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Deconstructing the precautionary principle

by Nancy Myers The other evening I found myself explaining and defending the precautionary principle once again. My new friend knew about the precautionary principle but he said, “My wife believes in it more strongly than I do.” I asked him what he meant by that and he said that if you take the principle to its ultimate conclusion it was absurd. You would never do anything.

Arrgh. And so I explained how the precautionary principle was more subtle and specific than that. It was clear that John agreed with actual precautionary policies; he just didn’t think that we should always be afraid of everything.

The precautionary principle is so close to some basic human emotions that people have difficulty seeing it as a rational course of action. Here it is, from the Wingspread Statement:

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

The truth is, the principle is not only rational; it has strong emotional and ethical components. The emotional and ethical components are essential; they are part of what makes it a potentially robust framework for policy, to use some policyspeak.

We have written about the ethics of the precautionary principle (here for instance pdf). We’ve said less about its emotional components. I would like to deconstruct those here. The precautionary principle dips into three basic pools of human emotion: fear, love, and anger (all very broadly defined).

What John was sensing was the fear part. Critics dismiss the precautionary principle by saying it is all about fear: you are afraid of everything and you have to make sure the world is perfectly safe but it isn’t and never will be.

What the precautionary principle says is that fear—in the form of caution--has its place. When there is real reason to be careful, “when an activity raises threats of harm,” act accordingly! That is common sense, not an absolute.

But the precautionary principle is not just against what we fear; it is laid down on the side of what we love. We proclaim in the precautionary principle that “human health and the environment” are worth protecting.

The protection part, those “precautionary measures” that should be taken, will often have an edge of resistance to them, a “no.” Resistance is a polite but firm form of anger. And even though precautionary measures take a host of positive forms—alternatives assessment, goal-setting, restoration—people are more emotionally tuned in to the potential no’s of precautionary action than to the yeses and the win-win solutions. They feel or imagine the resistance and resist back. That may change with time but for now we are still divided into camps about “precautionary measures.” Voir the current absurdist extremists in Congress declaring war on all protective functions of government that are directed toward human health and the environment.

We can’t avoid or fully control these emotional responses but we can be aware of them and even use them for the power they give our principles, actions, and policies.

For example, the most powerful motivation behind the precautionary principle may be the protection of today’s children and future generations. We act with appropriate resistance as well as foresight, taking great care (appropriate caution), on behalf of those who come after us. We are not sissies afraid of taking risks; we are, in fact, ready to take heroic action for the future of human life on this earth.

Does the precautionary principle really say all that? It does to me. I’ve lived with it for more than a decade and it still has power for me.

But I’m really tired of explaining it.