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.
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.