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L. Neil Smith's
Number 619, May 15, 2011

"They all went to the theater expecting
to see a film, and saw a movie, instead"

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Passing the Test
by Tom Kozan

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Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

The world is just not a safe place. The simple fact is that thousands die annually in the United States from preventable causes, automobile accidents, fires, disease, road rage, pollution—the list could go on forever. It is also true that many, if not all, of these deaths could be eliminated by taking enough care, testing and making certain that drugs, foods, medical procedures, and machinery will actually perform the way their designers intend. This can also extend to the environment humanity lives in. Acid rain could have been prevented by insisting on cleaner fuel for power plants. Genetically engineered plants and animals may someday escape from their farms and fields, invading the ecological niches of other, natural species, causing mass extinctions. Chemicals released into the environment harm not only humans but can wipe out entire food chains as they are concentrated by successively higher levels of consumers. Even if global climate change is not entirely anthropogenic, surely some portion of it could be mitigated by modifying the lifestyles of humanity. Enter the Precautionary Principle (The Principle). The Principle is an approach to mitigating the damage that humanity inflicts upon itself and its environment that has gained increasing currency in the last few decades among the Baby Boomers who are now in the position of power and decision-making in the world, as well as with their successors, now coming into their own positions of responsibility and power, Generation "X." The Principle states, at its core, that for any new technology, process, chemical, or medicine to be permitted to be used, it must first be proven to be safe. In order to be proven safe, it must also be proven that any possibly conceivable side-effects have been considered and tested as well. The Principle certainly looks appealing, and it aspires to a laudable goal, but for it to be considered valid, it must first demonstrate that it can fulfill its own requirements. That is, it must prove that it reduces harm to the environment and the inhabitants of the world, a goal it has notably failed to achieve.

Since it is impossible, without a functioning crystal ball, to assess the impact of technologies that have not yet been fully developed, this paper will attempt to validate or repudiate The Principle by way of comparing existing technologies. By considering and contrasting the impact of having implemented The Principle, it may be possible to determine how effective it is against future uses in the real world. This paper will, for the most part, restrict its scope to the United States and Canada where solid data are most available but some portions will have to include data from other countries as well due, at least in part, to the safety record of industry in the U.S. which, in spite of at best a cursory adoption of The Principle could, perhaps unreasonably, skew data against The Principle.

The first technology to put to the test is one that has been in use nearly as long as humanity has existed: fire. In the United States today, more than 14,615 people are killed or seriously injured by fires each year. While this number has dropped radically over the decades, it continues to hold fairly steady in recent years. Indeed, while "smoking is the principle cause of fire-related deaths" these numbers have not shown a change in the last three years since self-extinguishing cigarettes have been mandated, unopposed by proponents of The Principle, across most of the country. Fire deaths have, at least on a population percentage basis, dropped dramatically in the last century but throughout history, literally millions have perished horribly (Consider the Sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade.) from its effects. Had The Principle been au courant in prehistoric times surely fire's destructive effects on the environment and humanity would have resulted in its having been shunned. Not to put too fine a point on it, this has to be the first failure of The Principle since, without fire, agriculture would have proven difficult, refining of metals to cut trees and shape stone for shelter impossible, and without an artificial source of heat, humanity would still be confined to the relatively benign climate of Africa, assuming it survived at all with its ability to improvise tools thus restricted.

Perhaps fire is too severe a test of The Principle. Agriculture would prove at least as absurd a metric to compare, since it destroys vast tracts of land and establishes invasive, indeed unnatural, species in place of the natural ecosystem but since without agriculture there would be no humanity either, we must at least consider the impact of modern farming as it applies to The Principle. There are three (actually more but that's another article) legs that support modern monocultural farming: developing productive crops, fertilizing these crops, and controlling "undesirable", i.e. "natural" species that compete with the crops. Controlling competition is important but the side effects of herbicides have lead municipalities to ban many of them, such as Toronto's recent wholesale ban on 2, 4, D which while "safe if used as directed" cannot be guaranteed to be "used properly". Since the city of Toronto is not a notable agricultural producer, this will have minimal impact on farming and feeding North America but if The Principle is followed, all herbicides must be banned due to their "potential for abuse". Not to be outdone, the City of San Francisco has passed regulations requiring all chemical industry within its city limits to subscribe to The Principle, as codified into city law. The same precautions must also apply to the use of artificial fertilizers since their use contaminates wetlands, leads to plankton blooms in the ocean, and may poison humans when the groundwater is contaminated. Finally, gengineered plants have the greatest potential for ecological disaster. With their ability to thrive with less fertilizer, compete with weeds, resist herbicides, and discourage predation, they could easily overrun any natural ecosystem, destroying it from the inside out. The alternative, of course, is to revert to organic farming, reducing tillage, using only natural fertilizers and heirloom seeds with minimal modifications, all methods which have served humanity well throughout most of recorded history.

