The precautionary principle is ultra-conservative. “Conservative” here does not mean “right-wing”, nor does it refer to the Republican Party in the USA or the Conservative Party in England. I mean it in the most literal sense: that which conserves the existing order. Factions of widely differing agendas may share an interest in the status quo. In the USA, this makes sense of the unholy alliance of religious conservatives and extreme environmentalists in their attack on biotechnology.
The ultraconservative nature of the principle explains support for it both by environmentalists and large political and even commercial bodies. Some businesses are highly conservative and opposed to innovation—those who lack confidence in their ability to innovate or don’t want to bother. These organizations can use the principle to lock down the status quo, protecting their position from disruption by new and potentially superior technologies.
Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, environmental policy specialist and editor of the journal Energy and Environment, noted that “Virtually all scientific and technological discoveries create, initially at least, powerful losers who can activate the prevailing ideological and political system against the new.” The precautionary principle serves as a pretext for activists with anti-technology and anti-business agendas. Once the principle of precaution is in place, defenders of what is only have to raise the barest possibility of a harm to block the creative activity of the forces of what could be.
Defenders of national economic interests (as they see them) can easily invoke the precautionary principle. The protracted dispute between the European Commission and the United States and Canada over restrictions on hormone-treated beef cattle is a case in point. The EC explicitly argued that the precautionary principle justifies restricting imports of U.S. and Canadian beef from cattle treated with particular growth hormones. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the World Trade Organization (WTO) comes under heavy attack from environmental precautionists, given that this body ruled in favor of the United States and Canada. The WTO pointed out that even the EC’s favored scientific studies failed to demonstrate a real or imminent harm when these hormones were used according to accepted animal husbandry practices. This finding has not stopped the EC from enforcing restrictions on hormone-treated beef. The European Commission has promised that it will not allow the precautionary principle to be abused. Apparently the EC believes that promises are made to be broken.
Organizational learning experts have converged on the view that we learn best by experimenting, by learning in action. This is why companies shelling out their own money for corporate learning programs now favor learning on the job and simulations rather than traditional classrooms or standalone online learning courses. The precautionary principle is fatal to the future because it prevents us from learning by experimenting. Earlier in the chapter, we saw that the principle would have blocked most of the scientific discoveries of the past, as well as the technologies they enabled. Scientific and medical research necessarily gets going before we have all the information. We learned about some blood groups, for example, only by doing transfusions.
The precautionary principle, by halting activity, reduces learning and reinforces uncertainty. When the FDA responded with excessive precaution to the 1999 death of a patient in a University of Pennsylvania gene therapy trial for a genetic disease, work in gene therapy throughout the country and beyond was set back by years. The FDA might instead have taken measures to ensure more thoroughly informed consent, or have put additional safeguards in place without halting all research. We will uncover a wider range of both potential harms and benefits through action learning—what organizational theorist Karl Weick has called “looking while leaping.” Allowing a diversity of directions for technological advancement produces more learning and problem-solving than a single direction imposed by a centralized policy-making institution.
Practically all advances with a scientific basis come with some risk. If the mere possibility of harm—to someone, somewhere, somehow—is held up as sufficient reason to stop activity, we would have to say goodbye to all medical, engineering, and technological advances. Nor can precautionists reasonably require innovators to demonstrate the “necessity” of any particular advance. For one thing, necessity is in the eye of the beholder. The extreme environmental activist will judge just about every technological advance to be “unnecessary”.
Besides, each technology invariably forms a bridge to later technologies with even greater benefits and lower costs. We complain about burning fossil fuels for energy, understandably enough. But they are far cleaner than burning wood, may well be made cleaner, and without them we would not be able to invest the resources and knowledge necessary for the transition to the solar-hydrogen-nuclear future.
We saw that, compared with regulations for traditional breeding techniques, the regulation of gene-spliced crops is inconsistent, arbitrary, and not apportioned to risk. This has the effect of slowing innovation in impoverished parts of the world. Crop breeders who use traditional techniques test thousands of new genetic variants every year. When it comes to gene-spliced crops, however, requiring regulatory review of each and every variant effectively stifles research conducted with the most advanced and precise methods.
Lying next to the almost-dead body of agricultural biotechnology we find medical biotechnology. Carl Djerassi, emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University, is the father of the modern contraceptive Pill. According to Djerassi, “The precautionary principle is also the principal reason why we still have no such [contraceptive] Pill for men.”
Talking of dead bodies, if the precautionary principle is used to block genetic modification of insects and bacteria, bodies killed by Chagas’ disease will continue to pile up. This disease—accompanied by a resurgence of malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever—has erupted in Latin America, infecting 12 million to 18 million people out of the 90 million in the area. Once infected with the protozoa Trypanosoma cruzi, carried by several species of insects, between 10 and 30 percent of people develop chronic, life-threatening maladies such as heart failure. Already, 50,000 people die from invasion by this organism each year.
No vaccine or cure exists for Chagas’ disease. That could change if the precautionary principle is kept at bay. Scientists hope to augment conventional public health measures with genetically modified insects and bacteria. They want to use the “sterile-insect technique” to combat Chagas’ disease—but will governments mouthing the precautionary principle allow the release of these genetically modified bugs?
Many medical techniques and technologies now familiar to us, such as open-heart surgery, and X-rays, had to pass through what Norman Levitt described as a “heroic stage.” This will be just as true of future medical technologies. Consistent application of the precautionary principle would halt developments in their heroic, experimental, poorly understood phase, preventing them from ever becoming the standard techniques. Levitt goes on to say:
At a more basic level, research programs in molecular biology would have been badly crippled. The now-standard tricks associated with 'genetic engineering' - restriction enzymes and the polymerase chain reaction - would have had a difficult time making their way into the armamentarium of investigators.
Change happens regardless of the precautionary principle. If we stifle changes initiated by our brightest, most creative minds, we will be left with inadvertent changes. The direction of those changes is far more likely to be one that we don’t like. The asymmetrical nature of the precautionary principle ignores natural, unchosen changes that have their origin in nature, chance, or the environment. But changes, advance, and progress that come from science are treated as the enemy.
As Ingo Potrykus, emeritus professor of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and the inventor of Golden Rice, said: “The application of the precautionary principle in science is in itself basically anti-science. Science explores the unknown, and therefore can a priori not predict the outcome.”
The future is the realm of the unknown. We can do much better to understand, anticipate, and prepare for the possible futures that lie ahead, but a large element of the unknown will remain. If we are to continue improving the human condition—and possible even move beyond it—we must remain open to the unknown. We must throw out the precautionary principle. Friends of the future will see how the principle would prevent us from developing and applying practically all of the emerging technologies for enhancing and transforming the human condition: genetic techniques, neuromedical implants, nanotechnology, biotechnology, machine intelligence, and so on. Had the precautionary principle been in effect at any time in the past, today would never have arrived. The precautionary principle is the enemy of extropy.
If this principle should be avoided by policymakers and executives making a decision about the development, deployment, regulation, or marketing of a new technology, what are the alternatives? They should start out by thinking about the kind of decision they are making, then identify the optimal way to make it. This requires a structured decision-making process. The wisdom of ultimate precaution turns out to be false. Real wisdom comes from structure.