Monday, April 7, 2008

German Deep Ecology, Mystical, Anti-Capitalist Philosophies Are More Closely Aligned With Europe's Precautionary Principle Than Politicians Reveal

Normative Aspects of a “Substantive” Precautionary Principle

By Gordon Hull / Iowa State University

(Sept. 7, 2007)

[T]he distinction between formal and substantive versions of a principle, familiar from legal theory, can be useful in imposing some conceptual clarity on aspects of debates concerning the precautionary principle. In particular, most of the negative critical response to the principle has been to formal versions of it, and follows a pattern not unfamiliar from discussions of how to get from rules to outcomes. For its part, the less-discussed substantive account admits of at least two very different emphases, one of which exhibits a deep distrust of technology, and the other of which is less concerned with the fact of technology than with the question of who controls it.
(p. 1)

...In particular, it is one thing for Western corporate executives to advocate a carte blanche in favor of GMO crops, and for Western activists to offer a carte blanche opposition. It is quite another to have one’s own food source hang in the balance.

Indeed, as Clark, Mugabe and Smith imply, it would not be hard to read the entire debate as yet another example of colonialist discourse that purports to make decisions on behalf of indigenous farmers. Certainly this is a plausible reading of the behavior of global agribusiness, heavily backed by the scientific and governmental apparatus of the U.S. and a legal system of intellectual property which seems to be specifically crafted to advance those interests.31 However, to the extent that critics like Cross are right that the precautionary enterprise is reactive, and that attempts to procedurally operationalize it generate per se opposition to the products of industry, the precautionary principle seems vulnerable to the same complaint. I propose that we think about the precautionary principle as a substantive principle. I draw the formal/substantive distinction from the legal academy... (pp. 16-17)

...One reason to divide the precautionary principle into substantive and procedural versions is the further distinction this allows between two sub-types of the substantive version. What follows is an attempt to sketch these sub-types, which I will for convenience call the “Heideggerian” and “autonomist.” (p. 18)

...At one level, the Heideggerian and autonomist versions are structurally very similar: both point to a systemic problem which undermines the capacity of procedural rationality to be exercised correctly; both pose the problem of an adequate standpoint for critique; both generate and are accompanied by a radically re-visioned understanding of science; and each has a specific disadvantage not shared with the other. At another level, they can generate very different results. (pp. 18-19)

(1) The Heideggerian critique is fundamentally one of the status of technology: thinking in modern society, says the Heideggerian, is fundamentally subordinated to what one might call the “technological world view.” Heidegger’s work is notoriously difficult; let me here simply present a passage and offer a brief exegesis of it as it applies here. In his “Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger writes that “the revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.”34 All ways of encountering the world, Heidegger thinks, come laden sith presuppositions and unthought assumptions about the nature of objects in that world.

In the case of the technological worldview, the primary unthought assumptions cluster around the subordination of nature to human causality and the disruption of nature’s own temporal processes. Thus, in one of his examples, Heidegger compares agriculture as undertaken by a peasant and that undertaken by modern agribusiness. Although the peasant certainly uses technology in some minimal sense, the process is fundamentally subordinate to nature, at least in contrast with modern agribusiness. Indeed, from a Heideggerian point of view, modern agribusiness epitomizes the technological world view: rather than letting crops grow, or even inducing them to grow by careful cultivation and irrigation, technology attempts to alter the genetics of these crops in a laboratory, to plant them in soil which has been heavily fertilized (energy supplied by nature and stored for use by the crop), to destroy all other natural processes (pests and weeds) which might interfere with the crop’s growth, and so forth. (p. 19)

The problem here for Heidegger is not the use of a particular tool per se; rather, it is the underlying view according to which nature is to be subordinated to human ends. Deliberately using militaristic language, Heidegger suggests that everything – and he thinks humans do this to themselves as well – is ordered to “stand by,” waiting for its redeployment in the technological matrix: “everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering” (322). That we can no longer see the world in any other way, or that we only do so with great difficulty, attests to the power of the technological world view. Heidegger, at the very least, wants to make us uncomfortable with this worldview, in order to “prepare a free relation” to technology.

... The problem for critique posed in a Heideggerain account is one of the status of ethics: to be meaningful as a critique of the technological world view, ethics cannot itself be technological. (p.20)

The most obvious examples of ethical theories that would fail on Heideggerian grounds are utilitarianism and its offshoots in economics; risk-benefit analysis would be exemplary.

