Failures of the Precautionary Principle
Having seen the precautionary principle in action, we can identify its shortcomings quickly. Before I get to two of the problems with especially strong anti-innovation effects, I want to examine eight other defects that render the precautionary principle capable of generating only dangerously distorted conclusions.
Failure of Objectivity: Any decision procedure adequate for handling the complexities of technological and environmental risks affecting multiple parties must be objective. Objectivity here means “following a structured, explicit procedure informed by the relevant fields of knowledge.” Those fields include risk analysis, economics, the psychology of decision making, and verified forecasting methods. In the absence of a well-designed, structured procedure, assessment and decision making will be distorted by cognitive and interest-based biases, emotional reactions, ungrounded public perceptions and pressures from lobbyists, and popular but unreliable approaches to analysis and forecasting. The precautionary principle does nothing to ensure that decision makers use reliable, objective procedures. Several of the points below detail ways in which the principle lacks objectivity.
Distracts from Greater Threats: The precautionary principle distracts citizens and policy makers from established, major threats to health. The heavy emphasis on taking precautionary measures for any proposed danger, no matter how speculative, draws attention away from any comparative assessment of risks and costs. The principle embodies the imperative to eliminate all risk from some proposed source, ignoring the background level of risk, and ignoring other sources of risk that may be more deserving of action. Environmental activists usually target human-caused effects while giving the destructive aspects of “nature” a free ride. Nature itself brings with it a risk of harms such as infection, hunger, famine, and environmental disruption.
We should apply our limited resources first to major risks that we know are real, not merely hypothetical. The more we attend to merely hypothetical threats to health and environment, the less money, time, and effort will remain to deal with substantial health problems that are highly probable or thoroughly established. The principle errs in focusing on future technological harms that might occur, while ignoring natural risks that are actually occurring.
Vague and Unclear: Everything about the principle is easily interpreted in differing ways. As the authors of the May 2000 paper in Science, say, “its greatest problem, as a policy tool, is its extreme variability in interpretation.” The Treaty on European Union gives the principle great importance by referring to it, yet does not define it. Once given a specific interpretation, the principle is simple. Simplicity is the source of its appeal. Simplicity is a virtue—so long as it does not come at the expense of adequacy.
The precautionary principle is too simple. In versions that mention “irreversible harm”, no account is given of irreversibility. Most environmental changes can be reversed, though it may be costly to do so. Even when effects are truly irreversible, that fact alone does not make the changes significant. The principle lacks clarity also because it leaves us without any guidance in cases where resulting harm arrives along with benefits—and this is the rule rather than the exception. The principle leaves us in the dark as to how we should go about preventing harm. As we have seen, precautionary measures can themselves be harmful and costly.
Lack of Comprehensiveness: Any procedure that claims to be both rational and equitable in assessing the desirability of restrictions on productive human activity must be comprehensive. This means taking into account the interests of all affected parties with legitimate claims. It also means considering all reasonable alternative actions, including no action.
A comprehensive decision procedure balances the benefits of restricting an activity that brings with it possibly harmful side effects against two factors: the benefits of the activity in question, and the costs and risks of the restrictions, regulations, or prohibitions. If a proposal has been made to restrict a technology, responsible decision makers will estimate the opportunities lost by abandoning it. If needs that were being met by the technology or productive activity will be met by other means, the costs and risks of those alternatives should be estimated. When making these estimates, decision makers should carefully consider not only concentrated and immediate effects, but also widely distributed and follow-on effects.
The precautionary principle, with its typically agenda-driven, single-minded approach, fails the test of comprehensiveness. Officials and activists who use the principle routinely inadvertently or deliberately ignore costs and side-effects of regulations and prohibitions, as well as the potential benefits of a technology, both in the near term and as it might develop over time. As we saw in the case of drug regulation, regulators who start out doing something intended to be beneficial face incentives that encourage them to regulate excessively. The precautionary principle serves as a rationalization and an encouragement for regulators in making Type II errors.
