Saturday, August 28, 2010

Better safe than sorry

Be honest, the first time you had to pay for car insurance wasn’t when you first drove? At some point in your life, you ate a seven day old unrefrigerated pork chop and prayed you’d be close to a toilet just in case? Or you dove more than a hundred feet at the Puget Sound at night on one tank of air and forgot to check for remaining air pressure when you saw that giant octopus?

Okay, so maybe not everyone was as reckless as I was. I couldn’t help it for the most part. Most of my brain cells were presumably damaged either by the lack of oxygen from all those dept dives or by being knocked around so much from those daisy-chain IEDs in Iraq.

For your viewing pleasure, this is what a daisy-chain looks like:

Maybe I’ve been always reckless. I have fond memories of my grandparents citing instances of me as a unmanageable daredevil toddler: jumping in the deep-end of the pool before I knew how to swim; jumping off the bed headfirst into the concrete floor pretending to be the Monkey-King; sticking my finger under the needle of a moving sewing machine to see how it would feel; chasing farmers and their chickens for a few miles before I could form a complete sentence to let them know where I lived. I was always being rescued by unintended adult supervisors and punished accordingly. To this day, I carry a few ugly scars as a reminder of my own stupidity.

As I got older, I developed a sense of reservations for these reckless things. I had told myself when I turn thirty that even though I had no self-control to stay out of trouble, I would at least take out insurance just in case. I began to pay my health insurance on time. Life insurance payments became a monthly deductible from my checking account. I actually upgraded my car insurance above the state minimum requirements. I had learned that life is too short already and until I can see the secret of forever young in clear scientific evidences and shed my guilt for those people who love me dearly, I should be cautious: better safe than sorry.

And so, when I read-up on the Precautionary Principle, I thought to myself: make sense.

[w]e should avoid steps that will create a risk of harm; until safety is established through clear evidence, we should be cautious.

- The Paralyzing Principle, Regulation 32 (Winter 2002-2003) Cass R. Sunstein:
The principle has been a fundamental part of modern environmentalism, reflected in legal documents such as the 1992 Declaration of Principles by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

The Rio Declaration states:

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 to prevent environmental degradation.

Over the years, this principle has been seen as a kind of plea for regulatory insurance. But Sunstein pointed to an alluring counterargument, that it is almost paralyzing to human progress:

[T]he principle cannot be fully defended . . . simply because risks are on all sides of social situations. Any effort to be universally precautionary will be paralyzing, forbidding every imaginable step, including no step at all.

Sunstein goes on to point out an unobjectionable weak version of the principle, taking steps and incurring costs to avoid hazards that are far from certain: avoiding dangerous areas at night, exercise for health reasons, buy smoke detectors, buckling seatbelts, avoiding moldy pork chops, etc.

He then objects to the strong version of the principle adopted in 1982 by the United Nations World Charter for Nature suggesting

[W]hen potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed.

Sunstein raised just a few examples in protest of the strong version of this cautionary principle:

Genetic modification of food that may help countries like China to feed one-fifth of the world’s population with a diminishing seven percent of the world’s cultivatable land;

Nuclear power to help nations like India and China reduce their dependency on fossil fuels;

Naval exercises on the open seas that endanger wildlife but improves national security.

Come ’on, who is against national security in this day and age?

I suddenly saw an energy saver light bulb hovering above my head: things are never as simple as they seem!

Just as I believe International Human Rights campaigns cannot succeed from the sole protests of naïve college students around the world, environmental conservations and preservations cannot be achieved by pure inactions. Humans have to learn to balance progress and economic innovation with the need to regulate and modify our practices. Nothing can be enforced to the point of inaction, and this precautionary principle is perhaps paralyzing when taken too far.

After all, I am rather proud of my scars, and without faults we would not be progressively human, right?

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