On Owning Nature: Part II

(And the Pleasure of Life)

 Beneath the fog, I miss the hot breath
Of lovers’ abated anticipation
Forgive me, death
I have not forsaken you.
Take caution in your felicitations
For we have not proved our innocence yet

I had intentions of telling you about European trepidation—of French elites clinking glasses of rosé in the Aix-en-Provence countryside. White linens and fresh cheese from the farm.  What a tempting romance—to sing the praises of uniqueness!  Of a fear of globalization and the perversities of strangers it may introduce.  But instead, I want to tell you a cautionary tale.

To speak of prudence in an era of unprecedented technological ‘progress’ is almost blasphemous.  However, there has been growing public dissent in the EU toward genetically modified organisms[1].  Roger Cohen of the New York Times writes that, “the specter of nature being rendered more uniform by scientists in America has meshed with a wider fear of an increasingly undifferentiated planet where national distinctions fade.”  The European approach to implementing technological innovations is characterized by precautionary sentiments where we, here in the United States, have tended to allow innovations to seize the market barring direct scientific evidence of harm. Though this may be in line with the view of individualistic freedom, it places the burden of proof upon the victim of dominating infiltrators; this is characterized in a multiplicitous array of ways from the use of hormones in beef to the ‘drill baby drill’ attitude toward hydraulic fracturing to the proliferation of genetically modified seeds and so on.

It is often in my constitution to run quickly into the sea without surveying to see how deep it is.  But I am willing to concede that in my maturation I have developed a reverence for caution, for anticipation.

The major difference in the approaches across the pond lies in this issue of caution – particularly with regard to risk assessment.  For the EU, in the absence of relevant scientific evidence, one can invoke the precautionary principle.  The precautionary principle does not explicitly require scientific consensus to take action against a policy that is suspected to be risky.  Rather, those implementing the policy or taking the action are encumbered with the burden of proof to show that the action is notharmful.  Paragraph 2, Article 191 of the Lisbon Treaty states: “union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union.  It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.” This is something that makes the EU resistant to allowing GMOs into the market.

Lynch & Vogel point out that “when Europeans think of wildlife and the rural environment, they think of farmland, and for them GM technology appears to be the next step in an unwelcome intensification of agriculture.  Americans, in contrast, think of the wilderness areas their national parks; they regard farmland as part of the industrial systems” (17).  Herein lies a fundamental issue of individual rights versus communitarian values, and a key difference in the U.S. and EU views on genetically modified organisms.  The political pundits and industry leaders have tried to propose that both genetically modified seeds and organic seeds can flourish in harmony relying on the mantra of individual rights.  However, the reality is that the harmful impacts of the modified seeds and their proliferation have shown that we do not live in isolation.

So perhaps I should have titled this ‘Ode to Precaution’.  A thank you note to an under-appreciated and somewhat bullied perspective. It is not sexy; it is not Hollywood; it is a cap over the electrical socket; it is slowing down at a yellow light; it is turning off the radiator when you leave the house.

[1] ”GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism–this is an organism that has been genetically engineered.  These are used in a number of fields spanning from pharmaceuticals to research to agriculture.  In my previous post, I wrote about the patent protections of genetically modified seeds.

Photograph by Kevin Dooley

Lynch, D. and Vogel, D. (2001). The regulation of GMOs in Europe and the United States: A case-study of contemporary European regulatory politics. Council on Foreign Relations. 1-39.

Posted under: BlogTechnology & Society

Planning for Unpredictability

Published @ gnovisjournal on November 22, 2011, edited on October 21, 2012.

How good are we at predicting the future?  Much of economics is about reducing risks, and you reduce risks by planning for the future. We invest in innovative infrastructure in preparation for the future.  We tune into Kramer and hire money managers to manage our future investments—hoping to get in before the rest of the world does.  We bet on future commodities in an effort to spread risk. We even superstitiously believe an octopus can tell us who’s going to win the World Cup!  It is clear that in assessing risk we are looking for a simple way to understand complexity.

