Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Aengus Anderson: And here we are, begin­ning anoth­er episode. 

Micah Saul: Carolyn Raffensperger, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of The Science and Environmental Health Network.

Anderson: She’s in Ames, Iowa but the Science and Environmental Health Network is spread across the coun­try. We dis­cov­ered Carolyn through her work on the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple, but she’s done work on a series of oth­er real­ly inter­est­ing and inno­v­a­tive legal ideas about rethink­ing our rela­tion­ship to the envi­ron­ment. She’s also pub­lished pre­cau­tion­ary tools for reshap­ing envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy and pro­tect­ing pub­lic health and the envi­ron­ment. So, she’s writ­ten a large vari­ety of things. She’s an active speak­er, she’s got a TEDx talk that you can find online if you’re inter­est­ed in hear­ing more about the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple. But in this con­ver­sa­tion, we also go into some of her new­er ideas about the legal rights of future gen­er­a­tions, and a lot of oth­er ques­tions about the environment. 

Saul: One thread that I think needs to be brought up in advance is… You talk about him a lot in the con­ver­sa­tion but, she has a…strong response to More. In fact, Max More men­tioned in your con­ver­sa­tion his idea of the proac­tionary prin­ci­ple as being against the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple. Finally, we’re get­ting back to that.

Anderson: Yeah. It’s fun­ny. It took us the bet­ter part of four months at this point to get back to what Max More was respond­ing to.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And in this case it’s nice because, hav­ing talked about the proac­tionary prin­ci­ple (and you may want to go back and revis­it More’s episode), Carolyn responds pret­ty vig­or­ous­ly to him, and to a lot of oth­er tech opti­mists that we’ve spo­ken to thus far on the project.

Saul: So, things to keep in mind as you’re lis­ten­ing. And this is Carolyn Raffensperger.


Carolyn Raffensperger: You know, there’s so many places you could start that sto­ry. The one of my child­hood, where my father was Surgeon in Chief at a hos­pi­tal in Chicago, and came home and said that the babies he was oper­at­ing on, he was see­ing all of cer­tain class­es of birth defects and all of cer­tain class­es of child­hood tumors. He was the world’s expert. And they increased over a short peri­od time, over his career. And he said they were caused by pol­lu­tion. And I said, Well…do some­thing about it.” He was a very pow­er­ful man in my eyes. He could recre­ate bod­ies. He could heal. He could do so much. And he said, I can’t prove it.” 

I could tell that, or I could tell the sto­ry of being an archae­ol­o­gist in the desert Southwest, and Ronald Reagan appoint­ed a Secretary of the Interior. And that Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, want­ed to put radioac­tive waste near Capital Reef. And I loved that land­scape as much as I loved any­thing in this world. And that we would des­e­crate it was some­thing intol­er­a­ble to me. And I didn’t know how to say no. And I set out to fig­ure that out. And that led to rage and despair, because in the envi­ron­men­tal world it was always say­ing no.” And so no, you can’t put in this radioac­tive waste. No, you can’t put in this garbage fill. No, you can’t log the entire— No, you can’t dump in the ocean. No, no, no.

And that’s weary­ing at a soul lev­el. It’s a soul wound to say no like that all the time. And so to say, Yes, this is the world that we want,” was a turn­ing point. And how I got there was through dis­cov­er­ing these ideas of the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple. But I think of that, in some ways in a Biblical sense, that there are two kinds of voic­es. There are more than this but for the kind of work I do, there are often two kinds of voic­es. The prophet­ic voice that does say, No. No, we are in deep trou­ble. You are in deep trou­ble. Fear. Turn the oth­er way. Repent.” And I think we hear a lot of that out of the envi­ron­men­tal movement.

And then there’s the angel­ic voice that says, You’re in deep trou­ble. We’re in deep trou­ble. Turn the oth­er way. Fear not. Fear not.” And times when I feel rage, I can switch over to the the prophet­ic voice. But it’s so much more sat­is­fy­ing to be light like an angel. To point to anoth­er way and to say, We can do this. Fear not. We can turn this over in bet­ter shape than we got it. No, we don’t know if we are going to suc­ceed. We do not know, but it’s wor­thy work. Let’s try.” And so to the extent that I can do that now that I’m old­er, that I can see anoth­er way, then it’s not the soul wound. And I think it’s a voice, not of com­fort, but it is cut­ting the brush from our imme­di­ate view so that we can see at least three steps ahead.

Aengus Anderson: Is that what drew you to law?

Raffensperger: I went into law because I was work­ing for the Sierra Club. And I’d been lob­by­ing. Most of what we were doing was reau­tho­riza­tion of old law. So, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. And that did not seem like a future to me. So I looked at the future of envi­ron­men­tal­ism and said, what is it? What is it? So I thought well, it’s enforce­ment. And I applied to law school and got in, and I didn’t even know what I did well at the time. My expe­ri­ence of myself now at my age is that I have extra­or­di­nary gifts. They’re deep. They’re unique gifts. And they’re so lim­it­ed. They’re not things like I write well, or I speak well, or you know, some­thing like that. They’re some­thing very unique. And I think that my gift is oh, every four or five years, I come up with an idea that has big impli­ca­tions. And I often see all of their impli­ca­tions at once.