Inappropriate Burden of Proof: The precautionary principle illegitimately shifts the burden of proof (“reverse onus”) by requiring innovators and producers to prove their innocence when anyone raises “threats of harm”. Activists enjoy a favored status since they can raise the prospect of precautionary measures with no more evidence than their fearful imagination. All they need to show is that a possibility of harm exists. No, not even this. All they need to show is that questions have been raised about the possibility of harm. Inventors and producers must then devote effort and resources to answering those questions.
Proponents of the principle portray it as a value-neutral procedure for deciding on policies. Yet it gives the trump card to the status quo and against productive activity and innovation by default—no real evidence is needed. Producing and innovating become de facto crimes whose perpetrators are guilty until proven innocent.
The content—even the very name—of the principle positions environmental activists as friends and protectors of the common citizen. By shifting the burden of proof, advocates of precaution position themselves as responsible protectors of humanity and the environment, while positioning advocates of proposed activities or new technologies as reckless. By using reverse onus, the activists can impose their preferences without providing evidence, and without being accountable for the results of overly-cautious policies.
To add to the fear-inducing power and chilling effect of the reverse onus, activists and regulators who invoke the precautionary principle invariably assume a worst-case scenario. Any release of chemicals into the environment might initiate a chain of events leading to a disaster. Genetically modified organisms might cause unanticipated, serious, and irreversible problems. By imagining the proposed technology or endeavor primarily in a worst-case scenario—while assuming that preventing action will have no disastrous consequences—the adherents of the principle immediately tilt the playing field in their favor. By combining reverse onus and catastrophic scenario-spinning, precautionists guarantee that managing perceptions of risk becomes more influential in policy-making than the reality of risk.
Asymmetrical: The precautionary principle inherently favors nature and the status quo over humanity and progress, while routinely ignoring the potential benefits of technology and innovation. As an example of this—meant only partly in jest—I would point to an odd dichotomy. Many environmentalists have been obsessed with opposing nuclear power. After all, to them, it represents advanced technology and humanity’s triumph over the vagaries of nature. At the same time, when have you ever heard environmentalists and fellow precautionists raising concerns and urging public action over the dangerous act of sunbathing? If this question seems a little peculiar, consider what sunbathers are doing: They are lying prone and helpless directly beneath a gigantic, unshielded nuclear fusion reactor!
The entirely serious point I want to make here is that the precautionary principle fails to treat natural and human threats on the same basis. Users of the principle routinely ignore the potential benefits of technology, in effect favoring nature over humanity. The principle does not account for the fact that the risks created by technological stagnation are at least as real as those of technological advancement. As biochemist Bruce Ames of UCLA has demonstrated, almost all of our exposure to dangerous chemicals comes in the form of natural chemicals, such as aflatoxins in peanuts—which are among the most carcinogenic substances known. Yet fear and attention are primarily directed toward synthetic chemicals. A particular chemical has the same effects regardless of whether its source is natural or synthetic. Despite this, activists treat human-derived chemicals as guilty until proven innocent, and naturally occurring chemicals as innocent until proven guilty.
We can see an excellent example of the asymmetrical favoring of nature over humanity—in other words, the condemnation of conscious creative activity—in the wildly divergent attitudes of hardcore environmentalists and other precautionists toward gene-spliced crops and their more traditional counterparts. Proponents of the precautionary principle—if not utterly opposed to gene-spliced crops in their public pronouncements—encourage authorities to apply a heavy regulatory burden. When it comes to conventional crops, the same precautionary regulations are never urged. This makes sense, precautionists will say, because genetically modified crops introduce new and poorly understood risks. But is this true?
Gene-splicing is simply the most scientifically advanced method of generating new plant varieties. More specifically, compared to other techniques, gene-splicing is more precise, restricted, and predictable than techniques devised earlier. Anti-technologists would have us believe that modern genetic techniques break radically with past practice. In reality, gene-splicing technology is a refinement of the less accurate, more uncertain techniques of the past. Those older methods—such as hybridization and induced-mutation breeding—lie behind the many new plant varieties introduced every year. No scientific review is required of them. No special labeling is required. Yet, because they are less precise, they bring potential hazards greater than those from the more precisely targeted method of gene-splicing.
