Question: what do Dick Cheney and some environmentalists have in common?

Answer: strangely enough, the same mindset.

I came to that conclusion reading Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, a book I like so much I’m reading it slowly. Brand does not address the former Vice-President, but he does spend time mulling over a rule called “the precautionary principle.”

Brand, quoting Freeman Dyson: “The Precautionary Principle says that if some course of action carries even a remote chance of irreperable damage to the ecology, then you shouldn’t do it, no matter how great the possible advantages of the action may be.” In this case, the subject is genetically engineered food.

That should remind you of something. Vice-President Cheney was a proponent of a strikingly similar idea, what came to be called the “one percent doctrine.”

The one percent doctrine required the U.S. to act even if there were only a very small chance of something bad happening, as long as the bad was big enough. The phrase was “low probability, high impact event.” Cheney was referring specifically to scientists from Pakistan supposedly helping al-Qaeda build a nuclear weapon, but the one percent doctrine was also a useful metaphor for how the Bush administration thought.

Although the environmentalists and the former V-P are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and although their proposals are mirror images of each other – one says you shouldn’t act if there is even a small risk of harm, the other says you must act if there is even a small risk – they share an underlying premise.

Neither allows for what Brand calls ‘risk balancing.’ Quoting someone, Brand notes that risk assessment allows us to decide “that some risk is acceptable.”

That strikes me as being another face to the deeply adult activity of working outward (or up, if you will) from the facts. It’s the same thing Mark Shuttleworth catches when he writes about the weakness of arguments that hinge on “evidence contrary to my views doesn’t count.”

Brand’s book is both an exposition of and example of paying as close attention as possible to the evidence. It’s what the Bush administration failed to do in one context, what some environmentalists fail to do in another. Both are failures of adulthood. It’s what seems in tragically short supply right now – the ability to grow up, shut up and listen.


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