Energy Policy: Above all, stop doing harm!

So I got an email invitation to this American Enterprise Institute event tomorrow:

Energy Policy: Above All, Do No Harm

An Address by John Rowe, Chairman and CEO, Exelon Corporation

Rowe is quite a reasonable guy (see Rowe: Low gas prices and no carbon price push back nuclear renaissance a “decade, maybe two”).  AEI, not so much (see “AEI: Still crazy with denial and delay after all these years“).

The title of the talk is absurd.  The primary goal of energy policy right now should not be “Do No Harm.”  It should be to “Stop doing harm — immediately!” (see Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated” and The Lancet‘s landmark Health Commission: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”).

The latest climate science makes clear that simply continuing our current energy policy risks multiple, simultaneous catastrophes, any one of which would be reason to dramatically change our energy policy, but combined they represent an existential threat to modern human civilization that creates a moral imperative for abrupt policy change (see “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice“).

The talk title plays off what many people think is a quote from the famous Hippocratic oath many doctors take.  But it struck me that “Above all, do no harm,” doesn’t actually reflect modern medical practice — which is constantly doing harm to people, through the side-effects of drugs, surgery, and the like, in an effort to save people from far greater harm.

So I looked it up, and, indeed, that isn’t what the Hippocratic oath says.

The “original, translated into English” (via Wikipedia), contains this line:

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

That is quite different.  Our energy policy certainly fails that version.

Here is a “Classic translation of the English”:

I will apply dietic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.

#Fail there, too.

Then, “In the 1870s, many American medical schools chose to abandon the Hippocratic Oath as part of graduation ceremonies, usually substituting a version modified to something considered more politically and medically correct….  A widely used modern version of the traditional oath was penned in 1964,” which drops the ‘harm’ line, but has this relevant sentence:

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

#Fail squared [factorial?].

No, thanks to conservatives, our energy policy is more, like, some overweight smoker comes into the hospital with early stage diabetes and emphysema, and after a full evaluation, the hospital administrator says, “well, 99 out of 100 experts in your condition say that by straightforward changes to your lifestyle, you could fully recover and live a long and healthy life.  But since you’re not dead yet, and since you’re going to die no matter what you do, just keep doing what you’re doing….  Oh, and we’re also going to cut funding for developing any treatments or for helping you deal with the progression of your untreated disease” (see Conservatives oppose adaptation, too).

Where does the phrase, “Above All, Do No Harm” (Primum non nocere) come from?  It appears that no one really knows for certain, but there is a long discussion here.  While it doesn’t appear to have come from Hippocrates but perhaps from a different source that, when translated, read something like “As to diseases, make a habit of two things–to help, or at lest TO DO NO HARM,” which actually gets to the heart of the matter of what the title of the AEI talk is so inane.

Wherever the phrase originated from is far less important than when it came from — a time long before medicine actually consistently helped people more than hurt them.  A long time ago, it was probably good advice “to help, or at least do no harm,” since doctors did a lot of harm back then.  Now it’s certainly true that doctors can do harm these days, but for treatment of seriously ill patients with curable or preventable diseases, especially those who are actively hurting themselves, no rational medical policy could be based on “Above all, do no harm.”  Same for entire civilizations and their energy policy.

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11 Responses to Energy Policy: Above all, stop doing harm!

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    AEI is apparently planning to use possibly higher utility costs as a reason to keep doing Business As Usual. It’s not only false due to the exclusion of externalities, as you pointed out. I performed an informal investigation of EU countries and Washington counties last year which found a near-perfect positive correlation between high utility costs per kwh, economic growth, and per capita income. Weak sisters like coal burning Bulgaria had the lowest utility prices. We don’t need to be like them.

  2. Mike says:

    I think the “do no harm” in the lecture title is a message to the new Repubs in the House not to damage the EPA or science and energy research funding in their zeal to undo anything Obama supports. It would be interesting to ask him if the NH repeal of C&T is an example of doing harm.

    Are you planning to go?