Often these more traditional products result from “wide crosses”—applications of hybridization in which many genes are transferred from one species to another in a way that does not happen in nature. Wide crosses have many benefits such as introducing the hardiness of wild rice into cultivated rice, or integrating yellow dwarf virus tolerance and resistance into cultivated oats. But they could also lead to problems. By introducing thousands of foreign genes into an established plant variety, the result could be the accidental introduction of toxins or allergens, or qualities such as increased invasiveness in the field.
Similarly, a method in common use for the last 50 years called induced-mutation breeding, lacks the precision of gene-splicing. In this approach, plants used as crops are exposed to ionizing radiation or toxic chemicals in order to stimulate genetic mutations. No way exists to select the mutations; it is essentially a random process that leaves breeders with little idea of which mutations occurred or which ones produced a desired effect. Over the decades in which this method has been used, between one and two thousand mutation-bred plant varieties have been brought to market without any regulation to speak of. Although the results have typically been safe, problems have occasionally cropped up.
If the precautionary principle were actually a useful tool, we would expect to see stricter precautions being applied to these less accurate, less predictable types of genetic modification. But the opposite has been the case. Activists and regulators have put all their energies into severely regulating gene-spliced products out of all proportion to their risk. The regulators not only inflate the risks of gene-spliced or “genetically modified” foods, they ignore the ways in which the newer technique can actually reduce risks.
Aside from minimizing the dangers of introducing toxins, allergens, or other unwanted qualities, this technology makes it far easier to remove many natural allergens from the food supply. In addition, gene-spliced crops enable farmers to drastically reduce the use of pesticides. Unavailability of the better technology especially hurts farmers in poor countries, who continue to suffer from continual exposure to pesticides.
Fails to Accommodate Tradeoffs: The way in which the precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof is no accident. Many proponents of the principle fully intend its nature-deifying, human-denying values to force the innovator and producer onto a rocky path. Another consequence is the inability of the principle to handle tradeoffs between harm to humans and to the environment. Since unaltered nature is implicitly an absolute value in the principle, no tradeoffs are to be allowed. The precautionary principle is all about avoiding possible harm—and human-caused harm, and primarily harm to the environment—rather than respecting a wider set of values.
As the precautionary principle has come to be applied, all other values must bow to that of the precautionary activists. Anyone who expresses willingness to forego perfect environmental protection in favor of an easier life, greater health or wealth, or other values, needs to be shown the light according to the precautionist. In this way, the precautionary principle tends toward authoritarianism. If those poor, ignorant fools (no doubt blinded by the dark power of commercial advertising) cannot see what they should do, the activists will force them to do the right thing. Just as Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin saw themselves as the vanguard of the proletariat, who knew the interests of the Russian workers far better than did the workers themselves, the precautionists wish to protect us from ourselves.
The precautionary principle, in its absolutist, univalued approach, conflicts with the more balanced approach to risk and harm derived from common law. Common law holds us liable for injuries we cause, with liability increasing along with foreseeable risk. By contrast, the precautionary principle bypasses liability and acts like a preliminary injunction—but without the involvement of a court. By doing this, the precautionary principle denies individuals and communities the freedom to make trade-offs in the way recognized by common-law approaches to risk and harm. No other values are admitted as reason not to pursue extreme precaution.
Vulnerable to Corruption: The inconsistent, discriminatory nature of precautionary regulations (as we saw in the case of gene-spliced foods) puts a kink in the rule of law. By giving regulators the power to insist on any degree of testing they choose, the precautionary principle opens up opportunities for corruption—undue influence, unfair targeting, and regulatory capture. It is the principle’s vagueness, inconsistency, and arbitrariness that appeals to regulators who enjoy expanding their powers and wielding them selectively. An increase in corruption and arbitrary regulatory power is further ensured by making precaution and prevention the default assumption.