How Can We Assess Fracking’s Consequences Without Being Influenced by Big Business?

What's to come?
July 6 2012 7:15 AM

Let a Thousand Gas Wells Bloom

How can we assess the consequences of new technologies like fracking when there are billions of dollars at stake?

A Scene of Fracking.
Engineers on the drilling platform of the Cuadrilla shale fracking facility on October 7, 2011 in Preston, Lancashire

Photograph by Matthew Lloyd/GettyImages.

A few months ago, I used the shale gas boom to argue that our innovation system is broken. We constantly unleash poorly understood powers and scramble to ride out the unintended consequences. My basic point was that we need to be more precautionary—when a new technological activity has some unknown possibility of causing harms, we ought to restrain the activity until cause-effect relations are better understood.

I assumed that this was the principled position (it is the precautionary principle, after all) and the alternative was rapacious corporate capitalism. But I later found out that in 2004, Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanists hatched the idea of “proaction” as an explicit and ethical counterweight to what they saw as the dangerous creep of precautionary technology politics. The futurist philosopher Max More went on to formulate the proactionary principle.

Whereas the precautionary approach adheres to the Hippocratic dictum of “above all, do no harm,” the proactionary adheres to the Faustian dictum of striving to overcome limits. The former demands knowledge before action. The latter creates a meshwork of technoscience by treating innovation as both social change and scientific experiment. More argues, “Being proactive involves not only anticipating before acting, but learning by acting.” This point can be put in engineering terms. A paradox of engineering is that it transforms the world precisely by not modeling all of its complexities. If we attempt to model everything we’ll never leave the drawing board. Testing designs in the real world is an essential component of the social learning process known as progress. According to this principle, the way we developed shale gas (indeed, the way we carry out innovation more broadly) is not just how things must be—it is the way they should be.

If we had followed a precautionary approach all along, More notes, “progress would have ground to a halt,” and we would have “no chlorination and no pathogen-free water; no electricity generation or transmission; no X-rays; no travel beyond the range of walking.”

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The best way to handle emerging problems is to make adjustments along the way. One example is the list of “recommended technologies and practices” for shale gas development compiled by the EPA. Through ongoing real-world experiments, the industry is learning and adopting new techniques and practices that can boost both economic and environmental performance. 

Two ideals lend the proactionary principle its ethical heft: utilitarian beneficence and freedom. Sure, some people might suffer from mistakes, but in the long run, innovation brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. This is so, of course, only as long as we are free try out new ideas. More portrays proaction as Ayn Rand for the 21st century: “[D]on’t cut off the hands of those who spread the seeds of the future.”  

In the documentary Gasland, director Josh Fox never says anything good about natural gas. Even if drilling is polluting some water wells, it is also powering millions of homes and businesses. Thus, fairness is arguably a third ethical dimension of the proactionary principle: We ought not to tell a biased story about only the bad impacts of a new technology.