Heidegger complains of technological thinking that the goal is always “the maximum yield at the minimum expense” (322), and it is not difficult to see that the fundamental problem that he poses for ethics is how to escape this calculative mindset. On the other hand, and for this reason, it is also difficult to see what one’s ethical criteria would be after Heidegger.37 Heidegger’s critics frequently charge him with quietism, and even commentators who are broadly sympathetic in the sense that they are receptive to “post-humanist” argument often claim that “from within Heidegger’s categorical framework, an ethics or politics simply cannot emerge.”38

Two points remain. First, the resonance between a Heideggerian approach that radically rejects cost benefit analysis as an aspect of a technological world view which is itself unsustainable and a treatment of the precautionary principle that emphasizes precisely the need to depart from risk analysis should be clear.39 Second, that Heidegger is unable to think beyond the negation of a technological world view does not by itself make his critique of that worldview any less relevant: how one might speak of ethics “after Heidegger” is a rich and varied conversation. Heidegger is also deeply suspicious of the status of modern science. In the “Technology” essay, he argues that modern science is precisely a “herald” (327) of the emergence of the modern technological worldview. (p. 21)

Insofar as modern science divorces itself from any concern with natural purposes, takes nature to be fundamentally representable (and thus calculable), and demands that all scientific evidence be reproducible in exact, regulated experiments, Heidegger thinks that modern science exhibits all of the essential characteristics of modern enframing. (pp. 21-22)

Heidegger includes a favorable cite to Heisenberg; without wanting to comment on Heidegger’s understanding of physics generally, I simply want to parallel the gesture to the importance that advocates of the precautionary principle attach to the recognition of uncertainty in science. The argument is similarly motivated by a recognition of complexity: ecosystems are complex systems and are not therefore represented well in static or single-variable experiments; modern science (and in particular the studies used to conclude that the products of industry are safe) are single variable and do not track effects over time; therefore those studies do not map ecosystems successfully.
Thus, in their outline of a possible “precautionary science,” Barrett and Raffensperger emphasize that
precautionary science directly addresses the complexity of issues … and the uniqueness of biological, ecological, and social contexts, which render precise experimental replication problematic if not meaningless” (119). Or, as Kirschenmann puts it with regard to agriculture, the point is to see how “human industry can be folded into nature’s system, rather than how human industry can be imposed on those systems without doing too much harm” (288).

[“The famous uncertainty principle, formulated by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, has shown that our knowledge of atomic phenomena is limited because the experimental procedures with which we must carry out our observations inevitably interfere with the phenomena that we wish to measure...[A] limit to our knowledge is fixed by the fact that we are incarnate beings, not disembodied spirits.” See Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (New York: Viking, 1982), p. 76.]

[“Earlier this century, the Heisenberg Principle established that the very act of observing a natural phenomenon can change what is being observed. Although the initial theory was limited in practice to special cases in subatomic physics, the philosophical implications were and are staggering. It is now apparent that since Descartes reestablished the Platonic notion and began the scientific revolution, human civilization has been experiencing a kind of Heisenberg Principle writ large. . . . [T]he world of intellect is assumed to be separate from the physical world.” See Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), p. 253.]

[At least one commentator has found that Al Gore’s positions on environmental protection and the Precautionary Principle are closely aligned with the philosophy of noted German anti-technologist, Martin Heidegger, even though Mr. Gore fails to reference his work. “Despite the parade of quotes and references from Plato and Arendt, there is one thinker conspicuously absent from both Schell and Gore’s numerous citations but whose spirit is present on almost every page of both books: Martin Heidegger. Perhaps the absence of a reference to Heidegger is due to reticence or discretion, given Heidegger’s dubious and complicated association with Nazism. Nothing derails an argument faster than playing the reductio ad Hitlerum card. More likely it is the abstruse and difficult character of Heidegger’s arguments; Gore and Schell may not realize how closely the core of their argument about the technological alienation of man from nature tracks Heidegger’s more thorough account in his famous 1953 essay “The Question Concerning Technology.” See Steven F. Hayward, “The Fate of the Earth in the Balance: The Metaphysics of Climate Change”, ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY OUTLOOK AEI Online (Oct. 19, 2006) at: .]

A Heideggerian approach to precaution would almost certainly reject the introduction of GMO bananas into Uganda and would favor instead attempts at control of the pest. Jacques Ellul is being a perfect Heideggerian, when, in discussing an appropriate ethics for a technological society, he derives what he calls an “apriorism of nonintervention: (p. 22)

Whenever the scientist or technician are unable to determine with the greatest accuracy and certainty the global and long-term effects of a possible technique, it is absolutely vital to refuse to engage the processes of such a technique. We are here in the presence of an ethical rule that is central if one wants to maintain life and a viable society." 40 (pp. 22-23)

(2) The autonomist will also identify a systemic problem: in this case, the “complete subsumption” of society by capitalism.41 Drawing on a fragment from Marx’s Grundrisse, Antonio Negri describes this social form as one in which “labor processes themselves are born within capital, and therefore … labor is incorporated not as an external but as an internal force, proper to capital itself.” 42 This means, as he puts it in an earlier work, that “capital constitutes society,” and that “capital is the totality of labor and life.”43 Not just work relations, but all social relations, are constituted within a frame whose fundamental parameters are capitalist. (p. 23)

... The problem for critique thus posed is that of standpoint: if all of society is determined by capitalism, then from what standpoint can one frame an adequate critique? How is it possible to frame a critique that is not always already co-opted by capitalism?

