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Op-Ed: We Still Need Precaution, Says Forum for the Future Founder


By Jonathon Porritt

The CEOs of the world’s biggest chemical and agribusiness companies recently petitioned the presidents of the EU Commission, Parliament and Council to downgrade the Precautionary Principle and focus instead on a new ‘Innovation Principle.' On what grounds? That taking an excessively precautionary approach to policy-making and regulation is holding Europe back in the cut-throat world of global competitiveness.

I’m not sure this was terribly wise. The Precautionary Principle is what it is precisely because the majority of EU citizens have lost what trust they might once have had in these industries – with good reason, for the most part. Does it really make sense to imply that ‘precaution’ and ‘innovation’ are polar opposites, or to address society’s widespread anxiety about the impact of some products by petitioning EU decision-makers to give them even greater licence to innovate with even fewer regulatory constraints. This is already such a polarised world, so why make it worse?

Polarisation on environmental issues has been the name of the game for so long that few question when that game first came into being. Paul Sabin nails that historical sweep in his new book, "The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and our Gamble Over Earth’s Future," taking us back to the birth of the modern environment movement in the late 1960s in the United States.

Of Sabin’s two protagonists, Paul Ehrlich is by far the better known. Author of The Population Bomb in 1968, and so-called ‘high priest of the eco-apocalypse,' he has spent the best part of 50 years warning people that we’re living way outside the Earth’s natural carrying capacity, and that the sheer weight of human numbers will eventually trump the power of technology and innovation – even when it is not held back by unnecessary precaution!

At the start of his academic career, Julian Simon subscribed to more or less the same world view. But he soon came to see things very differently, dismissing Ehrlich and all other supporters of the ‘limits to growth’ thesis either as misguided fools or as ‘dangerous false prophets’.

Simon’s best-known book, "The Ultimate Resource," was published in 1981. Shortly after that he challenged Ehrlich to a bet: would the price of five key raw materials (copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten) have increased by the end of the decade, indicating shortages induced by further population growth, or decreased, indicating the power of technology to secure new supplies? Ehrlich promptly accepted the bet – and lost on every one of five counts!

More tellingly, our societies have not collapsed into the kind of polluted hell-hole that Ehrlich saw as inevitable. Despite huge increases in human numbers, most indicators of human progress have moved in the right direction, particularly on longevity, access to education, reduced mortality from contagious diseases, and so on.

‘But at what cost to the natural world?’ is Ehrlich’s continuing refrain. We’ve eroded so much of our natural capital (in terms of fresh water, soil, forests, fisheries and so on), and so profoundly destabilised the climate (through our still-increasing use of coal, oil and gas) as to profoundly jeopardise all the gains that we’ve made over the last few decades.

And so the debate goes on, reflected in the anguished plea of the CEOs quoted above to let innovation rip. Paul Sabin’s The Bet uses that very personal battle between Ehrlich and Simon to demonstrate eloquently why we’re now so fundamentally trapped in an ideological standoff that just gets more and more vicious – especially in the U.S.

It wasn’t always like this. Former president Richard Nixon described the environment as "a cause beyond party and beyond factions" in his State of the Union address in 1970, inviting his Democratic opponents to join him in a bi-partisan approach to addressing pollution and population growth. Former president George Bush Sr. picked up on that theme in the early 1990s, distancing himself from Ronald Reagan’s earlier constant campaigning to dismantle as much environmental regulation as he could get his hands on. Bush’s pro-environment enthusiasm didn’t last long, and nor did Margaret Thatcher’s ‘green period’, but at least they were capable of listening to other people.

President Barack Obama must think back ever so nostalgically to those golden days. Today’s Republicans (and their militant wing in the Tea Party) see anything to do with the environment as anti-market, anti-progress and anti-God himself!

But as Sabin’s subtitle implies, the bet between Ehrlich and Simon is still in play. We’re engaged in a massive gamble regarding the future of humankind, and there are more and more people who believe the odds on a happy outcome are getting longer and longer by the year.

Which is precisely why we do indeed need to be driving innovation harder than we’ve ever done before – but not without due precaution every step of the way.

Image credit: Flickr/lorenkerns Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future. His latest book, ‘The World We Made’, is available to buy from theworldwemade.com

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