So while I was in law school, I came up with a new stan­dard for law, the respect­ful per­son stan­dard rather than the rea­son­able per­son stan­dard. And relat­ed to things I’ve worked on like the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple, which is anoth­er idea—it was was out there, but that I knew what to do with. I coined the term eco­log­i­cal med­i­cine.” This work on guardians of future gen­er­a­tions, and the rights of future gen­er­a­tions. I’ve known what to do with them.

Like, almost any lawyer’s bet­ter than I am at a lot of this, but nobody’s bet­ter at what I do. And ful­fill­ing my role with­in the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty is my respon­si­bil­i­ty to stand shoul­der to shoul­der with every­one else who is seek­ing to take action in the world to leave it in bet­ter shape.

Anderson: Implicit in all of that is the idea that there is some­thing we’re fac­ing now. What are we talk­ing about here? What is the chal­lenge that we face?

Raffensperger: I’ve had so many debates about that, you know. And I’m prob­a­bly a lumper rather than a split­ter. But the prob­lem that I am ded­i­cat­ing myself to, and the solu­tion that I’m ded­i­cat­ing myself to, is defined by what we want to leave to future gen­er­a­tions. There are a lot of good things that we’re leav­ing to future gen­er­a­tions, whether it’s mar­velous art, or Yosemite and Yellowstone. All of those things that we are leav­ing to future generations. 

But it’s become obvi­ous to me that we are not just leav­ing things to the sev­enth gen­er­a­tion. And we’re not just leav­ing good things. We are leav­ing real­ly hor­rif­ic tragedies to gen­er­a­tions so far out that we have no expe­ri­ence of that kind of time. And nev­er before in human his­to­ry have we caused change at that level.

And so when I look at moun­tain­top removal, or cer­tain kinds of mines, or cer­tain kinds of radioac­tive or tox­ic dis­as­ters and wastes, we are leav­ing tragedies to what I con­cep­tu­al­ize as the ten-thousandth gen­er­a­tion. So how do we remem­ber? How do we make it so that we leave a lega­cy of health and beau­ty instead of tragedy?

Anderson: Let’s just for a moment take a look at where the cur­rent sys­tem is, and where it goes if noth­ing changes.

Raffensperger: I’m going to step back and talk about a rude idea before I do that. We haven’t talked about the ideas that are invis­i­ble. That are almost prison-like. And one of the ideas I think that restricts action and that defines so much of how we got into this mess (and the mess is that we’re going to leave the plan­et trashed) is util­i­tar­i­an­ism. The whole Constitution, our whole reg­u­la­to­ry struc­ture, is based on the great­est good for the great­est num­ber. But the great­est good for the great­est num­ber means that 49.9% get breast can­cer from some chem­i­cal, we’re still going to leave it on the mar­ket because it’s good for the econ­o­my and for 50.1%. Or if killing the ocean is only bad for 49.9%, we’re still going to go forward.

That leaves out future gen­er­a­tions, and it is essen­tial­ly why we assume that the mar­ket is the arbiter of every­thing. Because the great­est good is mea­sured in dol­lars. So we priv­i­lege pri­vate prop­er­ty. The free mar­ket is assumed to be the great problem-solver. It’s why the right has a coher­ent the­o­ry of gov­ern­ment, which is that it gets in the way of the mar­ket. Yet if you look at whether that’s been suc­cess­ful— Are peo­ple health­i­er? Is the world health­i­er? Do you have more equal­i­ty? When we start to look at the own­ers of Walmart hav­ing more mon­ey than all of their cus­tomers put togeth­er, then we’re talk­ing about some­thing that maybe hasn’t worked.

So by all the things that I care about, equal­i­ty, pub­lic health, health of the plan­et, a sense of the sacred, a sense of mean­ing, it hasn’t worked out. And mea­sur­ing the sacred, mea­sur­ing mean­ing, in terms of dol­lars doesn’t work. Utilitarianism has dri­ven envi­ron­men­tal law. It’s deeply embed­ded in our world view in such a way that we can­not imag­ine anoth­er way of mak­ing decisions.

The alter­na­tive to that, for me, is that the envi­ron­ment and envi­ron­men­tal law be moved out of free mar­ket util­i­tar­i­an­ism and moved into a domain of an inalien­able right. If I have a right to clean air and to clean water, and I have a right with you and with future gen­er­a­tions, so we begin to imag­ine a law that’s no longer the indi­vid­ual, my right to, but our rights with, we begin a whole new set of ideas around the envi­ron­ment and the role of government.

Those root ideas that are invis­i­ble to most of us, how util­i­tar­i­an­ism, how free mar­ket, shapes our con­ver­sa­tions about cli­mate, bio­di­ver­si­ty, or min­ing, or any of these oth­er envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, it’s always put our jobs against the envi­ron­ment. You hear those either/ors all the time, so refram­ing the con­ver­sa­tion and mak­ing those invis­i­ble ideas vis­i­ble seems to me to be a fun­da­men­tal start in allow­ing us to take action and head a dif­fer­ent direction.

Anderson: And some­thing I think about with that is also the idea of quan­tifi­ca­tion. Does that come along with that type of util­i­tar­i­an­ism? And maybe it’s also woven in with cap­i­tal­ism, but the idea that we do tend to quan­ti­fy and com­pare every­thing, and that maybe we quan­ti­fy things that can’t be quan­ti­fied, or we try to.

