Category Archives: Precaution, Risks and Uncertainties

Risk Assessment in Developing Countries

In the discussions on how to provide protection against risks in order not to compromise the ability of future people to enjoy a clean and safe environment, one distinction is of particular importance. It refers to the way in which developed and, respectively, developing countries should manage these risks for the benefit of future generations.

Taking this distinction seriously from a normative point of view, two issues are worth exploring:

1)      While in the developed world, the problem seems to be mostly one of optimizing risk management, or how to provide public safety by effectively minimizing natural risks, in developing countries, the main problem stems from a complex system of inter-related social vulnerabilities, which generates a number of separate, additional risks. Certain social and institutional problems specific to developing countries are so important in terms of their negative effect on public safety and environmental protection that they should be considered risks in themselves.

2) Secondly, developing countries display a characteristic which, at first view, may seem paradoxical. They are countries where societal risks are high, pervasive and self-reinforcing, but, at the same time, they are the least concerned to work for minimizing them. Instead, they seem to be focusing primarily on natural risks. On the contrary, developed countries with a tradition of concern for public safety take societal risks seriously, even in cases where these are (comparatively) much lower.

Take, for instance, nuclear energy. Except for particular conditions (for example, high seismic hazards), the natural risks are quite comparable across the two groups of countries using similar technologies.

However, risks of short-sighted or even contradictory policies resulting from institutional backwardness, corruptibility, non-compliance, are not so comparable. In some developing countries, far from being isolated factors, they are the daily background of decision-making.

Choosing a site for a waste repository or deciding on the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant are, therefore, fraught with a distinct set of problems: lack of coherent regulations, poor administrative capacity to take action in case of an accident (starting from overlapping responsibilities of institutions to insufficient buses to transport people from the community affected), or the shallow excuse that public policies should first mirror the immediate interests of citizens (welfare, development).

If this is how things look in some parts of the developing world, I would argue that such different situations should require different strategies. In my view, this would mean that developing countries should abandon the ‘reductionist’ fallacy, of equating risks with (only) natural risks, and take societal risks seriously. The fact that this would definitely be more costly for the time being should not affect the normative dimension of the problem. If we choose to rely partly on the analogy with the budget a person should manage to minimize a set of risks, then being poorer would not imply one should not save. On the contrary, being poorer is in many cases being more vulnerable, and saving could add some protection.

Your thoughts and comments are very welcome.

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Rosia Montana: Are We Drawing to a Close?

On the 9th of December, a referendum was organized in 35 small Romanian localities within the mining region where the Roşia Montană project is supposed to take place. The decision to hold the referendum on the same day as the legislative elections was obviously neither coincidental, nor just a sensible cost-savings measure. Rather,the not-so-secret hope was that merging two deliberative issues for the same ballot would secure a good turnout and push the controversial project beneath the door and then up the decision makers’ table. After all, there are other examples from the recent past that consolidated this mechanism. But it so happened that the referendum had to be invalidated due to an insufficient turnout.

In the event that the referendum expressed the will of the local people to restart mining in the area, the corporation, project advocates, and politicians who have over the last years been reciting the mantra of job creation would have hailed its outcome as a clear triumph of democracy over demagogy and misinformation. But would it have really been so?

If, in 2002, when the Local Council voted that Roşia Montană should be transformed from a residential area into an industrial area, thus making it virtually impossible for any alternative economic activity to develop there, a referendum had been organized and the ‘will of people’ had spoken in one voice, it would have been more difficult to criticize now this proof of sham democracy.  But the major questions still remain, and, moreover, no significant effort is being made to answer them. Why should this project be simply a matter of securing jobs and temporary welfare for a community who is indeed very poor? After all, there should be more talk about non-renewable resources, environmental and legal protection mechanisms, and fair distribution of stakeholder responsibilities. Such issues are not strictly of local interest, but if the referendum had been held at national level, it is very plausible to say that not only  it would have been valid, but the project itself would had been rejected. It is still unclear to me whether a referendum, be it national, would be the best alternative to decide on such an issue. From one angle, it would just serve to cover decision makers in the voice and authority of the ‘people’, while preserving the same hazy distribution of responsibilities at policy level.

If, at the beginning of my posts on Roşia Montană, I saw this research topic riddled with questions, the answers to which would really make a difference, I rather tend to believe now that this project poses deep structural problems which must be addressed at their core, and not on a case-to-case basis.  Even if for the moment there is no definite answer on what is going to happen in that area, the fact that the referendum was invalidated should not be seen as a good sign by opponents of the projects. After all, it is a precedent procedurally approved, and it may be just a matter of time until it becomes successful.

New Publication: Handbook of Risk Theory

A book of 1187 pages, like the one edited this year by Sabine Roeser, Rafela Hillerbrand, Per Sandin and Martin Peterson, would no doubt deserve a lengthier presentation than this blogpost. The reason I chose to refer to it here is that I find it definitely worth including on the reading list of researchers from many distinct fields of philosophy. First, the philosophical background of its editors helps shape the discussion as a theoretical framework in which risk is a central notion, with implications on many fields of research, as the 46 chapters indicate. Secondly, the structure of the book suggests possible routes of approach, at the core of many philosophical interests: the nature and epistemology of risk, decision theory, ethics, or sociology or risk.

With contributions from leading scholars, this anthology aims to discuss some major questions in the field of risk theory, such as: How should we conceive the relation between risk and safety, or risk and uncertainty? What mistakes do we make in measuring risk? How should we mitigate risks in fairness to future generations? What counts as morally acceptable risk? But there is equally fresh material in it which results from incorporating the discussion about risk into social justice theories, such as the capabilities approach, virtue ethics, trust, or particular cases of  responsibility, e.g. towards children.

If, at the end of the book, the reader finds herself/himself persuaded by some of the approaches defended, but still overwhelmed by the intricacies of risk theory,  she/he could perhaps find solace in the fact that there are enough risks left for each of us to explore in our everyday lives.