Precaution: Part III—Guest Post by J.C. Hanekamp

Look out!
Look out!
Read Part II.

Precaution is essential, so the tale goes, to create policies and laws that focus on and tackle uncertainty that might be the foreboding of particular risks. The axiom put forward by the precautionary principle is that under conditions of uncertainty, implementation of precautionary policies adds to human and/or environment health by reducing or eliminating possible risks. It is envisioned to provide guidance as regards to cases in which scientific research and knowledge (paradoxically the most important probes in matters of risk, uncertainty and precaution) of the harmful effects of a proposed activity or product is significantly incomplete. Even if the normal scientific standards for ascertaining causal connections between an industrial/technological activity and a given harm are not met, precaution warrants the regulation of that activity.

There is something intuitively attractive to precaution, despite its contingent history of which I could only highlight a few aspects. ‘Better safe than sorry’, or ‘to err on the side of safety’ seems down-to-earth undisputed good sense. Looking more closely, however, the logic of precaution is seriously defective. The Final Declaration of the First European ‘Seas at Risk’ Conference, for instance, insists that in precautionary action, science ‘is no longer required to provide proof of a causal link between pollutant/disturbing activity and effect, and where no clear evidence is available one way or the other the environment must be given “the benefit of the doubt”.’ Also, if the ‘worst case scenario’ for a certain activity is serious enough then ‘even a small amount of doubt as to the safety of that activity is sufficient to stop it taking place’. Overall, the ‘burden of proof’ is shifted from the regulator to the person or persons responsible for the potentially harmful activity, who will now have to demonstrate that their actions are not/will not cause harm to the environment.

Ironically, what usually is not acknowledged (or simply ignored) is that all regulation, including those that are prompted to curb or deal with uncertainties and risks, is simply technology too. Precautionary policies will themselves have unforeseen, uncertain and potentially catastrophic consequences, eliciting the precautionary paradox: as precaution fails to prohibit any catastrophic possibilities from its realm of application and since mere possibilities are easy to construct and limited only by the imagination (possibilistic reasoning is the upshot of precaution), any application of the precautionary principle will be self-contradictory. The reasoning employed in precautionary policies can thus be used to demand an opposing course of action.

Another irony of precaution is that erring on the side of safety, assuming the worst case and subsequently seeking to avoid it, takes us no closer to safe and accurate decision-making than does assuming the best case. Whether proceeding from the assumption of guilt (the precautionary reversal of the burden of proof) or the presumption of innocence, the proposed inferences are fraught with identical inductive difficulties.

Overall, the precautionary principle is self-defeating. With precaution we enter a vicious circle of (scientific) uncertainty and possibilistic reasoning. The uncertainty of harm ‘requires’ a precautionary curtailment/ban/monitoring of a certain activity; in the future this uncertainty of harm might be resolved by scientific research. But the possibility of ‘scientific certainty’ is precisely the thing that is under dispute with respect to precautionary action: what level of ‘certainty’ is required to satisfy the precautionary requirements?

The European Commission proffers the following ‘answer’: ‘Hence…measures adopted in application of a precautionary principle when the scientific data are inadequate, are provisional and imply that efforts be undertaken to elicit or generate the necessary scientific data. It is important to stress that the provisional nature is not bound up with a time limit but with the development of scientific knowledge.’ So, a precautionary regulation/ban will have ‘an enduring temporality’. And this is something we Europeans have come to love about our ‘local’ decision makers that embrace precaution: anything not in line with current political correctness (however defined) might fall victim with recourse to precaution. The utopian project of European integration unsurprisingly makes proficient use of precaution.

Small wonder that corruption lurks in the precautionary shadows. As soon as, say, ecological taxes make up a substantial part of a government budget, an insidious problem arises namely that the state profits, lives, from transgressions against the environment. This is far from a new problem (if only the Kyoto signatories had known their classics); early modern foresters lived off the fines of those who violated forest laws.

We are thus left with an impossible piece of rhetoric that nevertheless has found its way in many laws and international treaties. Precaution seems to build on an illusory environmental/ecological/social/political tabula rasa that can be fashioned to our precautionary wishes. Yet, it is not an exogenous panacea for environmental, political, or social ills informed by some form of objectified and unambiguous scholarship, be it climate research, toxicology, or what not. It is an endogenous (i.e. societal embedded) and fallible human pursuit in a world that is not of our own making. Each situation has its own history, its own background, against which the horizon of possibilities opens up. But for a full appreciation of possibilities that are at hand in a situation, we must acknowledge the historical basis of that situation. Precaution ignores precisely that.

These final remarks leave room for two aspects that we will encounter in the following and final two blogs: the role of science in precautionary reasoning and the utopian perspective that is engendered by precaution. In the latter we will encounter Tolkien again, now in a more nuanced fashion.

Read Part II.



Commission of the European Communities. 2000. Communication from the Commission on the Precautionary Principle. Brussels.

Furedi, F. 2009. Precautionary Culture and the Rise of Possibilistic Risk Assessment. Erasmus Law Review 2(2): 197–220.

