Precautionary Principle

If the unknown or uncertain consequences of a proposed action could be severe, the precautionary principle suggests that it is advisable to err on the safe side and to abandon the action, or at least to postpone it until more is known about it. However, the principle is widely redundant, or ignored, for reasons such as these:

1. The key decision (e.g., the introduction of a new technology) may have been taken a long time before the existence of potential dangers was widely recognised.

2. Technologies develop their own momentum and may have to be taken to the next stage, whether the precautionary principle argues against it or not (biotechnology, nanotechnology, economic growth).

3. The opportunity costs of not developing the technology—e.g., loss of competitive advantage, and loss of opportunity for growth and development—may be seen as being greater than the risks of the technology itself.

4. The undesired consequences may not be expected to develop for some time, allowing their costs to be heavily discounted (Economics > #4).

5. The duty of care may be distributed, by convention, in a way which bears no relation to the reality. For instance, if visitors to a site never have to take responsibility for an accident, no matter how reckless their behaviour, the owner may decide to avoid all risk assessments and simply close it down.

It is also important to appreciate that potential dangers come in four forms:

• Risk: you know what the undesired outcome is, and you know its probability. You accept or reject the odds.

• Uncertainty: you know what the undesired outcome is, but you don’t know its probability, so you have to make a subjective judgment. Given the nature of the undesired outcome, what odds of it happening would be low enough for you to decide to go ahead? If the undesired outcome is wholly unacceptable, no odds would be low enough for you to decide to do so.

Ignorance: you know neither the exact undesired outcome, nor its probability.

• Indeterminacy: your judgment of the risk is to some degree self-fulfilling (or self-denying). The probability you settle on for the undesired outcome will affect decisions which in turn affect the likelihood of that outcome. Your intention changes the level of risk to which you are exposed, but overrides the risk assessment.P80

Clear risks are straightforward subjects for judgment, but uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy can permit an interested party simply to declare the risk to be whatever is appropriate to his or her case. Or they can prompt scepticism, with the argument that an outcome (e.g., climate change) is so uncertain that a costly response cannot be justified. And reductionism encourages that we know little about how this will turn out, so let’s do nothing (either to trigger the problem or to prevent it, depending on the agenda of the speaker) until we know more.

In fact, even when dealing with ignorance and indeterminacy, one can still reflect on whether the risks in question are likely to be trivial (e.g., tripping on a paving stone), or catastrophic (e.g., making the planet uninhabitable). If the latter, a precautionary approach may well be sensible, but a generalised precautionary principle is an abstraction, providing no assurance of well-judged treatment of risk.P81


Related entries:

Wicked Problems, Pascal’s Wager, Galley Skills, Certainty, Five Whys, Regrettable Necessities.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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