Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ruin is forever: When the precautionary principle is justified

If you are dead, you cannot mount a comeback. If all life on Earth were destroyed by, say, a large comet impact, there would be no revival. Ruin is forever.

The destruction of all life on Earth is not 10 times worse than the destruction of one-tenth of all life on Earth. It is infinitely worse. A fall of 1 foot is not one-tenth as damaging to the human body as a fall of 10 feet, nor is it one-hundredth as damaging as a fall of 100 feet (which is very likely to be lethal). Walking down a stairway with one-foot-high steps, we are typically immune to any damage at all. Thus, we can say in both instances above that the harm rises dramatically (nonlinearly) as we move toward any 100 percent lethal limit.

It is just these properties--scope and severity--that most humans seem blind to when introducing innovations into society and the environment according to a recent paper entitled "The Precautionary Principle: Fragility and Black Swans from Policy Actions." The paper comes from the Extreme Risk Initiative at the New York University School of Engineering and one of its authors, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is well-known to my readers.

The concepts in the paper are applicable to systemic problems such as climate change. But the paper addresses only two specific issues, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nuclear power, to illustrate its main points.

The precautionary principle refers to a policy that demands proof that an innovation in not broadly harmful to humans or the environment before it is deployed. We are referring here to public policy issues, not decisions by individuals. The question the paper tries to answer is: When should this principle be invoked in public policy?

The answer the authors give is surprisingly simple: when the risk of ruin is systemic. That doesn't mean that they suggest no steps to mitigate risk when ruin might only be local, say, the explosion of a fireworks factory. But, they feel that such an event falls within the realm of risk management. An explosion at one fireworks factory cannot set off a chain reaction around the world. Individuals in and around the plant might be ruined. But all of humanity would not ruined.

In the two examples covered in the paper, GMOs and nuclear power, the authors come to the surprising conclusion that nuclear power on a small scale does not warrant invoking the precautionary principle. Small-scale nuclear power does warrant careful risk management and cost/benefit analysis. Whether the damaged reactors at Fukushima would fall into the category of small-scale nuclear power isn't clear. Their effects were worldwide, even if small in most places.

GMOs, however, offer a classic case of unforeseeable systemic ruin. We will know we are ruined by this untried technology after the ruin happens (perhaps in the form of famine or widespread human health and/or environmental effects). The authors categorically reject the notion that modern genetic engineering of plants is no more dangerous than traditional selective breeding.

This is because traditional methods are tried on a small scale and only achieve large scale acceptance and use over time if they are successful, that is, demonstrate no drastic side-effects or failures. This mimics nature's bottom-up approach to evolution; the changes affected this way are gradual, not drastic--and, of course, they don't involve transferring genetic material from completely different species, say, from a fish into a tomato.

Proponents will say that cross-species transfer of genetic material takes place in nature as well. But its scope is limited and its survivability and evolutionary fitness are tested over long periods during which these changes either thrive or disappear.

The top-down approach of the GMO industry introduces GMO crops everywhere across the world in a short period and combines one risk--untested genetic combinations--with another grave risk--monoculture. The long-term product of these two risks is unknown. But it is rightly categorized as systemic. GMO crops are now deployed worldwide and they can and do also contaminate non-GMO crops and wild plants through pollination.

Crops created through selective breeding have long histories of success and toxicities that are well understood and unlikely to change suddenly. As each new GMO crop is deployed, we cannot know ahead of time whether it will lead to systemic health and/or environment problems because there is little testing and, in any case, the amount of experience we have with GMO crops is far, far shorter than for the products of traditional selective breeding.

With each step we take in the production and deployment of new GMO seeds, we are playing a game of Russian roulette. The first few times we've pulled the trigger, we did not get catastrophic systemic effects--not yet, at least. But, since there is a nonzero risk of such effects, the probability of creating catastrophic outcomes becomes certain over time. The risk is virtually 100 percent that we will ultimately reach the chamber in the Russian roulette gene gun that causes catastrophic and widespread damage to humans and/or the environment.

Saying that there is no evidence so far that this will happen is a failure to understand that hidden systemic risk can often only show up on very long time scales. And, of course, when that risk does show up, it's too late to do anything. Remember: when we manipulate a gene or genes inside a plant, we are not doing just one thing. Without knowing it, we are affecting multiple systems in the plant and in the environment the plant lives in. We are creating multiple possible pathways to ruin.

This is just a short preview of the article cited above. The article is quite accessible to a lay reader and, in places, even entertaining. I encourage you to read the whole thing. It is the most rigorous statement to date concerning the precautionary principle and risk in that it outlines clear criteria for judging when that principle should be invoked and when it should not be.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


S. W. Lawrence said...

Two other good books are "The Limits of Safety" by Scott D. Sagan and "Normal Accidents" by Charles Perrow. Both discuss interlocking complexity and tight temporal coupling as principles explaining how some system 'unplanned excursions' or accidents are well-night inevitable but societally unacceptable.

Michael said...

The problem is Nassim does not know what he's talking about:

MartinR said...

Michael just know that Nassim predicted the 2 financial collapses - one in 1987 and the latest in 2007 .
He understood risk and invested money in both, so kinda exponentially made a lot of money.
It would look as though he does know AND understand that about which he speaks.
Tell me Michael what is your expertise ?

Anonymous said...

As a retired farmer that never used GM seeds or any herbicide,insecticides and only 50% of the needed chemical nitrogen to achieve a legume crop to fix the fertility naturally as the legume root systems can derive approximately 50% of the needed nitrogen directly from the air that I realized early on that gene modifications were wholly different from the hybridization that all of our seeds were developed using. Only a decade ago after retiring from farming that I realized just how bad our naturalized seed stocks had been contaminated by the crossover of the GM seed pollen when I witnessed the effects of this pollen pollution in Mexico where corn originated and the contamination caused a lot of seriously bad mutations that were not good at all. When I saw the same thing occurring in the US, it was easy to see that GM was not anything good for any of our seeds that were developed naturally and then to discover the term "MONOPOLY" as something that Monsanto was using to get its foot in the door along with huge campaign contributions to guarantee that government would protect them and they did so with new seed patent laws,seed saving laws all illegal of course and will one day be reversed and GMO will become of the past, but we will already lose much of our pure strain seed stocks before that time arrives. India will soon send the GM criminals packing just as they sent the British away long ago and they will save some, but not all of the diverse seeds that they lost when Monsanto bought many of that countries seed companies to withdraw the seed from the market and sell GM seeds to the farmers guaranteeing better results, but after reading the contract there is nothing about that guarantee to be found. I heard recently about how Norway planted a GM corn crop that produced no ears. That was enough and they sent Monsanto packing with nobody in the world any the wiser. I believe that there is no more GM seed in Norway, but that Monsanto has the keys to the seed cold storage, but supposedly they need permission to enter and withdraw any samples because they paid a portion of the development of that storage facility. I would place a 24 hour guard on that place if Monsanto has access to it as they practice capitalism at all costs not precautionary principle as in the EU.