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Date: Jun 06 2000 21:46:00 EDT
From: Julian Morris (by way of C. S. Prakash)
Subject: Defining the Precautionary Principle
Defining the Precautionary Principle
Julian Morris mailto:email@example.com
Director, Environment and Technology Programme
Institute of Economic Affairs (www.iea.org.uk)
What follows is a summary of the first chapter of my edited collection,
Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle', which will be published
in September 2000 by Butterworth-Heinemann.
Most definitions of the precautionary principle (PP) fall into two broad
classes. 1. The Strong PP: take no action unless you are certain that it
will do no harm'. 2. The Weak PP: lack of full certainty is not a
justification for preventing an action that might be harmful'. Both types
are problematic, although the latter considerably less so than the former.
Interest groups and politicians have used PP-like arguments since at least
the 1950s in both Europe and the US. In the 1970s, social scientists
developed these into a more general framework.
Governments have generally employed weak versions of the PP. For example,
the 1985 decision in the European Commission to ban hormones used for
growth promotion, was justified on the grounds that "their safety has not
been conclusively proven." Two years later, the weak PP appeared in the
Ministerial Declaration of the Second International Conference on the
Protection of the North Sea, which became the basis for banning the dumping
of sewage in the North Sea.
By contrast, environmental and consumer organisations have typically
employed the strong PP in order to justify their demands for various
restrictions and bans. Hence Jeremy Leggett's famous assertion that the
modus operandi we [Greenpeace] would like to see is: "Do not admit a
substance unless you have proof that it will do no harm to the
environment" - the precautionary principle.'
Amongst other criticisms of the Strong PP, I identify the following:
1.Preventing (or attempting to prevent) some action that might lead to the
death of all human beings may itself result in the death of all human
beings. 2. Demanding that a technology should not be admitted until it has
been proved to be harmless is equivalent to requiring an infinitely high
standard of proof -- which can never be achieved. 3. The notion that
regulations should be based on the presumption that there is no safe dose
for any chemical that exhibits harmful properties at some dose has been
widely refuted. 4. Applied generally, the Strong PP would end civilization.
In its more political Weak form, the PP is about taking a hyper-cautious
approach to change. This means imposing very strict controls on the
licensing of new technologies and cutting back drastically on emissions of
substances into the environment. Although not as devastating as the
philosophically dubious Strong PP, this more practical approach has serious
drawbacks. Consider the Earth Summit' definition: "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
There are several problems with this definition. 1. It is not clear what is
meant by threat'. 2. It is necessary to define damage - and in particular
to distinguish damage' from mere change'. 3. All change (and hence all
damage) is irreversible in the strict sense that the precise structure of
the world that pertained before cannot once again come into being,
ultimately negating the utility of includingn irreversible' as a criterion
as distinct from serious'. 4 Seriousness is clearly a subjective concept.
What one person considers serious another might consider trivial. 5. There
will always be scientific uncertainty, both with regard to environmental
effects and with regard to all other matters, especially concerning the
The subjective nature of seriousness is highlighted by the debate over what
matters for people in developing countries. It is all very well to sit in a
comfortable chair high in an air conditioned office block powered by the
latest solar energy technology and imagine that it might be nice for people
in Africa and Asia to do likewise. In reality, what most poor rural farmers
need in the way of technologies are mechanical farm equipment, cheap
carbon-based fuel (to power the machinery), fertiliser and pesticide (to
increase yields). Similarly, budding industrialists require access to cheap
fuel in order to manufacture and transport their wares. It is thus not only
totally unrealistic but also morally offensive to expect such people to
on non-carbon-based fuels.
As regards the use of new technologies by the people of Africa, Asia and
Latin America, it is worth noting that genetic enhancement of crops
enormous benefits for such people. Virus- and pest-resistant varieties of
crops have already been developed, offering farmers in developing countries
higher yields. Crop varieties that are hardier - able to withstand drier,
hotter, and more saline conditions - are being developed; these would
farmers in developing countries to grow crops under a wider range of
conditions, thereby reducing the risk of crop failure.
But many farmers in developing countries are now reluctant to use GM
varieties because of fears that Europeans won't buy them. So it is that the
fear of new technology, which enabled the precautionary principle to
flourish in Europe, is being recycled and fed to the people of the
developing world, who are now reluctant to utilise technologies that would
probably be beneficial both to them and to us.
Free-market foes with green skin
May 30, 2000
It's too bad so few Americans got to see pictures of Winston Churchill
wearing a Mohawk haircut. The photo, which ran in British papers after
May Day riots in London, helps explain why McDonald's decided to quit
buying genetically improved (biotech) potatoes. And it helps demonstrate
how the uproar over biotechnology has everything to do with
anti-capitalism and very little to do with food safety or the environment.
