The Precautionary Principle: an essential tool for our times
Now, perhaps more than ever, the Precautionary Principle, is vital to the safety and wellbeing of not just us but our planet. Often described using proverbs such as ‘look before you leap’, at its heart, it is a safety net in an uncertain and often precarious world.
Widely used in both philosophical and international legal settings, often in relation to environmental and public health risk management, it isn’t about denying progress or stunting growth, as some of its detractors claim.
As interpreted by Nassim Taleb, myself and others, the belief if 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.
In the past, the old way of thinking has led to serious environmental and public health threats, including campaigns against regulation on cigarette smoking, ozone depletion and anthropogenic climate change. More recently lack of evidence of harm has been used as a justification for the widespread use of genetically modified organisms, fracking and has led to issues surrounding food safety.
The European Union is one of the international organisations that has enshrined the principle within much of its legislation but with Brexit comes uncertainty about how the UK will proceed, especially under pressure from corporations who would benefit from less stringent restrictions.
We believe that the Precautionary Principle must play a vital role in public policy about serious environmental and public health threats and that more research and exploration into the concept and its areas of application is important.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought the principle to the attention of the wider general public. We believe we need to build on that in relation to the many other areas where it can have an impact.
This page hosts a collection of the work and research about the Precautionary Principle by myself and other Green House contributors. We hope that you will find it a valuable resource in exploring an area that is currently at the forefront of new environmental, health, financial, philosophical and legal reasoning.
Rupert Read, former Chair of Green House.