Raffensperger: It’s not just quan­tifi­ca­tion. Who can quan­ti­fy, and that’s the expert. So we’ve imme­di­ate­ly under­mined democ­ra­cy by mak­ing quan­tifi­ca­tion the basis for deci­sions. So it’s—

Anderson: How does that under­mine democracy?

Raffensperger: Because the way that we’ll make an envi­ron­men­tal deci­sion, you watch this. They’ll say, There’s no sci­ence to prove that’s harm­ful. There’s no sci­ence. You’re just emo­tion­al. That you think frack­ing is going to cause a pub­lic health prob­lem? You think it’s going to… There’s no proof. There’s no proof.” 

So then we turn it over to sci­en­tists, and it’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to prove harm. And when the pub­lic can­not prove that the oil com­pa­ny is going to cause dam­age, then we’re not allowed to say, Nevertheless, the risk is not accept­able.” So we have turned it over, the deci­sion, to the expert. We have tak­en it out of the hands of the com­mu­ni­ty. And then when we say we want com­mu­ni­ty input, we hold a pub­lic hear­ing, and the experts sit up at a table. And then the grand­moth­er who does not have a grad­u­ate degree, she’s not allowed to say, Here’s what I’ve seen. Here is what’s hap­pened in my com­mu­ni­ty. And that’s not accept­able.” Her view is not tak­en because she’s not an expert. And so we’ve tak­en away the right for self deter­mi­na­tion and for com­mu­ni­ty determination. 

So I got a new idea about, this that’s just emerged in the last lit­tle while. And that is that you have a right after Nuremberg and the Nazis not to have a med­ical exper­i­ment per­formed on you with­out your free, pri­or, and informed con­sent. And they can­not inflict that exper­i­ment on you, or you have had a fun­da­men­tal vio­la­tion of your human rights. And the work that we’re now doing on com­mu­ni­ty law, this right that we share the com­mons, these rights that we have with each oth­er that go beyond pri­vate prop­er­ty rights, one is the same right as a com­mu­ni­ty for free, pri­or, and informed con­sent, before some enti­ty comes in and it affects your future. 

Anderson: If the cur­rent sys­tem goes on in its cur­rent form, what does our world look like? What are future gen­er­a­tions going to get? I kin­da want a vivid pic­ture of what we’re look­ing at here and why we change.

Raffensperger: I don’t think I need to do that, par­tic­u­lar­ly. And I think that it’s if you’re lis­ten­ing to this and have fol­lowed this this long, and you know that we’re going to have essen­tial­ly a tater tot plan­et, hot and crispy, and we will have lost so many of our fel­low trav­el­ers. There won’t be whales in the ocean, we won’t have these big trees, we won’t have pol­li­na­tors. And there are places in Japan that are hand-pollinating every pear tree, because they’ve lost the pol­li­na­tors. That’s not a world I want to live in, nor that I want to describe. 

But what I’d rather do is back­cast. And back­cast is, where would we like to be?” match that up with where we are, and map out a route. And so the world I would like to be in is one where we have been able to reverse the dam­age, where we have skills in restora­tion, in liv­ing well with the oth­er crea­tures on the Earth. And part of what I think will get us there is essen­tial­ly moral matu­ri­ty as a culture.

So, cul­tures are designed to do two things. One is to help us relate to each oth­er. But the oth­er thing a cul­ture is designed to do is to reg­u­late our behav­ior with the nat­ur­al world. So every suc­cess­ful cul­ture has had rules for har­vest, rules for keep­ing your waste away from what goes into to you, so you don’t shit in water. Which we do. Every cul­ture has had very care­ful rules of eti­quette for keep­ing this rela­tion­ship with nature har­mo­nious. And the shaman­ic role is not nec­es­sar­i­ly just, you know, the spir­it world, but it is to make sure that we are well-behaved vis-à-vis the nat­ur­al world. 

And when you look at our cul­ture, our cul­ture reg­u­lates our behav­ior with tech­nol­o­gy. And so your big rite of pas­sage, what every six­teen year old looks for­ward to, is not going out and find­ing a vision, a name, con­nec­tion with an ani­mal or a plant, how to a live in the world. You get a driver’s license. And so the future that I see is a mov­ing away from pri­mar­i­ly reg­u­lat­ing our behav­ior to tech­nol­o­gy, and reg­u­lat­ing our behav­ior with the nat­ur­al world. That we find a way to become moral­ly mature. That we have greater under­stand­ing of how we should relate to each oth­er, and how we should relate to all of our our fel­low beings on the Earth.

Anderson: Let’s then talk about what I’ve been want­i­ng to talk about the whole time. Let’s talk about the pre­cau­tion­ary principle.

Raffensperger: I came across the idea when a grad­u­ate stu­dent asked to do a col­lab­o­ra­tive dis­ser­ta­tion, and sent me a dis­ser­ta­tion pro­pos­al that named the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple. And I knew at the time that it was the answer to a ques­tion those of us in The Science and Environmental Health Network were try­ing to ask, which is, is there a dif­fer­ent way to reg­u­late our behav­ior in the world than risk assess­ment and cost-benefit analy­sis, which are the direct tools of a util­i­tar­i­an idea.