And then natural disasters hit, or the housing bubble bursts, or the stock market plummets, (or the octopus dies) and we’re left confused in how we got it so wrong.

If there is one thing that is certain it is that we are incredibly uncertain in our predictions making it difficult, inefficient, and irresponsible to dump top-down strategies on the rest of the world.

As Douglass North in Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance will tell us: institutions are a way for reducing uncertainty.  In an era of a ‘we vs. them’ worldview, things were simple, straightforward, certain—we made predictions based on ideological bents.  However, we have seen that the neoclassical paradigm was a huge misfit for other countries as it assumed zero transaction costs and rational behavior of individuals; it assumed that humanity was predictable using the self-interested individual as the unit of analysis.  Illuminating the crucial difference from one country to another, North emphasizes that a common set of rules will function differently in different societies given their specific histories and institutional frameworks.  He examines the adoption of the U.S. Constitution by several Latin American countries in the 19th century and finds that “although the rules are the same, the enforcement mechanisms, the way enforcement occurs, the norms of behavior, and the subjective models of the actors are not.  Hence, both the real incentive structures and the perceived consequences of policies will differ as well” (North, 101).

Structural changes such as natural disasters and war disrupt the institutional framework.  Chaotic events are typically unpredictable, as are the effects of an institutional breakdown.  The earthquake in Haiti illuminates what an effect unpredictable, cataclysmic forces coupled with a lack functioning government can have on a country.  Because the Haitians did not have formal laws delineating property rights, the informal, insecure property rights were uprooted after mass displacement.  

One development strategy for Haiti that Patricia Adams proposes, and I think North would agree with, is the need for a new government structure, “one credibly backed by the Haitian people.”  She recommends this “occur via a referendum, administered by Canada and the United States under United Nations auspices, in which the Haitian people are given a choice between their existing system of government and that of their island neighbour, Puerto Rico, which is a commonwealth under U.S. protection.”  Formal institutions such as a referendum will give the Haitian people sovereignty over their nation for the first time, giving the citizens the “means to make higher demands of their government.”

What Haiti needs now for development is a reestablishment of local identity.  What they need is for the U.S. to reverse the neo-liberal adjustments it has imposed over the last few decades, and perhaps come to adopt some new institutional frameworks that would provide a space for successful bottom-up opportunities.  These provisions would allow for a future that is within the hands of the  Haitian people–not subject to the predictions and prescriptions of the developed world.

Fractured States

Question: How can information technologies be used to deal with an increasingly complex human-environment system, particularly with regard to land-use disputes?

Hypothesis: I hypothesize that open source information technologies such as mapping can enable local citizens to mitigate land-use disputes by providing geolocational visualizations of dialogue and values, similar to an interactive version of public forum debates.  I propose a prototype for a tool that would benefit local governments and citizens by providing a platform for visualizing values that are often unquantifiable.

For understanding human-environment relationships, multiple scales of analysis have been explored. GIScience initially tended to focus on spatial environmental data at the pixel level received by remotely sensed imagery.  However, the social aspect has become increasingly important, especially with an influx of web 2.0 participatory tools, marrying the local level survey and census data to visual communication.  Thus, a blend of socially participatory data and spatial planning have become one.  In this way, “a map can facilitate mutual understanding and common agreement about facts, and can be used to develop trusting relationships across a diverse set of participants” (Schlossberg and Shuford, 2005).   Understanding human-environment systems is increasingly critical as we deal with the ill-structured and ambiguous problems of living in a globally connected world.

The research will use both quantitative and qualitative methods.  I refer to the Alternative Futures Analysis, a tool developed in 1990 by Carl Steinitz and now utilized by the EPA, which analyzes multiple layers of information about land-use habits to visually portray how land-use decisions affect a region over time.  In addition to this resource, I would like to use open source mapping tools such as MapBox, TileMill, and OpenStreetMap, to create a design that would allow users to easily edit values into the map and engage in dialogue with their neighbors.  This will allow residents not only to see how their values relate to others within the community, but will also provide a predictive futures analysis on how their values will be represented in the future.