Mckinney, W.J., Hammer Hill, H. 2000. Of Sustainability and Precaution: The Logical, Epistemological, and Moral Problems of the Precautionary Principle and Their Implications for Sustainable Development. Ethics and the Environment 5(1): 77–87.

Radkau, J. 2008. Nature and Power. A Global History of the Environment. Cambridge University Press

Dr. Jaap C. Hanekamp is a chemist at the Roosevelt Academy, Netherlands.


  1. Ken

    Still going on with philosophical ramblings around broad concepts disconnected from tangible reality; concepts tied to nothing & leading nowhwere…as if such discussion provide any illumination.

    Consider a couple of examples tied directly to the real world–same subject of taking precautions…and then decide for yourself if the fuzzy philosophical approach yields more worthwhile insights one can actually use — or — if real-world examples give one something more to work with, and/or, provide for greater appreciation of the issues one confronts in daily life:

    Forbidden Spheres:

    Security Theater:

    As a bit of digression: I keep wondering why anyone capable of weighinig facts & trade-offs, including those that aren’t necessarily pleasant, retreats to vague philosophical reasoning approaches that nobody actually applies. Then someone pointed out the obvious: “going philosophical” is a psychological maneuver for one to feel intellectually sophisticated. But that’s not without risks as it leaves one in a position to easily come off as snooty. But, if done well, the intellectual approach does have a redeeming feature for the intellectual, as Eric Hoffer observed:

    “One of the surprising privileges of
    intellectuals is that they are free to
    be scandalously asinine without
    harming their reputation.”

  2. Briggs


    Does adding comments on a web page count as “Still going on with philosophical ramblings around broad concepts disconnected from tangible reality; concepts tied to nothing & leading nowhwere…as if such discussion provide any illumination”?

  3. J.C. Hanekamp

    Oh my dear Ken, you have it wholly backwards. My ‘philosophical ramblings’, as you put it so sociably, came from real world examples of precautionary failings with real-world consequences on which I published extensively, peer-reviewed no less (for what it is worth, of course). Apologies for disturbing your world, philosophically that is.

  4. Ken

    Here’s a sort of philosophical analysis, same theme, though it still gets grounded in reality & legal precedents here & there — but it manages to touch on a number of themes recently discussed in this blog: e.g. moral relativism/each is the arbiter of his/her own morality, etc. — curiously, the 1950 US Supreme Court case, US v Dennis touches on this very concept & has stipulated some criteria.

    Learned Hand in 1950 wrote in that case: ‘government officials must first weigh “the gravity of the ‘evil’” — and then make sure that that gravity is “discounted by its improbability.” The graver the evil they (or any other threat) pose, the higher degree of improbability we demand in order not to worry about it. Or, to put it another way, if an evil is truly terrible but not very likely to occur, we may still take preemptive action against it.’

    The article: “Yours, Mine but not Ours; Why the politics of national security means that we’re all living in failed Hobbesian states”:

  5. MattS

    The real problem is that the precautionary principle as it is used in practice doesn’t deal with uncertainty.

    It practice it generally amounts to we will ban new tech X unless you can prove with 100% certainty that it is absolutely safe.

  6. Actually, the precautionary principle seems used only to further political agendas. When in the 70’s there was a push to expand the grid, save the earth folks screamed “NO”–EMF’s, environmental damage, etc. Now it’s build massive transmission lines everywhere. Earlier we were to save the whooping cranes, eagles, etc. Now we can chop ’em to bits with turbines. Drugs are marketed as “safe” and then personal injury lawyers win millions saying the drugs cause virtually every bad thing your life has encountered. The drugs are rarely removed from the market. Love Canal–horrible chemicals. Wind Turbine Syndrome–NIMBY’s trying to destroy the wind industry. That’s the problem when using something lacking any evidence. This discussion is very “real-world”. We are told we have to destroy much of the environment to save it because the planet dying from whatever is far worse. No evidence needed for planet killing and it certainly outranks a few whooping cranes and blackouts. This is far, far from an ethereal discussion.

  7. john robertson

    The law of unintended consequences is on full display when the precautionary creed is brought out to justify dumb actions.
    But like so much of the UN principles its an illusion.
    The precautionary principle was necessary to muzzle people who point out how daft the fear of climate and its pretensions of science really are.
    Bureaucracy invented the PP and PC.
    Like Sheri says above, the contradictions and idiocies abound.

  8. john robertson

    Best example of the PP and modern regulatory regimes ,
    We could not manufacture and sell the automobile nor gasoline if we invented either today.
    We probably missed the transport of the future in the last 20 years cause some government expert or lawyer decided it was not safe.

  9. Rich

    Like Sheri says.

    CFL light bulbs are suspected of causing cancer by leaking UV light through cracks in the phosphor. Had the precautionary principle really been the basis for action they would already have been withdrawn from sale. But no so we are entitled to wonder what the real agenda is.

  10. MattL


    It practice it generally amounts to we will ban new tech X unless you can prove with 100% certainty that it is absolutely safe.

    This is close, but more accurate would be, “We’ll use the precautionary principle to ban X until you prove it to be 100% safe and beneficial / the best option / the only option, and then we’ll find some other reason to ban it.”

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