When I read about the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple, which says that you take action in the face of harm and sci­en­tif­ic uncer­tain­ty to pre­vent that harm, I said, This is it.” So I set out to fig­ure out the now what,” and I’m in 1998, we held a con­fer­ence that’s prob­a­bly now fair­ly well-known, called the Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle, and out of that work came up with five ideas.

The first is that you heed ear­ly morn­ings. I could describe all the warn­ings that the ocean is becom­ing more acid, that the plan­et is heat­ing up, you know, we could go through all the trends and all I’d have to do is draw a line on a chart and they all go the same direc­tion, right? They’re going the wrong direc­tion. So you heed ear­ly warn­ings. You pay attention.

The sec­ond is that you set goals. Can we reverse those trends? How do we set new goals for the kind of world we want to live in?

And then we look for the best alter­na­tives. Okay, so we’ve got harm­ful activ­i­ties. I think that look­ing for the best alter­na­tive is a con­ver­sa­tion that’s flour­ished around cli­mate change. And that’s dri­ven some of the law on the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple. So, San Francisco adopt­ed the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple, and they use the search for the best alter­na­tive to dri­ve their pre­cau­tion­ary poli­cies. This has been remark­ably successful. 

Anderson: How do we deter­mine things like best alternative?” 

Raffensperger: It depends on if you are oper­at­ing out of the util­i­tar­i­an free mar­ket kind of approach, because then the best alter­na­tive is going to be the cheap­est, right? But if you tar­get your goals… We want healthy peo­ple, we want healthy land, you know… Then there are oth­er cri­te­ria for eval­u­at­ing the best alter­na­tive. That’s why set­ting goals is so important. 

So the three that I’ve men­tioned. Heeding ear­ly warn­ing, set­ting goals, iden­ti­fy­ing and choos­ing the best alternative. 

And then revers­ing the bur­den of proof. And revers­ing the bur­den of proof is a legal idea about who has to put for­ward infor­ma­tion. Who has the respon­si­bil­i­ty for uncer­tain­ty or doubt? And so in most courts of law, and most reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies, it’s the pub­lic, and it’s the indi­vid­ual who’s been harmed or who wants to prove harm that has respon­si­bil­i­ty to demon­strate that it could cause harm.

But when we reverse the bur­den of proof so that the per­son who wants to put it on the mar­ket or wants to increase the public’s risk, they’ve got a respon­si­bil­i­ty to com­pare alter­na­tives. To put up a bond if that’s going to pol­lute. They have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to pay if they do cause a mess. But essen­tial­ly what we have is a casi­no now, with risk. We accept industry’s bet. No no no, our giant mine is not going to cause any prob­lems.” And we’re going to accept their bet, and then who pays when they do pol­lute? The pub­lic will pay. And, so under revers­ing the bur­den of proof, we say, No. The pol­luter has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to at least test their product.” 

And then the last is that because this is not just sci­ence that we leave to the experts to quan­ti­fy, it’s up to peo­ple who have a stake in the out­come, and to have a voice at the table. And I told you ear­li­er why I thought that that wasn’t very sat­is­fy­ing to me, the way that it’s rigged. But I do believe that by rec­og­niz­ing free, pri­or, and informed con­sent as a right of com­mu­ni­ty, that we can change that.

Anderson: This opens up a lot of inter­est­ing lines of inquiry. I think prob­a­bly the first one I’m curi­ous about, and I know you’ve heard this a mil­lion times before but I think it would be good to bring it into the series, is the idea of choice and inno­va­tion. And I think anoth­er big invis­i­ble idea that I’ve been inter­est­ed in is sort of our faith in progress as a coun­try or as a world. I think we have a belief in sort of a tele­o­log­i­cal incre­men­tal improve­ment, and for us sci­ence, even though we wouldn’t explic­it­ly say it, is often mea­sured as this kind of progress. And so I think for a lot of peo­ple when they hear about the cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple, and they think about sci­ence is progress; this slows sci­ence; this slows human choice and cre­ativ­i­ty” and you get the analo­gies like, God, if we had the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple would we have ever devel­oped fire?”

Raffensperger: As if we devel­oped fire.

Anderson: But that’s actu­al­ly been men­tioned in this series, by Max More, who was talk­ing about the proac­tionary prin­ci­ple. And that’s some­thing I’m curi­ous about. Those ideas are float­ing out there.

Raffensperger: You know that sounds like? That real­ly sounds like the fif­teen year-old who thinks that they know every­thing and can dri­ve the car after they’ve been drink­ing and a rainy night, and their mother’s going, Noooo, bad idea.” And they’re say­ing, What? You [whin­ing sounds]” It’s…I think mark of imma­tu­ri­ty to argue that we under­stand the con­se­quences of things at such a large scale. You know that now with tech­nol­o­gy able to have such a glob­al, and beyond glob­al reach… And when we invent­ed chlo­ro­flu­o­ro­car­bons, we thought, What a great idea. Stable. They don’t react. That’s why they’re so safe.” And we didn’t even know there was an ozone lay­er up in the upper atmos­phere when we cre­at­ed them. We didn’t even know that.

So when they say, Well, you know, you’re going to block all progress,” first of all, it’s going to redi­rect the idea, and it’s going to define it, what progress is. And it’s gonna redi­rect sci­ence. So it’s going to open up cre­ativ­i­ty to iden­ti­fy harm­ful tech­nolo­gies, and to look for bet­ter alternatives.

