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19.3.05

More Precuation

Now for a somewhat more serious post about the Precautionary Principle. The PP is a bit slippery, because it comes in at least two forms. The first form, which I'll call the Negative PP, was stated in the 1992 Rio declaration and is often invoked in the context of climate change:

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.


The Negative PP is an attempt to even out the burden of proof. There is a major problem of countries and companies invoking what we might call the Inverse Positive PP, demanding proof of the harm their activities cause before they change their ways. However, for many environmental risks uncertainty is endemic. There will never be sufficient "proof," or else by the time we have such proof it will be too late to do anything about it. The Negative PP strikes down the delaying tactic of saying "we need more studies," requiring that we do our best to make decisions with the knowledge at hand while remaining open to what we learn from continued experience. The idea of Adaptive Management satisfies the Negative PP.

Yet many have taken the PP farther, creating what I call the Positive PP. The Positive PP places the burden of proof on those who propose an action -- prove it's safe before we let you do it. There is a time and a place for leaning toward the Positive PP. For example, the FDA properly takes an opt-in approach to approving new food additives and drugs, because proponents of these innovations have far more resources to meet that burden than do opponents, and because there is a reasonable suspicion that innovators have a vested interest in not being very concerned about their product's safety.

Yet too strict and too universal an application of the Positive PP has its own dangers. The Positive PP represents a desire to experience the known harms of inaction rather than the uncertain harms of action. It thus leans heavily on a philosophically wobbly act/omission distinction, as well as incorporating a presumption of a sustainable baseline social organization to which the benefit of the doubt can be given. Free market types will be quick to hypothesize plausible catastrophes that might result from any particular change that fundamentally threatens the structure of capitalism, yet most environmentalists advocating the PP would agree that capitalism as we know it is unsustainable. Which course of action, then, is "precautionary"?

Aaron Wildavsky draws a distinction between anticipation and resilience when dealing with risks. The Positive PP is an anticipatory strategy par excellance, demanding that we forsee and avert harm before it hits. Resilience embraces trial-and-error, hoping to carry a broad portfolio of resources so as to be able to weather and learn from catastrophes while picking up the benefits of gambles that pay off -- a worldview held by proponents of the Inverse Positive PP who demand proof of harm. Clearly neither strategy is superior across the board, which weighs in favor of the middle position occupied by the Negative PP. The Negative PP gives more room to explore potential gains from innovations while forcing us to take into account evidence of harm that falls short of a slam-dunk case.

It's interesting to note, given Wildavsky's involvement in the development of Cultural Theory, that anticipation is the preferred strategy of high "group" biases in the CT typology -- the hierarchists and egalitarians -- while the low "group" biases -- individualism and fatalism -- prefer resilience. In the case of the fatalists, anticipation is considered impossible because nature is basically random. Likewise egalitarians see resilience as impossible, because one false step will destroy us all -- there's no room for learning and recovering once a mistake is made. For individualists (like Wildavsky), resilience is preferred because of a presumption of internalization of harms. Individualists see failure as a person's own fault, and so they don't like precautionary busybodies telling them they're not allowed to consent to risks. On the other hand, the high "group" solidarity of the hierarchists leads them to be concerned about risky activities creating externalities. The PP focuses on risks, rather than the balance between risks and benefits, because of the presumption that the benefits will accrue mainly to the proponent of a new activity while the risks will hit innocent bystanders.

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