Primum non nocere!

 “First, do no harm.” The origin of the precise phrase hasn’t been traced, but the sentiment of nonmaleficence (what a wonderful word!) is embodied in the Hippocratic oath and is the starting point for medical ethics. It is often invoked as a broader rule, for governing our actions throughout every aspect of our lives. Makes sense, doesn’t it? We can all embrace the idea.

Or maybe not. It turns out that we sometimes have a bit of a blind spot when applying this principle to natural hazards. One organization, the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), and its charismatic executive director, Larry Larson, have been quite articulate on this point for several years. They term this principle “no adverse impact” and they propound the idea with a lot of solid material on their website. If you check it out you’ll be glad you did. However, here’s a simple example which will make the point. Let’s say that you live in a town on one bank of a river, and that there’s also a town on the opposite bank of the river, and that both of you experience repetitive loss to floods. Let’s say that both towns decide to work with the Corps of Engineers (or whomever) to build levees for an added measure of protection. If you both build levees to the same height, you still share the residual risk from floods exceeding that height. But then it occurs to you: if you build your levee a foot higher than the town across the way builds its levee, your flooding problem will be solved.

!!! Now think just a bit more…when both towns build levees, to the same height, the two towns together have basically exported the flood hazard to all the towns downstream. That doesn’t sound quite fair either, does it? That’s because it’s not.

Now in other areas of the law, you and I are to operate under the familiar legal admonition “sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas.” (Took the words right out of your mouth, didn’t I? In plain English it says “so use your property that you do not injure another’s property.”) This means as landowners we can’t be or create a nuisance to our neighbors, impair their rights, trespass, and so on. But the courts and other players in the legal system, thanks in large part to ASFPM, are now working out how this applies to floodplain management. [Note that as their name implies, the ASFPM doesn’t advocate abandoning the idea of protection against floods; they simply posit that there are complements and alternatives to levees as a policy option.]

Okay! But why confine this principle to the flood hazard alone? Shouldn’t, or couldn’t it apply to hazards more broadly? For example, should I be allowed to leave debris lying around in my yard that could become windborne and damage my neighbor’s house? Or fail to fireproof the shingles in my roof in a wildfire-prone area and thereby endanger my neighbors? Trivial examples but you get the idea. A relatively new organization, the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association (NHMA), is currently formulating these arguments. This was quite a topic of discussion at their meeting in Broomfield, Colorado, this past July. Expect to see more on this on their website and in other contexts as time goes by. Why is NHMA so interested? In part it’s the inherent logic of the case; in part, because one of its officers, its vice-president, Ed Thomas, was himself the author or co-author of much of the ASFPM material.

Some readers may have a sense of déjà vu. Where have you seen something like this before? Think Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, prompted in part by the Santa Barbara oil spill (expect more legislation to result from this year’s BP spill), required federal agencies to assess and report on the environmental consequences of their contemplated decisions and actions. Hotly debated at the time! But now a widely accepted way of doing business. The same can happen in the context of hazards policy.

Now reflect on this. The environmental impact statements are of value in and of themselves, but perhaps their greatest contribution was in building public awareness, at all levels, of the consequences of our actions on habitat, biodiversity, on the air, on water resources, on the soil. They helped establish and/or reinforce an important cultural value: protection of the environment. In the same way, if we can join ASFPM and NHMA, and get behind the no-adverse-impact idea as one cornerstone of our hazards policy, we’ll become far more effective at living on a planet that does its business through extreme events (as discussed in the August 30th post).

In the next post, a look at another policy option for coping with natural hazards: learning from experience. In the meantime, Primum non nocere!

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