So nobody’s argued about the microwave. You know, it saves ener­gy. We’re not say­ing ban that. So there are things that I think the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple opens up for increased cre­ativ­i­ty, increased inno­va­tion. But it directs it towards what will be true progress and doesn’t destroy the plan­et, ulti­mate­ly. When we look at the struc­ture of sci­ence hav­ing been whol­ly tak­en over by cor­po­rate inter­ests, by design, by design…

So, when we had World War II, we had this incred­i­ble col­lab­o­ra­tion between uni­ver­si­ties and gov­ern­ment to devel­op all the tech­nolo­gies we need­ed for the war. And after the war a man named Vannevar Bush wrote a paper. And he said, this was remark­able, and if we want to trans­fer these tech­nolo­gies to the pub­lic, then what we need to do is form a part­ner­ship between gov­ern­ment, the uni­ver­si­ty, and cor­po­ra­tions. And out of that paper and that think­ing, we cre­at­ed a series of laws that legit­imized those part­ner­ships. So every university—we’re sit­ting near Iowa State—have patent offices, we fed­er­al­ly fund that kind of research, we patent it, and restrict it, and we give it to cor­po­ra­tions. So what we’re priv­i­leg­ing with our sci­ence are not the ques­tions that the pub­lic needs answers to. What we’re doing is look­ing at ways to make cor­po­ra­tions wealthy. And we have a cou­ple goals. One is to increase the GDP and to increase our role in glob­al trade. It is not a recon­cep­tion of sci­ence as increas­ing the com­mons, increas­ing the well-being. 

One last com­ment on that. In 1998, then-president of AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, called for a new social con­tract for sci­ence. She said, We now have a human-dominated plan­et.” And she gave all the sta­tis­tics on it. We’ve altered the nitro­gen flows, the geo­chem­i­cal cycles of the earth. And then she said, We ful­filled that we want­ed to cure infec­tious dis­eases. We have explored new ter­ri­to­ries, the space pro­gram. All of these things. We now have new chal­lenges before sci­ence. And I believe that they’re the ones that are revealed by the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple.” And so I think it’s a call for a new direc­tion for sci­ence. And it’s an excit­ing pro­gram, where we can use the most imag­i­na­tion and the brain trust that a sci­ence has, to solve these pub­lic problems.

Anderson: I think you just point­ed out anoth­er one of those big invis­i­ble ideas, which I think is real­ly impor­tant to remem­ber. It’s sort of the social con­text of sci­ence as an insti­tu­tion that has pri­or­i­ties, and has fund­ing sources, and has things like that. That’s some­thing that hasn’t actu­al­ly come up as much in this project, because I think it’s often hard to see. We do see sci­ence a sort of a mono­lith, often. This is inter­est­ing because in a way, by look­ing at sci­ence as a social insti­tu­tion, we’re not cast­ing aside the notion of sci­ence per se, when we’re talk­ing about the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple. I’m think of my con­ver­sa­tion again with Robert Zubrin who I think would prob­a­bly char­ac­ter­ize the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple as anti-humanist. Because for him unfet­tered sci­ence is the human enter­prise, and cur­rent sci­ence is seen as unfet­tered, right, if you don’t exam­ine it with­in its cul­tur­al context. 

I’ve spo­ken to oth­er peo­ple, though, who sort of look at all of our cur­rent problems…I’m think­ing of a prim­i­tivists named John Zerzan, and he would say, This is just what you get when you get sci­ence. It doesn’t real­ly mat­ter who is in charge. Science is always cre­at­ing these new tech­nolo­gies, and in its very oper­a­tion, by reveal­ing all of this stuff, it is cre­at­ing prob­lems.” His answer, of course, is to have none of it. And it seems like we’re sort of, in this con­ver­sa­tion, plot­ting a course down between these two extremes, on one side of no sci­ence and on the oth­er side of unfet­tered sci­ence dri­ven by the mar­ket. Are we hav­ing cake and eat­ing it, too?

Raffensperger: I’m intrigued by both of those, but I view sci­ence as a con­ver­sa­tion with the world. Someone told me, it was Terry Tempest Williams… I’m not going to get the quote exact­ly right. But she said the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple is rev­er­ence. And I think that one of the things that great sci­ence does, is lead to awe and rev­er­ence. That that con­ver­sa­tion with the world, that Einstein’s ideas, or Stephen Hawking’s ideas, leads to awe. And that’s a form of mean­ing that leads to oth­er things like grat­i­tude. Gratitude that these trees give us oxy­gen. And I think that sci­ence that leads to arro­gance, sci­ence that leads to blind­ness, to con­se­quences, is imma­ture, child­ish, and dan­ger­ous. And in the end, anti-human.

I’m not say­ing that awe and rev­er­ence needs to dri­ve every­thing. But using respect as a gauge for our behav­ior in the world, not just with each oth­er, but with the nat­ur­al world, and respect for what we don’t know, not just what we think we know, I think would go a long way to a moral­ly mature culture. 

