15 May 2007

Social Policy Bonds: the third way

Writing about organochlorines, Paul Hawken says:

Because of the slow maturation of human beings, we have not had sufficient time...to understand the multi-generational health consquences of exposure...However, we do know that these compounds play havoc with human physiology, with effects that include cancer, infertility, immune supporesssion, birth defects and stillbirths. The Ecology of Commerce
We didn't know about a lot of such things. We didn't know that emitting greenhouse gases could cause catastrophic climate instability. As I see it, there are three ways of responding to such imponderables. We can adopt a strong version of the precautionary principle, which says that if there is a strong suspicion that a certain activity may have environmentally harmful consequences, it is better to control that activity now rather than to wait for incontrovertible scientific evidence. There's much to be said for this when looking at new processes, but applying it to current technology would, I think, mean a drastic reduction in the quality and quantity of human life that we could support. Another response is the current one: ignore the problems created by technology until they become emergencies that affect photogenic animals, or people with whom we identify. Then try to bribe or coerce the vested interests into scaling down their operations.

But there is a third way, which acknowledges that we cannot know in advance the likely results of new scientific or industrial processes. That would be something like Social Policy Bonds, which would specify targeted outcomes for human, plant and animal health; probably in the form of indices, but with minima for each identified species or environmental indicator. The profit motive would both enlarge and motivate the pool of people interested in exploring the likely effects of new technology on the environment and in working towards reducing their impact. A handful of politicians or government-appointed experts cannot anticipate every such impact in advance of the application of new technology. But participants in a market for Social Policy Bonds that target environmental health would have continuous incentives to look for and deal with planetary depredations before they become intractable.

No comments: