The precautionary principle represents the cowardice of a pampered societyby Tracey Browne / September 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Book: The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000 Author: Edited by David Gee and others Price: Earthscan
The precautionary principle is much in vogue. It is widely regarded as the common-sense approach if we want to avoid disasters like BSE. It is the ark of the covenant of those NGOs who are suspicious of the products of biotechnology, and part of the “culture of suspicion” which Onora O’Neill discussed in her recent Reith lectures. Indeed, the principle is being institutionalised. Yet, for all its popularity, it is more frequently invoked than examined.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) recently published a volume of 14 case histories: Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000, as a guide to future policy makers. These case histories include asbestos, radiation, the chemical contamination of the Great Lakes, damage to the ozone layer and BSE. In some cases, such as the lung damage caused by asbestos, well-founded warnings were sounded at an early stage and were ignored, with devastating consequences. In others, like radiation, damaging effects emerged gradually. In at least one case, damage caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to the ozone layer, the effects were discovered by accident and came as a complete surprise.
These examples make salutary reading and show that governments often failed to take action when the need for precaution was evident. But the lessons that the distinguished editorial team draws from these examples are less instructive. Most of them are obvious. They tell us that warnings should not be ignored, that all relevant evidence should be considered, that if there is evidence of serious harm, we should not wait for full certainty before acting, that regulatory authorities should be independent, and so on. Who could possibly disagree?
However, some of the recommendations are likely to do more harm than good. For example, we must, they say, take into account not only uncertainty but ignorance. Are we to guard not only against the perils we know about, but also perils we do not know about and where there is no reason to suspect a threat? Many environmentalists suggest that we should.
Tony Gilland recently reported in the New Humanist magazine that, at a conference on risk in April, professor Robin Grove White of Lancaster University, one of Britain’s leading environmentalists, “explained his frustration at trying to get scientists to acknowledge the importance of taking into account the existence of ‘unknown unknowns.'” Anti-GM campaigners…