in which they could have done harm.
Microwaves are another prime example. She says rightly, that microwave ovens won’t hurt anybody. We can say that with a high degree of confidence, beyond the ever doubtful claims of the experts, only because they have been used by hundreds of millions of people with no discernible harm for decades. Following the precautionary principle, the very first company to sell microwaves would have had the burden to proof that microwaves don’t do harm. A proof they had absolutely no way to provide the public with.
The precautionary principle prevents conversation exactly by shifting the burden of proof on the acting party in perpetuity. It is true that the acting party must not be freed from the responsibility of ensuring that no unacceptable harm will be done (if you build a stairway, somebody will come to harm on it at some point, but a bruised knee is acceptable harm).
But the demand to proof that a particular action must not do unacceptable harm at some point comes with the responsibility to proof that non-action will not cause unacceptable harm either. It is very well possible, that both positions can be proven wrong at the same time!
In this case, it is the party propagating non-action that would have the burden of proof that inaction will not be harmful. Since it cannot (in this scenario), it must either provide an alternative action which would do less harm or … well, the technical term is “shut up”, I think.
A practical example is nuclear waste. Any objection against the flaws of a nuclear waste repository must be measured against the yardstick of the status quo, unless an alternative is provided – which the protest against nuclear repositories (not just in the US) emphatically doesn’t do.
You may rightfully claim, given sufficient proof(!), that Yucca mountain (for example) is not suitable indefinite storage on a scale of 100,000 years or so. But unless an alternative is provided, you simply enforce the status quo. Namely: unreenforced on-site storage in facilities that very certainly will not will not withstand an airplane crash, that will not last even 100 years without human intervention, that are in a word: incomparably less secure than the bowels of Yucca mountain.
The adherence to the (possibily misunderstood) precautionary principle has lead to a situation which is worse for all parties involved, for the very simple of obvious reasons mentioned.
This is one justification of the protesting party having the burden of proof. Beyond that, producing a proof of harm should not be difficult at all. In the case of fracking, the problem is not producing a proof. The problem is information of which chemicals are being used, that is withheld from the public. But this cannot be repaired by shifting the burden of proof, but it can easily be repaired by demanding that the public must be informed of every ounce of every chemical that is being used in the process. In this case, proving the possibility of harm to the public (if large quantities of toxic chemicals are being used) is unproblematic and the burden of proof not a burden at all.
Furthermore, the whole of the precautionary principle is based on the idea that all good is irrelevant. The whole principle is exclusively concerned with harm done, not with good being done.
If you could feed all of the 900 million malnourished people in the world with suffient food with the only caveat that their cancer rates will rise by 10%, the precautionary principle will tell you, that you’re immoral for even considering any action that would let the rate of cancer rise. And yes, of course you’re doing harm to those people that way. Of course you’ll have millions of relatives suffering from their loved-ones getting cancer. This hurts, as I know from my own experience.
But a world with more cancer and less malnoutrition would be a wonderful one! The precautionary principle is incapable to recognize this, because it fails to see absolutly any of the good being done by any action. It only measures an action by harm being done.
Of course, this is a preconceived argument, as you will notice right away. But this doesn’t diminish the relevance.
It is not a question of morality at all. This is merely a matter of phrasing questions. People are mortal and they die from uncured diseases and conditions. In the developed world often because the condition is uncurable to begin with – such as many cancers.
Just feeding the 900mio malnourished people with the most healthy food imaginable would raise cancer rates among them by much more than 10% – because they would no longer die of other causes related to their malnutrition and even live to see the day they develop cancer, which is a good all by itself – even though the result is not. If you’re true to the precautionary principle, you would have to stop feeding them, because feeding them has caused cancers to skyrocket.
No action can be evaluated if all your judgement is based on biased observation – and that is exactly what the precautionary principle is, or at the very least that’s what it has become in its actual application.
We must recognize that the good exists and that the bad exists and that we must come to terms with both of them in any action do or do not do.
Most of your interviewees so far failed to take account of one of the two in one respect or another.
Tp seems to be taking this principle on as a black and white valuation rather than a principle governing how we weigh decisions. I didn’t hear Ms. Raffensperger espousing anything so totalitarian. Certainly the principal is directly related to Wes Jackson’s work.
I would have liked to hear who wrote the paper she pulled the principle from – given her espoused values of community, I would have thought she would have named them. Anderson, did she, or was there more to that story that wasn’t relevant for the broadcast?
I was aslo struck once again by the idea that specialization destroys the relevance of the conversation and the power granted to the common man. I wonder if the weight of democracy isn’t becoming outdated and the need for a republic growing stronger as a consequence.
I really like her thesis as it stands against architecture. Historically, buildings that are short sighted in their construction materials, artistic qualities, and placement are short lived things of little monetary and community value. Taking these more expensive, longer term things into consideration (the precautionary principal) actually creates a building which has much greater returns in the long run. I’m again reminded of Wes Jackson’s work.
I just dove back into the unedited audio and did not hear a name for the grad student who proposed the collaborative dissertation about the Precautionary Principle. I did edit the section about the Principle, so I wanted to double-check. Thanks for asking. If you–or anyone else reading–have any questions about omissions, don’t hesitate to ask. Unfortunately, a lot of material always ends up on the cutting room floor. Generally, I’ll remove details that are unnecessary to an example or an entire example if it repeats a previously substantiated argument.