04/11/2011 03:10 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2011

Leadership in the Face of Disaster

By Cornelius Adebahr, Niklas Niemann and Marcel Viëtor

Following the earthquake and the nuclear catastrophe in Japan, a state of shock, intuitive defensiveness and frantic political activity of those in charge of utility companies as well as in governments across Europe are more than understandable reactions. Nevertheless, they are not helpful with regard to the key questions concerning the future of our societies.

Instead, we need to take a strategic and sustainable decision on how we want to deal with technological risks. This especially concerns the prospective transformation of the European energy sector, with power supply being a key element of industrial development and human wealth, as well as of the fight against climate change. Such a decision, in turn, has to be based on an objective fact-oriented discussion which at the same time considers the emotional turmoil and fears many people harbor towards technological disaster. Here, we expect guidance and responsible leadership from government, parliament and utility companies alike.

Already in 1979, the philosopher Hans Jonas established moral guidelines regarding the potentially destructive impact of modern technologies. Based on his "imperative of responsibility" as a fundamental principle, we argue that the concept of Responsible Leadership has to encompass the following key aspects.

1. Above all, Responsible Leadership entails to face the effects of one's own actions to their final consequences. Preeminently, this means acknowledging that humans are fallible and technologies are prone to errors. In the light of potentially disastrous incidents -- whether caused by human mistakes, technical accidents, sabotage or the forces of nature -- it is necessary to seriously consider the worst possible case. This worst-case scenario has to be assessed as a genuine possibility rather than being trivialized as a residual risk. Other than for technologies with spatially and temporally limited impacts, the extent and probability of potentially global and cross-generational damages ought not to be considered in a purely calculatory way.

2. Furthermore, Responsible Leadership has to include a perspective of global sustainability as a keystone of decisions and actions. We all are responsible for preserving the basic preconditions for human existence. Thus, the consequences of uncontrollable technological accidents as well as the impact of waste products -- whether it be greenhouse gases, toxins or nuclear waste -- upon the biosphere will always also be borne by people who had no opportunity to decide for or against the use of a certain technology. Simply because they live in a country also affected or because they have not been born yet.

3. Finally, Responsible Leadership means leading an open, objective and honest discussion in society. Within this debate, the opportunities and risks of technologies have to be assessed and key questions regarding options, costs and consequences have to be answered. These assessments and answers then constitute the basis for democratic decision-making, which when the discussion comes to certain key societal questions -- such as human cloning, preimplantation diagnosis or nuclear power -- should not be corrupted by tactical maneuvers and political hassle.

The incidents in Japan concern all humankind. Consequently, it is precisely not a sign of irreverence or cynicism if people around the world are asking what the catastrophe in Japan bodes for them all. That they might come to different conclusions is nothing but legitimate. What is important is that they lead this discussion in the first place, and that they do so openly and honestly with a view to the potential consequences of their actions.