Which “Precautionary Principle” are you talking about?

by Andrew Maynard on July 10, 2013

This week on the Political Science blog hosted by the Guardian newspaper, a number of leading thinkers are presenting different perspectives on the Precautionary Principle.  The perspectives are wide-ranging and often provocative – but they do serve to stimulate an important public dialog on an often misunderstood and misused concept.

Precautionary Principle

In Tuesday’s piece, Tracey Brown – managing director of the UK-based organization Sense About Sciencewrote about the Precautionary Principle as “a blunt instrument, a 90s throwback out of place in an era of “smart solutions” and big data”.  I responded obliquely by examining what is meant by the precautionary principle, and the different conversations people have around it – often not realizing that they are talking at cross-purposes. I’d encourage you to read the original article and the whole series, but here are my edited responses to Tracey’s piece (see the original comments on the Guardian website):

One of the challenges with any discussion on the precautionary principle is that there are at least three conversations taking place – often simultaneously – and many times people don’t realize which conversation they are a part of, or even what the precautionary principle is.

The first conversation is the “slow down if there are danger signs” conversation – this is the one that gets closest to the most widely used formulations of the principle and guides technical decisions.  This evidence-based conversation is reflected in the European Environment Agency’s “Late Lessons from Early Warnings” reports that examine precautionary approaches in the light of past and emerging health and environmental challenges.

Here and elsewhere in Europe, the precautionary principle can be abbreviated as:

“When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.  The judgement of plausibility should be grounded in scientific analysis. Analysis should be ongoing so that chosen actions are subject to review. Uncertainty may apply to, but need not be limited to, causality or the bounds of the possible harm.  Actions are interventions that are undertaken before harm occurs that seek to avoid or diminish the harm. Actions should be chosen that are proportional to the seriousness of the potential harm, with consideration of their positive and negative consequences, and with an assessment of the moral implications of both action and inaction. The choice of action should be the result of a participatory process.”

For the full version see http://www.precautionaryprinciple.eu/ and  http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/consumers/consumer_safety/l32042_en.htm

The second conversation involves the use of the Precautionary Principle for political ends – using it as a mechanism for justifying courses of action such as blocking international trade for instance (one of the reasons incidentally why businesses and government agencies in the US are so opposed to the Precautionary Principle).  Political (mis)use of an evidence-based principle is of course a very different issue to the technical application of it – and it could be argued that in this case a reasonable principle has been cooped and corrupted .

The third conversation is typified by anti-technology rhetoric that is found around issues like genetically modified foods (GMOs), and this is the use that Tracey Brown predominantly refers to in her piece.  This conversation is also a co-opting of a technical principle for political ends – whether the aim is to slow or stop an emerging technology from being developed and implemented, or to use obstruction as a vehicle for some other cause.  Quite often, the precautionary principle as articulated above bears little resemblance to what is portrayed in rhetoric.  For instance, no-where does the principle as adopted by the European Commission advocate stopping development or deployment of a technology until it is shown to be safe.  And of course, this would be impossible anyway, as without a technology being developed there is nothing that can be worked on to ensure its safety.

The combination of these multiple conversations around the precautionary principle and a lack of awareness of which conversation is being participated in – along with widespread lack of knowledge on what the principle actually embodies – does make a reasoned discussion of precaution and technological development confusing at best, and detrimental to sustainable progress at worst. And yet, if sustainable and responsible development are to proceed, there needs to be some way of disentangling these conversations to ensure potentially dangerous mis-steps are not taken.


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