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resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

A massive body of research has shown how humanity affects the environment. We know that humans have contaminated the air, the water and the soil. Environmental scientists have shown us that fish stocks are stressed, that people are exposed to innumerable chemicals, and that we may well be starting to influence the very climate in which we exist. Environmental science has quantified such impacts with increasing rigor, and with new technologies, environmental impact can be detected at ever-lower levels.

But while measurements of environmental impacts tells us what is, they do not automatically tell us what to do, or how to make ourselves, or our ecosystems safer. In that arena, I believe, the greatest innovation in environmental policy analysis is found in the work of Aaron Wildavsky, a life-long student of risk-management, and the author of Searching for Safety, a seminal work published in 1988. It sets out an analytic framework we can use to figure out what to do about the innumerable environmental impacts (small and large) that humans produce.

Wildavsky made two profound observations in Searching for Safety. First, he pointed out that trying to avoid all risk is impossible. In order to successfully manage a risk, he explained, two things were necessary: a very good understanding of the nature of the risk, and a very good understanding of the efficacy of a proposed intervention. Without such certainty, Wildavsky argued, attempts to anticipate risks such as those posed by the release of chemicals to the environment through ‘precautionary’ regulation were unlikely to provide any benefit. In fact, he observed, only trial-and-error could lead to the level of information needed to actually reduce risk, and by denying the development of such knowledge, a ‘precautionary approach’ to risk is likely to make us less, rather than more, safe.

Second, Aaron Wildavsky was also a pioneer in pointing out that one can’t debate risk in isolation of the big picture, which shows that dynamic wealth-building societies are able to buy more health and environmental protection for themselves, and tend to do so. Poorer societies, by comparison, put the acquisition of basic needs above health protection, and are thus sicker. Thus, Wildavsky emphasised that wealthier is healthier, and stressed the importance of avoiding policies that would harm economic productivity.

The environmental movement of the 1970s raised awareness of the many harms that humans can do to the environment, and to each other through the environment. Aaron Wildavsky created a rational framework for figuring out what to do about it.