Monday, April 26, 2010

Matt Ridley: There are risks to avoiding the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud too, you know!

In the occasional publication EDGE which taps dozens of the wise to comment on current events:

Several of the experts lauded the wisdom of the European bureaucracy that shut down air space during the Icelandic volcanic eruption, throwing the world economy into disarray -- the European ones patted themselves smugly on the back for intervening to prevent the Airlines, as one called them, making the decision themselves -- inanely taking for granted, for some mysterious reason, that the airlines were so greedy they'd fly into a destructive ash cloud with no consideration for the safety of their passengers -- yet would be so lacking in greed that they'd fail to consider the risk of losing multimillion-dollar aircraft, their safety reputations, their sanity reputations, and their shirts in court from the lawsuits that would inevitably follow should they act recklessly. Thank goodness for the Eurocrats, saving us from the bugaboo of Capitalism.

Yes, well, Matt Ridley was also there to add some balance and some sense to the discussion, herewith:

Science Writer; Founding chairman of the International Centre for Life; Author, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

The ash cloud reminds us of the risks of risk aversion. Shutting down Europe's airspace removed the risk of an ash-caused crash, but it also increased all sorts of other risks: the risk of death to a patient because an urgent medical operation might have to be postponed for lack of supplies, the risk of poverty to a Kenyan farm worker because roses could not be flown to European markets, the risk of a collision between ferries on extra night-time sailings in the English Channel. And so on. Risk decisions cannot be taken in isolation. The precautionary principle makes too little allowance for the risks that are run by avoiding risks — the innovations not made, the existing suffering not alleviated. The ash cloud, by reminding us of the risks of not being able to fly planes, is a timely reminder that the risks of global warming must be weighed against the risks of high energy costs — the risks of poverty (cheap energy creates jobs), of hunger (fertiliser costs depend on energy costs), of rainforest destruction and indoor air pollution (expensive electricity makes firewood seem cheaper), of orangutan extinction in subsidised biofuel palm oil plantations.

Oh, and remember the lessons of public choice theory: if you set up a body called the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, don't be surprised if it over-reacts the first time it gets a chance the demonstrate that it considers itself — as all public bodies always do — underfunded.

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