The Precautionary Principle: an essential tool for our times
The Precautionary Principle is a philosophical and legal tool that is widely used in environmental and public health risk management. As interpreted by Nassim Taleb, Rupert Read and others, it claims that, when there is the potential for irreparable damage, uncertainty in the evidence should not be used as a reason against taking preventative (e.g. regulatory) action against new technologies/threats; instead it should be seen as strong reason for such regulation. This differs from the current dominant way of assessing risk, which requires that evidence of harm be proved before regulatory action is taken on potentially dangerous threats.
The past century has been characterised by uncertainty being used as an excuse to justify inaction on serious environmental and public health threats. Most prominently, uncertainty in the evidence was a frequent justification of inaction in the campaigns against regulation on cigarette smoking, ozone depletion, and anthropogenic climate change. More recently, the lack of evidence of harm is often used as a justification for the widespread use of genetically modified organisms.
The Precautionary Principle has profound implications for these cases because it shifts the burden of proof away from evidence of harm, and onto evidence of safety. It is the antidote to the inertia that policy-makers have faced with uncertainty and lack of evidence.
The European Union is one of the international organisations that recognises its value, and as such has it written into its laws. More recently, the Supreme Court of the Philippines appealed to Precautionary Principle reasoning to uphold a ban on GM aubergine.
We believe that the Precautionary Principle must play a vital role in public policy about serious environmental and public health threats. The Precautionary Principle is currently under threat from Governments and corporations who are willing to take the risk of imposing such threats on others if it leads to monetary benefits for themselves. We believe that this unethical trend needs to be exposed.
We believe, therefore, that more research and exploration into the concept and its areas of application is important. And that more public understanding and discussion of precautionary reasoning is essential.
This page hosts a collection of the work and research that myself and other Green House contributors have done into the Precautionary Principle. We hope that you will find it a valuable resource in exploring an area that is currently at the forefront of new environmental, financial, philosophical and legal reasoning.
Rupert Read, Chair of Green House