When the Berlin Wall fell 10 years ago, it was not seen as good news
by everybody outside of Russia. According to Patrick Moore, a co-founder
of the powerful environmental group Greenpeace, you can count many
environmentalists among the post-communist crest fallen. Mr. Moore says he
left Greenpeace, and the "eco-extremist" movement, because of its radical
shift away from science and humanity.
"Pro-Soviet groups in the West were discredited" when the Cold War
ended, Mr. Moore wrote in the March issue of Oregon Wheat magazine. "Many
of their members moved into the environmental movement bringing with them
their eco-Marxism and pro-Sandinista sentiments."
We saw their influence at the World Trade Organization's (attempted)
conference in Seattle last winter. Eco-activists joined anti-capitalists
from all over the world. Mobs took to the streets, rioting and ransacking
businesses. Global trade emissaries were forced to go home without ever
meeting. And most of the public (along with some protesters, no doubt)
wondered what the whole thing was about.
Shortly thereafter, many of the same people, still proud of their
"Battle of Seattle," converged on Boston to protest the Biotechnology
Industry Organization conference. Then in April, it was on to D.C., to
protest the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings. One
of the Seattle protest/riot organizers calls itself the Direct Action
Network (Against Corporate Globalization). "Our current social and
ecological troubles are rooted in an economic and political system that is
going global, it proclaimed in a press release urging the protest.
"Imagine replacing the current social order with a just, free and
ecological society based on mutual aid and voluntary cooperation." Should
we spoil their fun by pointing out that this is exactly what Karl Marx
"imagined" and what Josef Stalin and Cambodia's Pol Pot implemented?
Graffiti scrawled all around the capital during the protest urges
rejection of corporations, period. It is literally writ large: Capitalism
is evil and corporations are the devil.
That takes us back to May Day and the Churchill statue. May Day was
the traditional Labor Day in the Soviet Union, when workers who toiled for
the motherland got time off to parade through Red Square. Shriners on tiny
motorbikes were not allowed, nor were clowns, but they always displayed
lots of nice modern Soviet tanks and missiles. In support of their
comrades, tens of thousands of
anti-capitalist-pig protesters would also turn out that day in Central
London - minus the
Generally the London events have been peaceful, merely an affront to the
eye and one's basic sensibilities. This year, though, things got out of
hand when a mob ransacked a McDonald's restaurant, breaking windows and
tearing down those famous "golden arches."
And no, it wasn't like carrying off the goal posts after winning the
championship. This attack sparked an all-out riot, and a TV crew covering
the McDonald's incident was beaten.
According to the Times of London, police were attacked with iron bars,
scaffolding, bottles and beer cans. A brick smashed an officer in the
face; a flying bottle struck a little girl. Shops throughout the area were
ransacked. "The main casualty," according to the Times, "was the nation's
A statue of Churchill, the nation's great war-time leader who gave the
Iron Curtain its name, was smeared with red paint declaring that Prime
Minister "Tony Blair will die." It was not a mere reminder that all humans
are mortal. Someone else ripped up a strip of turf and placed it on
head to resemble the Mohawk haircut some of the rioters wore, which it did
even down to the green color. The Cenotaph, the nation's memorial to its
war dead, was desecrated with the slogan "Why glorify war?" This would be
like spray-painting "Who Gives a Rat's Rump?" on our Tomb of the Unknown
Police had warned McDonald's, which has become a global symbol for
anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism, to close up shop for the day. The
company closed all 50 stores in Central London to protect its employees.
McDonald's, like no other American company perhaps, has become a lightning
rod for this kind of activity. French farmers recently vandalized their
stores - including dumping feces in the parking lot - to protest "unfair"
So it's hardly surprising that McDonalds has been among the few large
U.S. companies to reject biotech crops, specifically a potato (for their
fries) made to control insects and viruses without the use of chemical
pesticides. The potatoes are safe. Their "sin" is that they were developed
by a major multinational corporation and McDonald's is the archetype (pun
somewhat intended) of such corporations.
Apparently it felt itself in no position to hold the line, though
fortunately shareholders at other corporate giants such as Kellog's,
Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo voted to allow sense to prevail over scares.
The "Capitalism Kills" crowd has lost its Berlin Wall. But whether
running amok in the streets of London or Washington, or issuing misleading
press releases and phony "studies," the greens are keeping the movement
alive. Each time they win, the Free World loses.
# Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he
specializes in health and science issues.