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Precaution is now an established tenet of environmental governance, law, and public policy at the international, national and local levels. When it comes to pollution, toxic chemicals, genetically modified organisms, endangered species and climate change, the so calledprecautionary principle has become the guiding doctrine for timorous souls everywhere. But more than that, it is a codification of the idea that before anything new is allowed, it must be proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to cause no harm to anything in anyway, under any conditions, anywhere—period. It is “look before you leap” on steroids and a major legal weapon used by environmentalists and neo-Luddites everywhere to hamstring human progress. Raising angst to an art form, progress hating activists have managed to block needed energy and industrial expansion at a critical time in humanity’s development.

The “precautionary principle” or “precautionary approach” is a response to uncertainty in the face of risks to health or the environment. According to thePrecautionary Principle Project, a partnership between four international NGOs, “it involves acting to avoid serious or irreversible potential harm, despite lack of scientific certainty as to the likelihood, magnitude, or causation of that harm.” Meaning, without overwhelming scientific proof that what you are doing will not cause any harm, it is not permitted. This is an implicit reversal of the burden of proof.

Nowadays, application of the precautionary principle has spread to other areas, forging a progress denying chain around the necks of people in developed and developing nations alike. Again, according to the Precautionary Principle Project, which concluded in December 2005, this is all for the good of mankind:

Uncertainty is not just ecological, but also surrounds the potential impacts of forces such as globalisation and decentralisation, effects of movements of global markets and trade regimes, and the effectiveness and utility of conservation measures such as protected areas, use of incentives, or strict regulatory approaches.

Such uncertainty underpins the arguments both of those exploiting resources, who demand evidence that exploitation causes harm before accepting limitations, and those opposing, who seek to limit exploitation in the absence of clear indications of sustainability.

This mode of thinking stems from the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle. The statement is named for Wingspread, the headquarters of the Johnson Foundation, which claims to be “a catalyst for environmental and community solutions.” In other words, it is a NGO that promotes environmental activism. In January of 1998, a three-day conference was held at Wingspread. In attendance were a select group of concerned scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists, who reached agreement on the necessity of the Precautionary Principle in public health and environmental decision making.

Wingspread – Home of the Johnson Foundation. Racine, Wisconsin.

Attendees at the conference were drawn mostly from the ranks of like-minded groups. These included Greenpeace, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute in Massachusetts, Britain’s Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, the Environmental Research Foundation, the Science and Environmental Health Network, the Environmental Network, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the Environmental Health Coalition, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. It’s not hard to reach “consensus” when you gather a group of people who all share your values and views.

That trial lawyers are beginning to sniff around environmental issues, seeking fodder for law suites, is no secret. There are rumblings about legal claims over flood damage tenuously linked to climate change. Ridiculous charges are already flying over the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The precautionary principle is different. Proponents don’t wait for damage to occur, they urge prevention—a sort of a priori legal first strike.

All statements of the precautionary principle contain a version of this formula: When the health of humans and the environment is at stake, it may not be necessary to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action. And by getting this principle adopted as the foundation of ecological and environmental law, activists have a significant legal lever to use against any program, institution or corporation that draws their ire. The Wingspread Statement summarized the principle this way:

When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

If any scientists or “experts” can be found who express concern regarding an action that could impact nature, the precautionary principle says anticipatory action should be taken—the offending action must be stopped or prevented from happening at all. The primary effect is to halt innovation in its tracks by requiring absolute certainty that no harm will be done. As shown in the decision matrix below, the worst case scenario is assumed to be the default outcome.

The Precautionary Principle decision matrix.

Proponents of the precautionary principle are trying to smuggle in a default position: the environment trumps all other values. The key element of the principle is that it requires the taking of anticipatory action in the absence of scientific certainty. Note that, in the case of climate change, the trigger is not scientific certainty that CO2 emissions will have any impact on Earth’s climate, or whether that impact will affect the environment in any measurable way. It is only the possibility that something bad might happen.

Since its first formulation, the precautionary principle has become embedded in international and national law. The World Charter for Nature, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1982, was the first international endorsement of the precautionary principle. It later found UN endorsements in the 1987 Montreal Protocol and the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. In 1997, Japan tried to use the precautionary principle to bolster its stand in a WTO dispute regarding the testing of agricultural products.

On the national front, the European Commission issued a Communication on the precautionary principle, adopting a procedure for the application of the concept in 2000. The Principle entered Australian Law by way of the NSW Protection of the Environment Administration Act in 1991, and has been key in several subsequent cases. The US Environmental Protection Agency is already using it to help guide new regulations on synthetic chemicals and, most recently, the agency’s attempt to regulate CO2 as a harmful substance.

In 1999, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS; the publishers of the journal Science), there was a symposium titled “The Precautionary Principle: A Revolution in Environmental Policymaking?” During that panel discussion, environmental advocates and like minded academics insisted that a principle of ultimate precaution should trump all other considerations in future environmental and technological policy making. According to commentator Ronald Bailey, writing on

The Wingspreaders and their followers on the AAAS panel want to apply the Principle solely to environmentalist concerns, but, in fact, their formula is essentially an empty vessel into which anyone can pour whatever values they prefer. It simply codifies a very risk-averse version of standard cost-benefit analysis; the Wingspread participants think that certain activities, such as manufacturing plastics or burning fossil fuels, are unacceptably risky. In other words, very conservative environmentalist values are being privileged over what, to other people, may be equally or more compelling values.