  3. Prokaryotes says:

    When the day is over, even ultra extreme conservative energy executives want a safe place to stay. Though with growing climate disruption the topic can no longer be ignored.

    That does mean that everybody who invest into a sustainable future (political or capital wise) will gain.

    What we need now is a commitment to stop the gambling with earth and the future of the human population. What the population growth concerns we will have situations when there are to few people left to sustain the current system. Just like Lovelock predicts. It will come in waves, actually in heat waves.

    It turns out that “natural” gas is not so natural after all. Let’s start now to combat climate disruption with investing into clean reliable infinite energy generation.

  4. Solar Jim says:

    Hydrocarbon materials are the basis for toluene used in trinitrotoluene, or TNT, and uranium is the basis for atomic and thermonuclear weapons. Thus, fossil fuels and nuclear power are the basis for industrial warfare, for arsenals and weapon delivery systems. We do not have an energy system. We have an economy of explosives, which are also used in controlled explosions, called combustion.

    Do no harm? Is he kidding? The very basis of explosives is to do harm, in one form or another. Especially for those dispersing acids, like carbonic acid gas, or radioactive fission products. An explosive subject, of explosive material substances.

    As for economics, what are externalities except socialized costs, that for climate is what, maybe a quadrillion dollars net present value. That is, jeopardy of existence. Welcome to the rabbit hole. Good thing our three trillion dollar health care costs are counted as assets instead of liabilities in the GDP or we would look really bad.

    Exelon is the biggest nuclear utility in America. It is centered in Chicago with many high level political connections. Rowe the boat for “safe, clean” atomic fission. Have a Wonderland day, and try to avoid cancer from petrochemicals or radioactive fission products (which are pervasive in the construct of a war economy).

  5. Michael Tucker says:

    Yes, well we all know what the Gang Of Polluters mean when they say “do no harm.” They mean do no harm to oil, gas, and coal companies.

    It is abundantly clear that they are not interested in the health of Americans, the security of America or even in creating jobs in America.

    Since they freely take money from oil, gas, and coal companies it should not surprise anyone whose interests they will support.

  6. Oil and coal are like a gangrenous leg.
    It will be painful to lose it, but if we don’t, we die.

    We will all suffer in the shortrun, but the alternative is worse.

  7. Richard L says:


    I expect the ‘do no harm’ from AEI’s perspective is to keep the price of fossil fuels low so ‘the economy’ will be ‘saved.’ I will be interested to hear the results of your experience there!

  8. David B. Benson says:

    A typical retail price for electricity in Japan is around US$0.30/kWh. Somehow doesn’t keep the Japanese from having one of the highest standards of living anywhere.

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    Hong Kong Engine Pollution Ban Hurt by Exemptions as Smog Climbs to Record

    Hong Kong will ban idling engines to reduce vehicle emissions from as early as September, after pollution climbed to a record last year.

    EU wants to ban petrol cars from cities,1518,749581,00.html&

  10. Prokaryotes says:

    When arguing about human health is not enough …

    Loss of plant diversity threatens Earth’s life-support systems

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    One of my favourite denialist monstrosities, favourite because it is such a pathological example of their talent for projection and the inversion of reality, is their misuse of the ‘precautionary principle’. Whereas for quite some time, it was understood to mean that we could not continue an uncontrolled experiment with the climate lest it lead to catastrophic results, and that there was copious science to back up that fear, the denialati simply leaped through their ‘Looking Glass’ into their universe of magical thinking and faith-based science, and declared that, in fact, we should not do anything to address climate change lest it effect business, the Holy ‘economy’ and the cost of energy. Human existence being, of course, an ‘externality’ of no great import. Similarly the Right in this country, one fine day, reconfigured the meaning of ‘freedom of association’ in regard to labour law, from its traditional meaning that of the freedom to join a union to protect yourself from exploitation by the masters, to now mean the freedom to destroy unions, bring in individual contracts based on the law of the ‘Master-Servant relationship’ and outlaw strikes and other collective action. Why do they do it? Because they can.