Anderson: It seems like we’ve got anoth­er big invis­i­ble idea here. Where we get­ting these morals, and what do they mean? I’ve spo­ken to a lot of peo­ple who don’t see any of these things as moral. They may be strong anthro­pocen­trists. I’m think­ing of Robert Zubrin, who I inter­viewed over at The Mars soci­ety in Denver. Or Max More, who’s a tran­shu­man­ist writer and thinker. And for both of them, the world is just mat­ter. Meaning is gen­er­at­ed only through peo­ple, us attribut­ing mean­ing to things. And so the things that we’ve been tired here don’t click with them at all, because they would say there’s no base­line of nor­mal­i­ty to lose. 

So that’s that’s one big vis­i­ble idea beneath them. There’s a big invis­i­ble idea beneath our con­ver­sa­tion here, too, which has an idea like these, things that we’re see­ing out­side of the win­dow have val­ue. The nat­ur­al world has val­ue. The enti­ties with­in it have intrin­sic val­ue sep­a­rate from us. Is that a fair characterization?

Raffensperger: Um, I don’t sep­a­rate them from myself. 

Anderson: Okay, so there’s no dif­fer­ence at all.

Raffensperger: I think that there are cen­tral ideas that I live by. Some of them were derived from my reli­gious choic­es and spir­i­tu­al choic­es. One is that I am only myself in community. 

Anderson: What does that mean?

Raffensperger: It means that…well, I’m going to step back and define poverty.

Anderson: Okay.

Raffensperger: Poverty is not enough mon­ey. It is not enough friends. And it is not enough mean­ing. Just liv­ing all by myself, eat­ing, read­ing, lis­ten­ing to music, it is a pover­ty. And I can tell you for a fact that I would rather die than live that way. And there was a time in my life when I was very close to that. And it’s not a life worth liv­ing. And when cer­tain peo­ple came into my life and gave me mean­ing and were my friends, and I was myself, ful­ly with them. And I don’t view that as any dif­fer­ent than that robin out there, or the deer that brings her two fawns up to meet me. There’s a lemon tree out there that and has been part of my fam­i­ly now since 1961, my grandfather’s tree. And if I’m gone a long time, it drops its leaves, and when I’m home a long time she’ll bloom. And I am ful­ly myself in the com­pa­ny of oth­ers. And yeah, I’m more human around that tree.

Anderson: At root, is this a spir­i­tu­al movement?

Raffensperger: Hmm. It’s an inef­fa­ble move­ment. It has great mys­tery to it. I’m glad that I don’t know. I believe that there are things that I can­not see that have mean­ing. The peo­ple who are clos­est to me are indige­nous and have a deep ground­ing in their own tra­di­tions. They don’t trans­fer very well. there’s not pan-Indian, you know. Arikara do not have the same world views the Apache. There’s some sim­i­lar­i­ties, but. And I’m per­suad­ed by some of their extra­or­di­nary pow­er. And I am a per­suad­ed by what I see when peo­ple come togeth­er in com­mu­ni­ty, that there’s some­thing greater than I am out there.

I come from a reli­gious tra­di­tion that says you know, in some ways the divine sits where two or three are gath­ered. So I don’t know that the divine inhab­its me, or any­thing like that. But where was where we are gath­ered togeth­er in that way, there’s some­thing mys­te­ri­ous and sacred that emerges out of it. I do believe that there is sacred. And I believe that we desecrate.

Anderson: Do you think there can be a con­ver­sa­tion between peo­ple who are fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent? Like, some­one who real­ly doesn’t see the val­ue in nature. Is there any con­ver­sa­tion that can hap­pen there?

Raffensperger: Well, I don’t think it’s going to be con­ver­sa­tion that’s going to mat­ter in that one. I don’t know if it can hap­pen or not. My guess is the con­ver­sa­tion will hap­pen in some­one else’s mind rather than between me and the tran­shu­man­ist. It’s your lis­ten­ers, then. That’s where the con­ver­sa­tion will happen.


Micah Saul: Well, if that’s not a destruc­tion of our cen­tral the­sis, I don’t know what is. 

Aengus Anderson: We put the hypothe­ses of this project for­ward as exact­ly that. It is a hypoth­e­sis. We don’t know if con­ver­sa­tion is hap­pen­ing. We don’t know if con­ver­sa­tion even mat­ters. And I think Carolyn is prob­a­bly the most vocal skep­tic of that idea, point­ing out that some people’s ara­tional goods may be so dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent that con­ver­sa­tion with each oth­er is either not pos­si­ble or not rel­e­vant. And kind of shift­ing the con­ver­sa­tion onto the unde­cid­ed. Does that sound like lob­by­ing to you?

Saul: Oh, it absolute­ly sounds like lob­by­ing. It actu­al­ly makes me think of the idea that Cameron Whitten sug­gest­ed, that the way we we sort of change the sto­ry is through…advertising?

Anderson: Yeah, or David Korten. You change the myth. Jackson got into that, too. Sort of like, you’re work­ing to change the under­ly­ing ways that peo­ple who aren’t ask­ing the big ques­tions inter­pret the world. Is that elitist?

Saul: Well, it brings us back to that four month-old ques­tion. Is our project elitist? 

Anderson: And I think in Carolyn’s case it isn’t. Because she’s talk­ing about, peo­ple need to just make up their minds about this. And her argu­ment will either feel right or it won’t.

Saul: She’s giv­ing the gen­er­al pub­lic cred­it for a lot more agency than a lot of oth­er peo­ple, perhaps.

