Meretricious: alluring by a show of flashy or vulgar attractions; tawdry; pertaining to or characteristic of a prostitute. Origin < Latin meretrīcius, of or pertaining to prostitutes, derivative of meretrīx, prostitute.
Last week, I wrote about shifting the burden of proof from those of us who think the precautionary principle supports immediate, organized climate action to those who counsel the status quo.
The “proactionary principle” is a concept in opposition to the precautionary principle. It promotes the freedom to innovate and encourages technological development. Freedom, innovation, development. What’s wrong with that?
There’s a rub, and it’s a big one: limits. The proactionary principle justifies, among other things, a mind-machine interface, the Ray Kurzweil “singularity” in which we would leverage computing power by hardwiring it into our grey matter and become one with our machines. That’s just what we need: the perfect infrastructure for a hive mind. It’d be like North Korea, except the loudspeaker constantly yammering the Great Leader’s thoughts would be inside your head. And how would the option to have the implant not become the necessity, any less than cars, televisions, and the internet have become necessities?
The proactionary principle cites all the good that technology has bestowed upon humankind, like computers and medicine. Talk about a sociocentric, value-loaded conclusion. Is the present world truly better than an alternate world which lacks these things? What else about that non-tech world might be good? And what about our present tech society is bad?
Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I do appreciate the positive attributes of computers and medicine. (All praise, root canals! I can’t imagine wanting even to live with the pain root canals relieve.) But technology has imposed serious problems on us all, without our consent, not the least of which is climate change, but also mechanized war, the loss of privacy, societal fragmentation and alienation and, now, near total dependence on technology itself to sustain survival.
The proactionary principle asserts that, through unfettered ambition and experimentation, irrespective of scale, capital requirements, and the potential for abuse or social destructiveness, we will solve the problems that unfettered ambition and experimentation largely caused.
In other words, we will overcome a rapidly degrading situation whose root cause is complexity and hubris by assiduously applying yet more complexity and hubris.
This attitude (I hesitate to grace it with the word philosophy) isn’t new, despite the glossy new label. Exploration, adventurism, colonization, resource exploitation—these are all manifestations of what would now fall under the rubric of the proactionary principle. The history of the world, in this view, is one big recursive dynamic in which innovation has kept us one step ahead of our own tendency to f*ck things up. One could argue it has worked up to now. But the planetary context that allowed it to work has fundamentally changed. In fact, the pursuit of the proactionary principle has flipped the context on its head.
Open-ended risk-taking requires surplus capacity to absorb waste and mistakes. The first guy to settle the river can piss downstream all he wants. But once others show up, that doesn’t work anymore. The same is true for risk. You can take a lot as long as the consequences are localized. But the planetary scale of our prosperity has inverted the surplus capacity for risk to a scarcity. Too many people, too few resources, too little time, too little room for error. The shrinking ice cap tells us that the capacity of the CO2 sump we call the atmosphere has been saturated.
Then there’s the character of the envelope-pushing that the proactionary principle champions. It’s one thing for a few individuals to set sail for America in a few wooden boats, or to try to build a steam engine. These are discrete efforts. It’s another thing to tinker with genetics or change the chemical makeup of the atmosphere. These aren’t discrete, but integral to the very state of human existence and imposed on it forever.
When I first came across the proactionary principle, it gave me pause. It pulled at me intellectually. I read lots of compelling commentary. But as with all superficial charm, the underlying reality is quite different.
If nothing else, the proactionary principle draws a false dichotomy: action vs inaction. All choices involve action. Deliberating the course of action is not the same as preventing action. There is a wide, dynamic spectrum of possible approaches to big social problems, which this notion denies.
But it does more than that. It seduces. It pleads for the status quo, only more of it. It nullifies conscience and social responsibility. It is a form of Ayn Randization, a tool for the Tea Party and libertarians to justify selfishness, personal privilege, and social Darwinism. It turns the discussion of how to handle the imminent problem of climate chaos into a mind game. It’s Jesuitical and profoundly anti-democratic. My eye was caught by its flashy display in the marketplace of ideas, but I’m not buying.