We should take gravity more seriously

We should take gravity more seriously

No, not the apple on the head gravity, rather the gravity of potential harms arising from human activities on the environment.  Recent history has shown that decision makers tend to overlook the potentially grave consequences of their decisions.  The BP spill in the Gulf is an example of an activity getting approved due to the assumed and/or presented low probability of a catastrophe occurring.  Are our decision makers optimistic to a fault?  Do regulators rely on the low probability of grievous harm to rationalize approvals?

The emphasis on the low probability of events occurring extends from our use of a risk management approach to decision-making and has become central to environmental impact assessments.  The risk management approach dictates that we ask all the rights questions.  What is the potential for environmental harms?  What is the nature of that harm?  Can the harm be mitigated?

The right questions are asked and yet the outcomes of our environmental decisions are flawed because we accept risks of occurrences like the Gulf spill.  I doubt anyone, public, government or business, would claim that such an impact is acceptable.  So where is our system falling short?  How many spills, blow-outs, and toxic releases do we need before we start considering the gravity of harm as the central determination of whether an activity should proceed?

Part of the problem is an information gap.  Decision makers and their advisors often have insufficient information to properly assess the probability of all the potential outcomes of an activity.  In turn, the assessment of both the probability and gravity of harm is often a purely qualitative assessment provided by an expert who is hired by the proponent.  A rigorous factual assessment of potential harms is rarely undertaken.  Our perception of the potential for harm and the nature of the harm therefore suffers.

Add to this uncertainty the fallibility of humans in how we undertake activities and we see the results. Rarely do decision makers assume the worst.  They fail to consider the malfeasance and misfeasance of companies (or individuals) and this can result in grave consequences to both humans and the natural environment.  The environment is particularly susceptible since we tend to approve the riskiest projects away from people (who might otherwise object).

For this reason there is a need to shift decision making (and environmental assessments) to mandate appropriate consideration of the potential harm of a given decision.  One might view such a shift as one method of operationalizing the precautionary principle for those activities that may result in grave harm.  Of course this will require some determination of what is considered too “grave” an outcome, recognizing that everything we do carries some risk.  It also requires decision makers to be pessimists, and not rely on emergency planning proposals as determinative of how impacts will be mitigated.   It requires us to say “no”, and be comfortable with that.  It would also require that we become more innovative in our endeavours.  Consider it an apple bonking us on the head, and with it we can realize the gravity of the situation.

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Others have commented on how the BP spill illustrates the need for changes to statutory caps on liability (see  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/energy-and-resources/increase-in-oil-spill-liability-caps-urged/article1630867/ ).  While I certainly don’t oppose such changes, I would argue that there are some liabilities we shouldn’t allow companies to take on.

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2 Comments
  • Adam Driedzic, ELC (Edmonton)
    Posted at 10:47h, 22 July Reply

    Good risk assessment considers both the likelihood of accident and severity of consequence. That is why there are old climbers and bold climbers, but very few old and bold climbers.

  • Leah Orr
    Posted at 14:39h, 08 July Reply

    Dianne Saxe posted an interesting article on her blog today called “Public risk, private profits – why cap liability?” Check it out at http://envirolaw.com/public-risk-private-profits/

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