I do not see the world as made up of simple cause-effect relationships. Instead I see an intricate web of interrelationships that my mind cannot un-entangle. I cannot focus on any single aspect without losing something of vital importance. This makes it hard to make decisions. But sometimes, I think, this is really just an excuse.
Think of Fair Trade products for instance. Do they actually work? They act somewhat like a minimum wage, which with classical economic models increase unemployment and reduce welfare. However, minimum wages have been shown to work in practice. And there is something rotten about just allowing people to work in intolerable work conditions. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little academic evidence of the efficacy (or non-efficacy) of Fair Trade. It is reasonably clear, I think, that at least the people who do work for Fair Trade suppliers are better off.
I have for long been skeptical about Fair Trade and I still am. Economics has proven time and again that the only thing you can really count on is that your actions will have unintended consequences. However, how much proof do you require before you change your actions? When are you using the need for proof merely as an excuse not to act?
Black lung disease and football
This need for proof is what Malcolm Gladwell addresses in this speech at Penn University. He firstly recalls how America took 50 years to start reducing the exposure of miners to coal dust, despite there having been reasonable statistical (but not quite irrefutable) evidence to conclude that coal dust was causing black lung disease. He then does something audacious. He says the university should disband its football programme. There is a condition, known as CTE, that appears to be caused by repeated blows to the head and has been found in the autopsies of many football players.
American universities will never stop their football programmes. It is too important to them to even consider. But they are not alone. We take too long to react because we cannot accept things that will inconvenience us.
Another issue that of global warming. There is certainly a lot of evidence that we have been heating up our planet. But the evidence is mixed. (In fact, it appears global warming is happening more slowly than expected). The climate is a hugely complicated system. Saying anything with any degree of certainty is hard and it takes time. Unfortunately we cannot wait until the ramifications of global warming play out. There is a large group of people that need more evidence to change the way they live their lives. It is easy to use the absence of “absolute” proof as an excuse not to do anything.
Of course, sometimes what seems like a good does turn out to be a bad idea. Take “local food” for instance, which is the idea that buying food produced in your area (not imported from thousands of kilometres away) is better for the environment. All else equal this is true. However, transport is only part of the carbon emissions from food production. Buying locally produced meat and eggs may in fact be worse for the environment if these are produced in an “organic” way, which it turns out releases more greenhouse gases (I get this from Wikipedia, so feel free to correct me if you know of better research) .
Long live the animals
This raises another point : the issue of animal welfare. If free range and organic animal products are worse for the environment, and you care about animals, then you should consider becoming a vegetarian. I love meat, though, and so this would not be something I would consider (perhaps I am not all that different from those coal mining companies). But it does seem like a good reason to decrease my meat consumption.
In the final analysis
The world is hideously complex. The choices we make today may or may not fulfill the good intentions we had when we made them. But too many people wait for too long before they act. You must ask yourself, whether your need for proof is in the best interests of the world you are living in. This is certainly something I need to consider.