An imperfect world & the Precautionary Principle

Written by scientific-alliance.org

Despite the dizzying rate of progress in the modern world – fuelled by human ingenuity – it often seems that people would prefer to see no change. Not only that, but we have a seemingly inbuilt perception that certain things – our local environment, the weather etc – should conform to an established pattern we are familiar with and that any change is automatically for the worse.

The language of discourse on environmental matters reflects this; any change to the environment is normally presented in terms of damage and any potential influence is assessed by its level of possible hazard, usually with no consideration of the benefits that could accrue. This, of course, is encapsulated in the precautionary principle, used more often as a barrier to innovation rather than to provide an objective framework for decision making.

This probably has a lot to do with the present state of industrialised societies, in which most of us are lucky enough to live much safer, healthier, more secure and more prosperous lives than previous generations. Nevertheless, because the existential threats of epidemics of infectious diseases or armed conflict have (mainly) receded so far, other concerns move higher up our hierarchy of needs: the availability of a good Wi-Fi signal or the need to avoid all potential offence to minority groups, for example.

Being cautious is in itself a sensible approach to life. The chances are that, if we leap into action without thought, we will live to regret it. But thinking things through first shouldn’t and doesn’t stop us doing things that carry some risk. Instead, we make sure we understand the risks and how to cope with them, and then go ahead.

Few common activities are more fraught with potential risks than driving, and yet it is something many of us do on a daily basis. Travelling in a heavy metal box, particularly at motorway speeds, is hazardous in the proper sense of the word; there are lots of ways we and others could be seriously hurt unless the risks are understood and properly managed. For a start, we apply controls such as traffic lights and give-way signs and apply rules determining which part of the road we drive on and at what speed.

Today’s cars are also equipped with numerous components that make them safer, or example tyres that provide an astonishing amount of grip on the road, considering that only four small areas are in contact with the surface at any one time. Modern brakes are also highly effective and, increasingly, can be applied automatically by cars when sensors detect a potential collision. And when the road is slippery, the now ubiquitous anti-lock braking system keeps cars travelling safely in a straight line rather than skidding into the path of others.

There are plenty of other safety systems we take for granted, including seat belts and air bags. But despite this, over 1700 people die each year on British roads, and more than 22,000 are seriously injured. The likely transition to self-driving vehicles will probably reduce these figures considerably, but cannot be expected to eliminate all injury. If we were to apply the precautionary principle in the same way as for genetically modified crops, for example, there would surely be moves to ban motor vehicles. The reason we don’t is that the benefits from using them are so great. Modern society could not function without cars, so we make their use as safe as we can and accept that the enormous benefits come at a substantial human cost.

In the case of cars, engineers have developed increasingly sophisticated ways to protect people, because there is no credible way that we will give up driving in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, caution about food safety is a somewhat different story. Food poisoning is at best unpleasant and at worst fatal, so is best avoided. Hence the introduction of ‘use by’ dates on perishable food such as meat and ‘best before’ dates on almost all other packaged food.

The problem is that, although these two categories are very different in intent, people increasingly see any out of date product as having ‘gone off’ and dispose of it without thought. Various studies have shown that considerable quantities of milk, cheese and salad are wasted unnecessarily, as well as even bottle of sauces and condiments or jars of jam. People may still get food poisoning from other sources and in the meantime are wasting food unnecessarily by failing to look at it or smell it before consigning it to the bin.

These examples affect us all directly, but most environmental issues we view only from a distance. In this case, it may be easy to see a potential risk when it is pointed out, without realising the more diffuse benefit that may accrue. Pesticides and genetically modified crops are cases in point; a poor understanding of the realities of risk makes us susceptible to scare stories, while the fact that farming is made easier and food prices kept down is less apparent. Hence the lack of protests in the street when, for example, neonicotinoids are banned because of a dubious link to reductions in the number of honey bees.

The point is that nothing in life is entirely without risk, but plenty of risky things have great benefits. Risks and benefits need to be weighed up before decisions are taken, whereas policies are increasingly based on an avoidance of any harm, real or perceived. It can be difficult to take a truly objective look at issues, but it can pay dividends and reveal a more nuanced picture that helps good decision making.

A completely different issue serves to illustrate this. In the UK, bats are protected species. Currently, it is an offence to disturb them, let alone try to drive them away and yet the fabric of many old churches is being badly damaged by their droppings. In this case, perhaps there are alternative roosting sites that could be built to save both the bats and the churches. There would be costs, and maybe not all the bats would survive, but to avoid all harm to a particular species without thought for the negative consequences makes no sense.

So, perhaps it is time for a wakeup call to environmental policymakers. No longer should the precautionary principle be invoked to ride roughshod over common sense. Anyone who is in favour of using the scientific method and hard evidence to support their case should be prepared to do a wide-ranging benefit-cost analysis on proposals. In an imperfect world, we should be striving for the best solutions, not those that just meet the agenda of a particular lobby.

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