Anderson: It’s inter­est­ing that part of the agency she wants them to have is to come to an appre­ci­a­tion of sort of the intan­gi­ble good of the envi­ron­ment. And that isn’t some­thing you nec­es­sar­i­ly arrive at through rea­son. That’s some­thing you arrive at through feel­ing.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Do her state­ments about val­ue feel right?

Saul: As with so many oth­er fun­da­men­tal goods of var­i­ous peo­ple you’ve talked to, that is arational.

Anderson: Yes. And in a lot of oth­er cas­es it’s more active­ly cloaked.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: But in this case, she’s right up front about it.

Saul: Yeah. She’s very hon­est. There is a spir­i­tu­al­i­ty to her sen­si­bil­i­ty that she is right there ful­ly admit­ting it. She is only her­self in community.

Anderson: That was a great line, wasn’t it?

Saul: It’s a fan­tas­tic line, and extend­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of com­mu­ni­ty to all that is around her.

Anderson: You know, we’re always think­ing about these big poles in the back­ground, and one is the individual/community, pulling peo­ple back and forth. And it felt like she artic­u­lates the need for our com­mu­ni­ty in a way that is… I wouldn’t say it’s a fun­da­men­tal­ly new idea, but it is very rad­i­cal at this point in time we’re liv­ing in.

Saul: It con­nects her up with…two jumped out at me imme­di­ate­ly. Gabe Stempinski, who very much want­ed to talk about com­mu­ni­ty. I’d also even clos­er con­nect her to Zerzan, because she’s not just talk­ing about human com­mu­ni­ty, she’s talk­ing about the nat­ur­al world as her community. 

Anderson: And in both of those cas­es there’s a real sense that again, com­mu­ni­ty has intan­gi­ble ben­e­fits. Though if we were to talk about Laura Musikanski there, she would prob­a­bly tell you about the very tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of it. And Colin Camerer might jump in there too. But, I mean, community’s been a huge theme. And it means so many dif­fer­ent things. And it’s inter­est­ing to think about how Morton does not talk about com­mu­ni­ty, but Morton talks about…probably more close­ly than all of the oth­ers, a sense of being with all oth­er things.

Saul: Right. 

Anderson: But for Morton, it’s not the sort of feel-good you’re one with all things, it’s very much, well…it’s Morton. I mean, it’s disquieting. 

Saul: It’s…ooky feel­ing. It’s uncanny.

Anderson: And I would actu­al­ly love to know his thoughts on this con­ver­sa­tion, because his ideas are at once so sim­i­lar and so dif­fer­ent. And actu­al­ly, speak­ing of the community/individual ten­sion, what did you think of her cri­tique of util­i­tar­i­an­ism? Boy, John Stuart Mill, he gets some punch­es thrown at him.

Saul: Yeah, so… I’m not sold on her use of the word util­i­tar­i­an­ism, actu­al­ly. She starts by defin­ing it as this idea of the great­est good for the great­est num­ber of peo­ple. There’s a def­i­n­i­tion of good that isn’t being pro­vid­ed here. And if you look at what she’s actu­al­ly cri­tiquing, I think what she’s real­ly cri­tiquing is free mar­ket. She actu­al­ly even says, in our soci­ety good means money.”

Anderson: Yeah, there is a con­fla­tion with that cri­tique and the cri­tique of util­i­tar­i­an­ism as a philo­soph­i­cal idea.

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: Right, because isn’t the pre­cau­tion­ary principle—and this is some­thing that I was think­ing about in ret­ro­spect and I wish I was a sharp­er guy and picked this up at the time—but the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple is a form of utilitarianism.

Saul: The pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple can even be defined in the same words as her def­i­n­i­tion of utilitarianism.

Anderson: What are we chang­ing out? Well, we’re chang­ing out the idea of the good it’s seek­ing, and we’re chang­ing out the actors involved.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Broaden the actors beyond peo­ple to oth­er crea­tures and also to nat­ur­al things that are per­haps inor­gan­ic, and change the def­i­n­i­tion of good from mon­ey or GDP, and swap it out for well-being. Or, there’s a whole vari­ety of oth­er def­i­n­i­tions of the good that are non-monetary.

Saul: Yeah. I had the same thought. In the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple, there’s the idea of always look­ing for bet­ter alter­na­tives. Again, there’s anoth­er just com­plete­ly ambigu­ous phrase, like the con­cept of the great­est good. I mean, bet­ter alter­na­tive, great­est good…those sound pret­ty similar.

Anderson: Right. In both cas­es they draw on an assump­tion [crosstalk] of the good—

Saul: Of val­ue. Right.

Anderson: —which is com­ing from an ara­tional place.

Saul: In Carolyn’s world, this is again that sort of envi­ron­men­tal spirituality.

Anderson: Right. And if you talk to some­one more like Max More, who could use… For a guy who espous­es the proac­tionary prin­ci­ple, he still oper­at­ing in sort of a util­i­tar­i­an frame­work. And he’s just defin­ing the good dif­fer­ent­ly than Carolyn is. From a place that he ulti­mate­ly admit­ted was arational.

Saul: So, isn’t it sort of inter­est­ing that you could still make the argu­ment that they’re oper­at­ing under the same prin­ci­ple? They might call it dif­fer­ent things, but if you sub out each of their ver­sions of what good is, it kin­da ends up being in the same thing. 

