A reader’s response to my last opinion piece raised the paradox of taking action motivated by The Precautionary Principle, or, in other words, taking action because we see the risks posed by inaction. The paradox that he correctly points out is that we can rarely foresee the new set of risks posed by the actions we take.
In 1998, a group of scientists, lawyers, policy makers and environmentalists agreed upon the following definition (known as the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle):
“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
Many years before the Precautionary Principle achieved legal status and long before the link between smoking and disease was scientifically and conclusively proven, many people, especially among the medical community, had strong suspicions that smoking increased the risk of developing lung cancer and heart disease. As evidence mounted, there were those who chose to stop smoking, exercising caution in the face of scientific uncertainty. Governments that subsidized medical care started passing regulations about smoking to control their costs. Others chose to continue smoking in the absence of concrete proof that it was harmful to their health or that second-hand smoke was harmful to others. There remains, however, a third category: those who continue to smoke in full cognizance of the proven risks.
A current example of the Precautionary Principle in action is the debate swirling around genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There are those who are deeply concerned that GMOs may have a harmful effect on human health and there are others for whom the benefits greatly outweigh any potential, hitherto unproven, risk. In Bangladesh, food security depends entirely upon rice production, and no other country in South Asia is at higher risk from sea-level rise and an increasing number of cyclonic surges that cause saltwater encroachment on agricultural lands. Bangladeshi farmers, like the majority around the world, are subsistence farmers. The development of a salt-tolerant rice varietal means the difference between nothing and something, food and starvation, miking a living and living in poverty.
Restated in my own simple terms, the Precautionary Principle is all about trying to constrain or stop the action or behavior of others if they can’t prove to you that the action or behavior is harmless now and into the future. The scientists among you know only too well the burden of proving a negative. The analysts among you will understand the difficulty of making any change without incurring risk. Now we are entering the paradox.