The precautionary approach can be adapted to fit many different agendas. Areas where the principle may hold legal sway include:

  • Global warming or abrupt climate change in general
  • Loss of diversity and species extinction
  • Introduction of new and potentially harmful products into the environment, threatening biodiversity (genetically modified organisms)
  • Threats to public health, due to new diseases and techniques (AIDS transmitted through blood transfusion)
  • Persistent or acute pollution (asbestos, fluorocarbons)
  • Food safety (mad cow disease, genetically modified food crops)
  • Other new biosafety issues (cloning, artificial life, new molecules)

When applying the principle, it is recommended that society establish a minimal threshold of scientific certainty—the threshold of plausibility—before undertaking precautions. In practice, no minimal threshold of plausibility is specified as a “triggering” condition, so any hint that a proposed product or activity might harm health or the environment is sufficient to invoke the principle. Often the only precaution taken is a ban on the product or activity. Prudence transformed into a power grab.

Critics of the principle argue that it is impractical, since every implementation of a technology carries some risk of negative consequences. Proponents suggest the deciding factor should be that a new technology or invention is “necessary.” Are computers necessary? How about cellphones, the Internet, heating & air conditioning, or microwave ovens? There are a lot of things we take for granted in life that are not necessary but life would be poorer without. Sometimes useful is enough, or just plain “cool.” After all, nobody really “needs” an iPhone.

There are those who think the world was better off when there were far fewer people, and when our technology hovered at the Medieval level. These modern day acolytes of old Ned Ludd see the precautionary principle as a way to block technological progress while sounding reasonably cautious. “Look before you leap,” they say, when in fact they want no leaping at all.

Whether they wish to save the environment, or restore mankind to a simpler, more natural state, precaution has become a smoke screen for “de-developing” the world. Think that is an overstatement? Think again. In the words of Jeff Howard, an activist and researcher for Greenpeace, “even the most fundamental of past decisions must be subject to re-examination and precautionary reform.”

The precautionary crowd wants to create a political process that would eliminate technologies they disapprove of: nuclear power, pesticides, fertilizer, plastics, biogenetics, etc. This is how nuclear power, which safely and economically generates 20% of the United States’ electricity while producing no air pollution, has been placed in stasis for 30 years.

Using precautionary principle arguments, eco-advocates bring law suit after law suit to block the building of any new nuclear power plant. Government bureaucrats join in the game with paralyzing volumes of red-tape and decades long environmental impact studies. Many precaution advocates call themselvesProgressives, but the last thing they want is progress.

The precautionists would have us all live the simple life.

No one is suggesting that reasonable and prudent precautions not be taken with potentially dangerous technology. Genetically modified organisms need to be well vetted, and the range of permitted modifications restricted—technologies like the so called “terminator gene” should be banned. But to forbid all GM food crops as a blanket policy it flat out stupid. Genetic engineering has made possible drought and pest resistant grain crops that have helped raise third-world food production significantly while at the same time reducing pesticide use. The same goes for nuclear energy, nanotechnology, gene therapy and a host of other modern wonders.

Last year, a group of protestors disrupted the “Communication and Dialogue of Agribiotech Symposium” at Huazhong Agricultural University in China. Members of the group Utopia, which espouses nationalist sentiments and fancies itself the standard-bearer of the Chinese “New Left,” claimed that genetically modified rice will suppress sperm levels and lead to “subjugation and genocide” in China. Naturally, the advocates use the precautionary principle to buttress their arguments. “It would pose a potential risk for China’s food safety and sovereignty,” says Fang Lifeng of Greenpeace’s Beijing office (see “Activists Go on Warpath Against Transgenic Crops—and Scientists ”).

Government officials are aware that there are risks in using transgenic crops. “China has been stricter with GM rice than any other country on any GM crop,” says Huang Dafang, former director of Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy’s Biotechnology Research Institute. Scientists acknowledge that no technology is foolproof and that the long-term effects of GM crops remain an open question. Yet they feel that the benefits outweigh the risks.

In 2008, with China experiencing widespread food shortages, the government backed an aggressive effort to pursue transgenic engineering. Over the past 15 years, Chinese rice yields have stagnated while at the same time use of pesticides and fertilizers has risen sharply. Scientists are looking to GM rice and other staples to raise yields and simultaneously curb the use of agricultural chemicals. The goal is to feed the Chinese people and improve the environment, but the irrational forces of far left eco-advocacy are having none of it. What would they prefer? Poisoned rivers and widespread starvation?

Where does the policy stop? Crossbreeding animals and plants can create dangerous new species (like “killer” bees), ban crossbreeding. Of course crossbreeding created most of our principle food crops and domestic animals. Drugs can kill people, no more clinical trials unless the drugs to be tested are totally safe. Except that means no new drugs at all. Airplanes occasionally crash, ban flying. Cars pollute and can have wrecks, ban the automobile. Certainly firearms can kill, ban them as well. Ban everything that can be harmful and the meek will indeed inherit the earth, and then rapidly die out.

Perhaps the ultimate application of the precautionary principle should be to sex. After all, there are some very nasty diseases that can be transmitted by intercourse. My suggestion is that all true believers in precaution stop having sex immediately, even protected sex, since prophylactics have been known to fail. This would have two salubrious effects: first, eco-activists everywhere could no longer enjoy sexual congress, depriving them of much pleasure—just payback for the misery they have inflicted on the rest of humankind; and second, not being able to reproduce will eventually purge our species of these pusillanimous precautionists—think of it as evolution in action.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

The Resilient Earth, 31 March 2011