Apocalypse Soon? Wagering on Warnings of Global Catastrophe

Dissertation, University of Guelph (Canada) (1998)
Abstract
This thesis is an examination of claims about the risk of global catastrophe. I present examples of models of global systems that predict catastrophe, if certain conditions prevail, and I explain their goals as well as give some of their history. I present arguments concerning the conditions of a good prediction, and arguments concerning the predictive weakness of ecological models, to conclude that models of global systems generating predictions of catastrophe leave us uncertain as to the likelihood of catastrophe. ;Next, I examine the problem of action in the face of this uncertainty. There are those who argue that policy-makers should not react to scenarios of catastrophe until the evidence for them is strong. On the other hand, there are those who adopt the 'precautionary principle', which advises that lack of scientific evidence for a claim should not be taken as a reason for exercising a lack of caution when the risk is high. ;Some authors have argued that if normal canons of rationality cannot recommend maximum caution, then we should adopt a rival rationality that emphasizes democratic and ethical values. I will critique this view and reject it for its failure to distinguish properly between epistemic values and action-guiding values. ;Other authors argue for the precautionary principle on the grounds that we have an ethical obligation to avoid catastrophe, whatever the practical costs. There are, as well, purely prudential reasons in favour of the precautionary principle. Using arguments parallel to those of Blaise Pascal and William James, I will argue that the prudential reasons for precaution are overwhelming and should convince those not already persuaded by ethical arguments. While models of global systems can only reveal possible futures and not probable futures, the catastrophic threats posed by such things as global warming, ozone depletion, or population increase, though not firmly established, represent what James would call 'live options'; that is, they present us with a possibility that is at least plausible and that forces us to make momentous decisions. I conclude that we cannot afford to risk catastrophe despite the high costs this decision will involve
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