The Superpower of Foresight

By Camila Thorndike

Lately I have been pondering the significance and utility of reports and plans, as I write one myself as the summer intern with the Oregon Water Trust, a non-profit that uses free-market solutions to increase instream flow. In the small watershed that I am concerned with alone, there are countless assessments and analysis on the state of that environment complete with reasonable suggestions and imperatives regarding some serious environmental problems. I catch myself becoming cynical about such plans and published recommendations given the poor state of the watershed and the few people, albeit hard-working and well-intentioned people, who actually read and try to follow such scientific advice.

The precautionary principle is the Mother Suggestion/Recommendation/Imperative of them all. It is common sense, good logic, and undeniable cause-and-effect rolled into one brilliant idea – if only people would use it! Which brings me to some questions I often ask: is the Achilles Heel of humanity the inability to employ our gift of foresight? We have it, yes, but what circumstances determines our choice to use it? In the example of the suffering watershed, many people who made the original choices that we might now regret (over-channelization of streambeds, for instance) were only doing what they had to do to make a living: farm, feed their families, and live another hard-working day.

Also, the precautionary principle does require substantial EFFORT. So I ask, are people inherently lazy? Democracy too requires constant work and vigilance, which is interesting in the context of the fourth element of the Wingspread statement: “…decisions applying the precautionary principle must be
“open, informed, and democratic” and “must include affected
parties.” …because when we make decisions that are
unresolvable with science, these decisions, by their very
nature, involve ethics and politics” .

So, forget flying – if given a superpower, I would zap key decision-makers (some would say “everyone”) with undeniable foresight, and the heart to choose the outcome with least suffering for mankind and the earth.

Camila is a current student in my class in “worldviews and environmental” values. I hope we can encourage her to check in and let us know how her internship goes.

The Wingspread Statement is here:

You can find much more about the precautionary principle here (especially check out the Precaution Reporter) :

3 Responses

  1. I love this analogy, Camila. Imagine if we applied this idea to international relations and “superpowers” became those who cared most for our shared future.

  2. I started working for a government agency ten years ago. Let’s just say that bureaucracy and I are well acquainted now. It seems like every time that we make a good decision, using foresight like you suggest, someone else along the decision making line changes it to one that seems to be the opposite of good policy. I am not sure if this is a symptom of our society as a whole—something that we can treat and fix. Or, is it just human nature in general?
    My father was recently propositioned by a local watershed group to do some restoration work on a small, old mill pond that we own. They came in bearing reams of notes on the science of why he should sign over water rights to them as well as treating disrespectfully because he appears to be an old logger. This attitude did not go over very well. Now we are locked in a stalemate. I would like to see what the council proposes to do to the land. He is still pretty irritated about being treated like an idiot. He did not create the damage to the pond—he inherited it from people like you mentioned who didn’t know better. We have tried to clean things up there, and the fish are thriving. The council may have some great ideas, or they might be just trying to sell what we already know. At this point, it looks like we will never really know because they lacked the foresight to treat an older man with respect when they came into his home.

  3. I am sorry this happened to your father, Katie. With all we have to do for our environment, we can’t afford to treat those who are on our side like this. Being committed to something and caring about it (as the watershed folks obviously do) does not excuse being carried away with a patronizing attitude that winds up working against their own purposes.
    As for your problems with bureaucracy, I can’t make a general pronouncement on this– I can only thank you for persevering
    — as I also hope you do with your organic certification of your land.

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