In 1798 Thomas Malthus saw the problem coming with agriculture; human population was growing faster than crops could be grown and there was a time coming when humanity would undergo a dramatic population loss due to "inevitable famine". What Malthus did not consider, because it was still in its infancy, was the advent of "modern" agriculture. With the advent of better strains of crops, improved fertilizers, and enhanced tillage, agriculture has not merely kept pace with the population, it has dramatically outstripped it, to the extent of being capable, with "less than two percent of the population" now being required to produce food sufficient for a population of over 300 million souls. The rub now is that even with modern technology applied to sustainable organic farming, yields are in the range of 15% of those obtained with "standard" monocultural agricultural technology. Along with reduced yields comes the potential for disease as "organic" fertilizer is, to put it bluntly, feces. Then the tenfold increase in labor must be considered as farmers are reduced, once again, to stoop labor: picking pests off crops by hand, one fruit or vegetable at a time. Unless advocates of The Principle are willing to accept a global population in the range of 1.2 billion, with something in the neighborhood of 100 million of them laboring in the fields, from dawn to dusk, it appears that The Principle fails here as well. On the bright side, with nearly six billion corpses to dispose of, there will be no immediate shortage of fertilizer for those newly employed farmers.

Medicine is another area of special interest to The Principle, due to its ability to inflict horrendous unintended consequences on uninformed or ignorant people. Average life expectancy in the United States has increased from just over thirty eight years in 1850 to approaching eighty today due, primarily, to dramatic improvements in medicine and nutrition but with increases in medical technology come heightened risks due to new medicines not being completely tested. There is a difference between quack medicine, such as radium-lined water coolers, and actual advances that improve treatment and life expectancy. In 1850, the only two medicines available to a physician that actually worked as advertised were aspirin and paregoric, a tincture of opium, both of which are still in service today. Had The Principle been applied to aspirin, thousands of lives could have been saved that were lost to internal hemorrhage, brought on by the noxious chemical. Reye's syndrome may have killed thousands of children exposed to aspirin over the decades as well. The tens of thousands of lives lost to failure to follow The Principle with aspirin must however be balanced against the hundreds of thousands of children who have been saved from death or brain damage due to high fevers that, for over a century, had only aspirin available as an effective course of treatment. Headaches, low-grade pain and discomfort, and other quality of life issues don't really play into an assessment of aspirin, under The Principle, but its properties as an anticoagulant have treated millions before other anticoagulants, or "blood thinners," such as Warfarin, were developed and which still continue to spare millions more from being chained to the rigors of safely managing a course of Warfarin treatment.

Similar comparisons can be drawn to paregoric and the other opiate compounds. Had The Principle been followed, certainly tens of thousands of lives could have been saved from overdoses. In fairness, the economic and human damage of addiction are incalculable but once again, these need to be weighed against the human suffering that opiates eliminate as well. Amputations, wounds, even the simplest of surgeries inflict damage and, thereby, pain on their victims. The tens or hundreds of thousands who die of cancer each year undergo pain that is literally unimaginable to anyone who has not experienced it, with the possible exception of having given birth which, when not fatal, tends to be over in hours rather than months or entire lifetimes. All these and more are safely and effectively treated by opiates, putting their value far above their risks and, as with aspirin, demonstrating the fallacies of The Principle in the real world.

Other drugs are not as benign as the two previously examined; for example, thalidomide, a drug introduced in the 1950s as a sedative had disastrous consequences for over ten thousand children and their families. Thalidomide was tested in Europe and approved, on the basis of mouse trials, as a safe sedative, a role which it did not fill terribly well but it was inexpensive and it did work, after a fashion. Had The Principle been applied, human testing would have been required, at a minimum, before it was released to the public and it could possibly have been discovered (medical ethics forbid intentional testing of any medicine on known pregnant women) that it was a powerful teratogen, or agent that interferes with embryonic development, in humans. As it was, with over ten thousand children's appendages turned into flippers, The Principle was applied with a vengeance, albeit a bit late. There was, however, a major benefit arising from this disaster, both to The Principle and to medicine in general; the FDA tightened testing requirements for new medicines tenfold even though thalidomide was never actually approved for use in the United States. Today, even the mention of thalidomide prompts proponents of The Principle to wave it in the face of those who would question it but this has led to yet another unintended consequence for The Principle. The malformed limbs caused by thalidomide in children were a result of it interfering with the growth of new blood vessels. This same effect applies to any new growth in a human body, the most common example of which, in adults, is tumors, which must have a rich blood supply in order to fuel their malignant development. Today, in spite of the best efforts of those espousing The Principle, thalidomide is making a slow, even painstaking, return to respectability in medical practice. With tens of thousands worldwide suffering from sarcomas and myelomas, blood and bone cancers, the potential of a drug that effectively treats these cancers without major side-effects, aside from that previously noted, is beyond miraculous. With careful management and enforced birth control for women of child-bearing age who are undergoing cancer treatment with thalidomide, the numbers of lives saved in any single year have the potential to exceed those lost to thalidomide's disastrous debut.

