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Precautionary principle

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The precautionary principle takes many forms. But in all of them the animating idea is that regulators should take steps to protect against potential harms, even if causal chains are unclear and even if we do not know the harms will come to fruition… [I]n its strongest forms, the precautionary principle is literally incoherent, and for one reason: There are risks on all sides of social situations. It is therefore paralysing; it forbids the very steps that it requires. Because risks are on all sides, the precautionary principle forbids action, inaction, and everything in between.
—Cass Sunstein[1]

The precautionary principle is the idea that when there is the chance of negative consequences from an industrial practice, that the burden of proof lies with the inventors/implementers of the process to prove that there are no negative (ecological and environmental) consequences of it. The principle is often cited by "technological conservatives" and/or environmental activists when there is a perceived lack of evidence showing that a technology is absolutely safe.

A problematic principle[edit]

Two potentially illogical and harmful uses of the precautionary principle are opposition to nuclear power and opposition to genetic engineering. Nuclear power usually replaces fossil fuels, which tend to have more destructive, but less sensational, negative externalities. Genetic engineering not only reduces the use of pesticides, but it is basically a refined version of something that we have been doing for a long time, whether through simple artificial selection or mutation-assisted selection.[2] Introduced-but-"natural" invasive species (the early form of "gene pollution"), and coal pollution are arguably much worse than the new and regulated technologies.

The precautionary principle is also used by conspiracy theorists when talking about scary new stuff like water fluoridation, airplanes and those little clouds they make, AI, and vaccines. A few questions that can quickly distinguish reactionary rants from what-might-be-environmentalism are:

  • Is the problem directly related to sustainability through conservation of biodiversity, or does it use nature woo for something unrelated to the environmentalist definition of nature?
  • Is there a significant amount of a non-degradable pollution (of an actual substance) involved?
  • Is the new industrial practice something that might replace old, flawed practices to attain something necessary, or is it a concern for conspicuous consumption and misuse of technology?
  • Does the concern rely on a mythical conception of the "natural order" that is not only sustainable and diverse and a nice place to hike, but also suspiciously analogous to the Garden of Eden before original sin?

Misunderstanding science[edit]

Science is a never-ending re-evaluation of data and is never complete. It is impossible to collect enough data to make an entirely error-proof statement of safety regarding any technology, as new data and variables are always coming in.

Furthermore, it's impossible for anything to be entirely and utterly safe, as every technology has side effects or possible negative consequences in the right situation.

The precautionary principle is also often invoked erroneously (perhaps going against the prevailing scientific consensus) in situations where a technology has studies which prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there are minimal negative consequences, but the petitioner has failed to review research, misunderstands the existing body of data, or believes that science is in a conspiracy against the "natural order".

See also[edit]

External link[edit]


  1. Sunstein, Cass, Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (ISBN 0521615127)