Anderson: I mean, it reminds me of the ques­tion that Max asked at the end of this con­ver­sa­tion, which was, what’s your process for mak­ing bet­ter deci­sions? I mean, that’s what the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple is, it’s an attempts to offer a process to make bet­ter deci­sions. And yet yeah, with both of them hav­ing those under­ly­ing ara­tional assump­tions, it’s like we got the same equa­tion, we’ve solved for x twice, and we’ve got two total­ly dif­fer­ent answers. 

I mean, this is a project that’s inter­est­ed in com­mon­al­i­ties, and the com­mon­al­i­ty here seems to be that there’s sort of an under­ly­ing log­ic that the two share. But beneath that there is an ara­tional assump­tion. Because they share a log­ic, is there maybe more of a chance for a dia­logue than Carolyn sug­gests at the end of our con­ver­sa­tion? Does the Conversation real­ly matter?

Saul: I like to think so, obvi­ous­ly. The ques­tion then becomes are you willing? 

Anderson: Or which is greater, the sys­tem of thought which may be in com­mon, or the ara­tional assump­tion of good?

Saul: I think we have our work cut out for us, because I think that’s still what we’re try­ing to solve. And obvi­ous­ly it hasn’t been answered yet.

Anderson: [laughs] No. I’m feel­ing cyn­i­cal now, and I’m think­ing God, with the ara­tional assump­tions that dif­fer­ent, it is just jock­ey­ing for the most sup­port of the unde­cid­ed. And yet, for us to find these sort of com­mon­al­i­ties in the way peo­ple are think­ing, I’m excit­ed to see what else this project turns up. And I’m excit­ed to visu­al­ly map it at some point, and see the things that we haven’t even real­ized yet.

Saul: While we’re on that, anoth­er com­mon­al­i­ty I wasn’t expect­ing to see here. There’s a def­i­nite con­nec­tion to to Zander and The Long Now. There’s some­thing about that num­ber, 10,000, that just seems to be real­ly appeal­ing to peo­ple that are think­ing long term, right. The 10,000 year clock. 10,000 gen­er­a­tions down. 

Anderson: Not only do they both men­tion the num­ber 10,000, but they also men­tioned that we are deal­ing with a scale beyond our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty. Again, here’s a Morton echo, as well. And there’s a lot that we can’t know.

Saul: But then she says we can’t know what 10,000 gen­er­a­tions from now, what they’re going to be like, what they’re going to need, where they’re going to live. The world around them will be com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. But what we can do is say that they have just as much right to make choic­es. And we should go out of our way to leave them as many options as possible.

Anderson: I mean, that could be a ver­ba­tim Alexander Rose quote. 

Saul: Which is I think an inter­est­ing way of look­ing at long-term thinking.

Anderson: It is. Is that an impos­si­bly high bar? Is our entire soci­ety based on mak­ing choic­es that to some extent lim­it the choic­es of future generations?

Saul: So, this is prob­a­bly an excel­lent point to bring up some­thing else that I think both you and I noticed on sec­ond lis­ten. I think deep down, Carolyn is still… She still believes in the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of tech­nol­o­gy. She is still a tech opti­mist. And that of course begs the Zerzan cri­tique, is sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy fun­da­men­tal­ly detri­men­tal to the environment? 

Anderson: We’ve got­ten a lot of use­ful things out of Zerzan, and I think this is prob­a­bly one of the most force­ful points he made, and def­i­nite­ly one of the the strongest cri­tiques of envi­ron­men­tal­ism. Can you believe that the tech­no­log­i­cal enter­prise as a social thing can have val­ue or redemp­tive or trans­for­ma­tive pow­ers regard­ing the envi­ron­ment, with­out sort of trac­ing it back to all of its ener­gy and min­er­al resources? And I don’t know. I mean, Carolyn men­tioned some­thing that I didn’t have time to include in this piece, but she men­tioned that ulti­mate­ly she felt art was a more human endeav­or than sci­ence. And so I won­der if she couldn’t see a future in which we did say good­bye to some of our tech­nol­o­gy on behalf of envi­ron­men­tal preser­va­tion, and shift our cre­ative ener­gies into art in a way that I think Wes Jackson was real­ly up front about in his work. You choose what tech­nol­o­gy you keep. I think again there’s a ques­tion of what sphere of the pub­lic are you act­ing in? And if you say, To save the envi­ron­ment, you have to give up your Prius?”

Saul: It’s a hard sell. Certainly not some­thing you say at TED

Anderson: [laughs] Don’t wor­ry, we’re nev­er going to say any­thing at TED. Well, let’s close it out here. Our next episode is going to be a con­ver­sa­tion with Frances Whitehead. She kind of defies my abil­i­ty to define.

Saul: She sort of embed­ded her­self as an artist into munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment in real­ly cool, inter­est­ing ways. And I think she’s very much hav­ing some small part of the Conversation, every day.

Anderson: We talked in two sec­tions, for sev­en and a half hours, and she com­plete­ly blows up the idea of what an artist is. And blows up a lot of oth­er ideas. And con­nects every oth­er idea in the project and…well, what more can you say than everything?

That was Carolyn Raffensperger, record­ed on July 26, 2012 at her house in Ames, Iowa.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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