... Given that the complete subsumption of society by capital signals the disappearance of any
transcendental standpoint from which a critique could be launched, Hardt and Negri argue that
critique must now be bottom-up, the results precisely of the laboring of the “multitude.” Capital both enables and suppresses this process. It is enabling because the isomorphism of labor and society means that social activity is productive and because immaterial labor takes the form of networks. These networks can then be turned against capital.
At the same time, capital is always ready to co-opt and redirect this activity: thus Hardt and Negri write that capital “recognizes and profits from the fact that in cooperation bodies produce more and in community bodies enjoy more, but it has to obstruct and control this cooperative autonomy so as not to be destroyed by it.”47 Marxist class struggle, as a struggle for control over the means of production, becomes, in this instance, a struggle for the control over the production of information, with a strong demand that this information be democratically produced and owned.48
Thus, they write of transgenic food: (p. 24)

“Like all monsters, genetically modified crops can be beneficial or harmful to society. The best safeguard is that experimentation be conducted democratically and openly, under common control, something that private ownership prevents …. The primary issue … is not that humans are changing nature but that nature is ceasing to be common, that it is becoming private property and exclusively controlled by its new owners (Multitude, 183-4).” (pp. 24-25)

Here the focus is democracy; we see none of the anti-technology suspicion of the Heideggerian critique. Such focus on democracy would also answer to the cultural specificity of values associated with food; for example, one probable source of tension between the U.S. and Europe over GMO foods is a difference over the significance of the term “food.” (p. 25)

... The disadvantage to the autonomist emphasis on democracy is the risk that local decisions will be bad ones; the “multitude,” after all, has historically been a term indicating disorder and confusion, not prudential action, and philosophers since Aristotle have warned about the tendency of devolution into mob rule. Sunstein summarizes the point in terms of the precautionary principle: “the problem is that both individuals and societies may be fearful of nonexistent or trivial risks – and simultaneously neglect real dangers.”51 Not only does precaution invite bad decisions, giving local autonomy makes them worse!

I do not want to settle this debate here, but I would like to outline at least two possible answers to this argument.
First, the objectivity of the opposing point of view is seriously in question. My point here is not just that there is no value-free, objective standard from which to measure science. It is also, as I have noted, that there is specific reason to suspect that the term “objective” is used as a mask for corporate interests, and as part of an effort to marshal the epistemic authority of “science” to force compliance with international corporate desiderata. Not only is this approach therefore suspect, it may very well backfire; as Clark, Mugabe and Smith argue, one consequence of taking locals out of the decision-making loop is that the locals will come to trust science less and less. If scientific results are the aim, then forcing them on people might actually undermine that aim in the long term.
Furthermore, the correct point does not seem to be that cultures will or will not make “mistakes” in risk assessment. It is that such mistakes are inevitable, and that there is no particular reason to think that abandoning the precautionary principle, or letting global elites set the level of acceptable risk that others have to bear will reduce the number of such mistakes.
(p. 26)

... Second, even if we assume that local groups will make mistakes, there is still the normative question of whether outside elites ought to have the standing to stop those mistakes in their name. Admittedly, globalization makes this a very complex issue, worthy of much more discussion than I can give it here. At the very least, there are negative externalities to failures in risk assessment.

... Presumably, collective practice in making decisions, the availability of relevant information to those decisions, and collective ownership of the results would all tend to encourage responsible decisionmaking.


Both the Heideggerian and autonomist constructions of precaution, then, involve radical rethinkings of what is involved in a “precautionary” decision. In work on precaution, they are sometimes conflated. (p.27)

Thus Jordan and O’Riordan begin by saying that the precautionary principle is vague and therefore political, but over the course of their paper, it becomes clear that they favor it because it supports ecocentric thought; by the last page, they are able to conclude that the principle “swims against the democratic tides.” (pp. 27-28)

M’Gonigle similarly credits “local knowledge” but at the same time seems to presuppose the result: local knowledge is that form which will succeed in situating “economic activity within ecological bounds” (136).

These examples of coexistence are uneasy, as the two constructions of precaution diverge deeply: for example, the Heideggerian suspicion of technology might easily be viewed as paternalistic from an autonomist perspective. Indeed, the two approaches reflect and express fundamentally different approaches to political philosophy. Despite the divergences, they share at least the thought that precaution needs to be attentive to empowering agents to make prudential decisions, and that this empowerment requires removing systematic obstructions to thought. (p. 28)

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