Saturday, February 5, 2011

On the law and being retrospective

This post ties back to my post from yesterday about risk. I found out today that the US EPA is going to now try to write regulations for new toxic chemicals, such as perchlorate, that have now been found in water supplies around the nation. (I never really knew how toxic rocket propellants were until I learned about them in my propulsion classes, and a few classes on explosions, explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics. I guess we are all naive to varying degrees.) Much has been made of the "precautionary principle," which basically states that if we don't know what the effects of doing something will be, we shouldn't do it. It is likely that there are always negative impacts of our actions, especially when scaled to millions or billions of people. With climate change, it has been argued that since we don't know what positive radiative forcing feedbacks may kick in with increasing greenhouse gas emissions, we should avoid pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The precautionary principle makes sense to me, but it does not to many other people. (Similar arguments can be made for food and healthcare initiatives of the recent past.)

We live in a world where "freedom" of action is valued, especially if that "freedom" leads to job creation and profit for people. What this inevitably leads to is the acceptance of actions whose impacts are ill-defined and unknown. Once we grant this "freedom," it is hard to take that "freedom" back, or to regulate it, or temper it. (I can imagine how hard it must be to be a parent.) The "freedom" grows in magnitude like a chain reaction, rooting itself in our sensibilities and communities. Such rooting makes it difficult to move away the behaviour, just as it is difficult to break a bad habit. But we always realise that there are negative impacts to these "free" actions, and so we may therefore seek to regulate them, to temper them, through law. Such laws are by their nature retrospective, and not proactive. The goals of the regulators are then themselves tempered by the will of industry, and indeed we end up with weaker, retrospective law. Almost all of the environmental laws I can think of, including major pieces of legislation such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, were all put in place retrospectively. I wonder what it would be like if we had proactive law more widely practiced. (Definitely read this document - various legal facets are very well articulated, and not in incomprehensible legalese.)

I think there are issues with such forward-looking approaches that may be far-reaching. I truly question whether it is biologically possible for human mentality to have evolved to fully comprehend the long-term impacts of our actions. Not long a time, on an evolutionary scale, has passed since we were hunter-gatherers. Our ability to think and envision may in fact be limited to such short time scales that we are in fact still mentally hunter-gatherers - shooting from the hip and making decisions that are "good" in the short term, but are inherently against the tide of nature in the long term. 

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