Friday, May 23, 2003

What is the precautionary principle?

Rio Declaration (1992):

'In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capability. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.'

There are two ways you could interpret such a statement. The first is an old medical dictum: 'first, do no harm'. In other words, it is pointless attempting to make something better if your approach will only make things worse. However, the precautionary principle is defined much broadly as 'better safe than sorry'. In other words, assume that any change will be harmful unless you can pretty much prove that it won't be. Such an outlook seems to me to be a significant barrier to progress.

What underpins such an interpretation of the precautionary principle is a fear of change. Change is almost invariably regarded as having a downside. What is generally ignored is that not changing also has a downside. For example, in the discussion of global warming, the environmentalist view is that we should cut back on many of the elements of economic growth because they will surely lead to climate change and disastrous consequences. But it is quite clear that deliberately reining back growth will definitely have negative consequences for everyone, particularly in the developing world, while the benefits of agreements like the Kyoto Protocol are still uncertain.

Such arguments in turn are usually met with disgust at corporate or individual greed, as if wanting economic growth and increased prosperity were selfish actions rather than enlightened ones. In fact, an improving environment is generally the product of economic growth, not an alternative to it.

Another example might be the discussion of SARS, and of the spread of new diseases in general. It is true that the changing structure of society can provide infections with new niches. But improving living standards and medical knowledge have not only wiped out many old diseases but provides us with a much greater capacity to deal with new infections. We have been able to monitor and study SARS in great detail very quickly. In the past, it would have just been lumped in with so many other respiratory diseases.

It is an interesting aspect of societal change that the fact of human progress is constantly called into question. Such an attitude would have been labelled pejoratively as 'conservative' in the past but is a completely mainstream notion today. Curiously, human progress goes on. We even revel in it: we treat disease better than before, we communicate more frequently and more easily, we travel more often, more cheaply and more extensively. All these are life-enhancing. Yet, the connection of these things with the progress of society as a whole is missing.


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