Another area where The Principle has been applied, that continues to linger today is the subject of Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane (DDT). By the end of World War II, DDT had successfully reduced casualties in the Pacific Theater of Operations by over 70% for non-combat related hospitalizations due to it having eliminating the insect vectors for typhus and malaria. During the mid 1950s and early 1960s, studies emerged that implied that DDT was potentially a carcinogen, a status that remains unproved to this day, and emphasizing its demonstrated toxicity to human, and other living beings, said toxicity being approximately equivalent to that of aspirin and significantly less than that of caffeine. As a consequence of these and other influences, the newly-minted Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the U.S. in 1972, citing, in addition to these studies, the effect on eggshells and chick mortality in birds. Certainly a well-intentioned act, and a perfect example of The Principle at work, this ban relied on a study that had determined that pheasant eggshells were, in fact, not effected by DDT in their diet but which was misrepresented by Rachel Carlson in her book "Silent Spring", an early populist environmental manifesto. Other countries followed suit and for forty years, DDT has been effectively banned worldwide with the U.S. pressuring the United Nations as late as 1999 for a worldwide treaty banning the substance. Perhaps coincidentally, deaths from malaria around the world have spiked to nearly a million annually, mostly among children.

As the cleanup in Japan begins in the wake of the second most widespread nuclear disaster in history, proponents of The Principle are seizing the opportunity to gear up for more attempts at increased regulation, if not outright banning, of new nuclear power sources, this proceeds hand-in-hand with attempts to increase regulation of "conventional" power sources, gas and coal, as well. The ironic upshot is that the very people who brandish The Principle against these ecologically disastrous power sources have been forced to abandon The Principle in order to support the largely unproven "alternative" energy sources such as solar power (both direct and indirect), biofuels, geothermal, tidal, and wind.

In order to grasp the impact of The Principle on energy, it is necessary to return to Malthus. Given the damage caused by existing power sources to people and the environment, and given that there is no proof, as required by The Principle, that the newer sources are cleaner, safer, or better for the environment, the only safe option is to scale back humanity to sustainable proportions in a world governed by Malthusian law. It remains unclear what these numbers will be but, using the supportable population under organic cultivation as a guideline, they will be no more than 1.2 billion, perhaps less without a sufficiently dense power source to support medicine, transportation, and any technology base higher than iron-age. Then there is the unavoidable fact that, in order to develop the new, greener, technologies there has to be a technology base to build upon or, to put it simply, "When railroading time comes you can railroad -- but not before". The rare-earth semiconductors necessary to build solar cells could not exist without the technology base given by iron, steel, and coal; the plastics that make modern life and medicine possible would not exist without oil. Ignoring this fact, even in the name of safety, does not make it less real.

If a review of the impact on The Principle in everyday life, throughout history, has shown anything it is that The Principle is ultimately a failure on every level, even when it appears, at first blush, to serve a beneficial purpose. Supporters, in all seriousness and well-equipped with good intentions, blithely continue to ignore the negative consequences of the lentitudinous rate of progress that The Principle imposes on humanity. By contrast, throughout history it has been demonstrated time after time that humanity is capable of rising to and overcoming the dangers it encounters or creates as it continues to advance in technology and, almost in spite of itself, wisdom. Indeed, without the opportunity to progress by building upon the experiences and even the mistakes of others, progress will simply never happen. As Sir Isaac Newton observed, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants". Without progress, without the chance to learn from mistakes and rise above them, there will never be an opportunity to develop the safe, clean technologies that may be the goal of The Principle. This being the case, it should be clear by now that embracing The Principle is not simply a regulatory nightmare or an unsupportable expense, it is, ultimately, an albatross around the collective neck of humankind; marking it for all time as a failure, a species unable to fulfill its potential and therefore condemned to evolutionary irrelevance. Time and again, humanity has risen to match the challenges it encounters and facing these challenges head-on is a good measure of what it means to be human. If the leaders of today and those who will come after refuse to continue to act as human beings it may well be that, as a species, humanity will be forced to evolve into something else. Something safer, kinder, and gentler, something living in a harmonious niche within the planet's ecosphere, but that something will no longer be quite human. Intentionally or not, that will be the final destination that The Principle sets humankind upon the path towards and those who embrace it, intentionally or not, are willing to see an end to H. sapiens in the name of whatever goal that following The Principle ultimately reaches. Humanity has done as well as it has on the earth because it has rarely, if ever, pursued evolutionary and intellectual dead-ends. This is not the time to tinker with success nor is it the time to commit the ultimate act of hubris by forcing the race down the path of extinction simply out of fear of continuing to accept the responsibility of being human.


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