Opinionista Ivo Vegter 1 September 2014

Which principle: precaution or progress?

The “precautionary principle” sounds marvellous. Who wouldn’t want to take precautions against bad things happening? Shouldn’t public policy do exactly that, to protect uninformed citizens? But what if too much caution causes harm? Or prohibits progress? Shouldn’t we be careful with being cautious?

Who likes losing bets? Who enjoys being turned down for a job? Who looks for banana peels to slip on? Who wants to be rejected in love? Who wants to crash their car?

If you put up your hand, I’d advise you to see a psychiatrist about your masochism. It may be pathological.

To avoid these various fates, we take precautions. We don’t gamble more than we can afford. We apply for jobs we think we can do. We look for banana peels not to slip on. We drive carefully and wear a seat belt. And we never talk to girls because they’re scary.

So, when the global environmental movement in 1992 came up with a principle that sought to guide environmental policy-making, the notion of precaution seemed uncontroversial enough. Who doesn’t think it is sensible to take all due precaution?

Today, the precautionary principle is invoked with nary a murmur of dissent. It has found its way into international treaties and national legislation, not only in Europe, but in South Africa. The precautionary principle is established policy, approved by all who consider themselves liberal progressives.

Unfortunately, it is also a self-contradictory, illiberal, and anti-progressive principle. It makes policy decisions entirely discretionary, and based on the subjective feelings (or corrupt inclinations) of bureaucrats. It impedes progress, even when such progress can confer great benefits upon society, and indiscriminately restricts the freedom to innovate, develop, trade and prosper.

During a well-attended seminar at Wits Business School, at which various learned worthies (and me) discussed the risks and opportunities shale gas might pose for South Africa, the “precautionary principle” was raised as a reason to delay or prohibit exploration.

The questioner defined it thus: “If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action.”

Since these conditions apply to every action under the sun, this definition bans everything. It is also, verbatim, the first definition found on Wikipedia, so it must be fairly common.

It is not, however, the only definition. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992 stated it as follows: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Another definition, produced by a 1998 conference on the principle itself, reads: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

This permits anyone to claim the potential of harm of any kind, without even having to prove that it is conceivably possible, in order to restrict or prohibit an action. This is not only true for activists, but for government officials too. Since every proposed action implicitly involves unknown risks, they can delay decisions on arbitrary grounds, for any number of reasons.

The 1998 conference concluded that: “Participants noted that current policies such as risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis give the benefit of the doubt to new products and technologies, which may later prove harmful.”

If this doesn’t sound very progressive, that’s because it isn’t. It is explicitly biased against progress. It also shifts the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity, who are required to “vouch for its harmlessness”.

This condition cannot be satisfied. Would any motor manufacturer claim that their product will never cause death or injury? Will an airline claim its aircraft will never crash? Will a transport company claim they will never spill anything? Will a mining company claim that they will not do any harm to the environment?

Of course not. It would be patently dishonest.

The principle goes as far back as 1982, when the Worldwide Charter for Nature adopted a milder version: “Activities which are likely to pose a significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed.”

Notably, that document also says: “Each person has a duty to act in accordance with the provisions of the present Charter.” Our global overlords have long since decided that you and I will agree to, and be bound by, the precautionary principle, whether we like it or not.

In its formulation, however, note the explicit reference to benefits outweighing potential damage. That half of the equation vanished in later versions, but back in 1982, it must have seemed impossible to spring a principle on the world that considers only risk and not benefit.

The charter does introduce the idea of shifting the burden of proof, from those who oppose an action, policy or technology to those who propose it. This reversal has found its way, explicitly or implicitly, into several international treaties and national laws.

Before the 1982 charter, proponents and opponents would have had to argue risks and benefits before neutral policy makers. Thirty years later, proponents of an action are often required to prove that no harm will ensue. This holds them to an impossibly high standard, however. Nobody can predict the future with scientific certainty. Even when you’re pretty damn sure, you can’t claim that no harm will come to anyone, or to the environment.

Consider acid mine drainage. It would have been impossible to predict over a century ago, but imagine yourself a policy-maker in those days. Let us suppose that a far-sighted hydrogeologist did raise a warning in 1880. Would you have called a halt to mining on the Reef? Would you still have done so, knowing that you’d sacrifice what is now the City of Johannesburg and two thirds of the country’s economy? Given that you couldn’t possibly know the grave consequences of your decision, would you have made the correct call? Did you really have any right to make that call, or would the precautionary principle have cautioned against it?

In this case, again, the precautionary principle prohibits progress. Because unknown future risk always exists, any new technology, industry or commercial action can be opposed by its perverse logic. It is fundamentally Luddite, yet those who use it call themselves progressive.

Recently, Novartis ended a drug trial early, because of the clear benefits of the drug in patients at risk of heart failure. This is rare. How many patients suffer, or die an unnecessary death, while waiting for clinical trials to prove that nobody would be harmed by the drug?

In 1974, doctors wanted to use beta blockers to treat patients at risk of a second heart attack. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused, because they suspected it might cause cancer. When the drug was finally approved in 1981, the FDA claimed that it would save 17,000 lives a year. That means the precautionary principle killed 119,000 people in the intervening seven years.

This case is not unique, and to be fair, there are good explanations why regulators are wedded to the precautionary principle. If they delay too long, few people notice, and if people do notice, they just claim they were just being careful. Conversely, if they approve a drug and it turns out to be thalidomide, everyone blames them. Too much caution kills people, and so does too little, but which better covers your regulatory ass?

The precautionary principle is not limited to environmental or pollution questions. As the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (UNESCO’s COMEST), in conformity with the mandate of its member countries…

How many words do these canapé-fed leeches need in lieu of a noun? Let’s try that again.

“Born of environmental considerations,” wrote a burden of bureaucrats, buried in an expensive glossy 52-page report nobody who matters has ever read, “the precautionary principle has since matured into an ethical principle with a far broader scope and the potential value of the precautionary principle as a policy guide should be envisaged.”

Are you envisaging? I know I am. I see a creeping assault on rational cost-benefit analysis that proceeds with typical bureaucratic vagueness. The most elaborate definition is, of course, provided in this gem of lavish industriousness. It is vague, despite its wordiness – or rather, because of it.

If the “bounds of possible harm” are uncertain, how would one determine what action is “proportional to the seriousness of the potential harm”? If you don’t understand the “causality” of harm, how would you determine what action might “avoid or diminish” it?

The precautionary principle has brought ever-stricter rules and regulations that are claimed to protect population, but in reality only restrict their liberty and interfere in their daily lives. So, for example, in a UK town, women were prohibited from tending flowers at a war memorial on a roundabout, because they might get run over. In 2012, a man drowned in a meter-deep duck pond while police, paramedics and firemen stood by and watched, because it was too dangerous for them to rescue the poor bastard.

Of course, rejecting the precautionary principle as an illogical, illiberal and Luddite absurdity does not mean that we ought to rush recklessly in pursuit of progress. That is not what anyone proposes. However, there is a middle ground, in which we not only consider benefits, nor only consider risks, but calmly and rationally weigh both.

The precautionary principle implicitly prohibits progress, by placing impossible burdens of proof upon industry and innovation. It can cause as much harm as it ostensibly prevents, so it precludes its own application. It is vague and arbitrary, which gives bureaucrats and their professional advisors the power to subvert the rulemaking process for their own benefit.

How did something as crazy as the precautionary principle ever get into our laws? DM


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