freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even
critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when
restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities
according to available science, not popular perception. Account
for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of
opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to
the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high
expectation value. Protect people’s freedom to
experiment, innovate, and progress.
into the Principle, we arrive at these factors to take into account:
freedom to innovate technologically is valuable to humanity. The
burden of proof therefore belongs to those who propose
restrictive measures. All proposed measures should be closely
risk according to available science, not popular perception, and
allow for common reasoning biases.
precedence to ameliorating known and proven threats to human
health and environmental quality over acting against
technological risks on the same basis as natural risks; avoid
underweighting natural risks and overweighting
human-technological risks. Fully account for the benefits of
the lost opportunities of abandoning a technology, and take into
account the costs and risks of substituting other credible
options, carefully considering widely distributed effects and
restrictive measures only if the potential impact of an activity
has both significant probability and severity. In such cases, if
the activity also generates benefits, discount the impacts
according to the feasibility of adapting to the adverse effects.
If measures to limit technological advance do appear justified,
ensure that the extent of those measures is proportionate to the
extent of the probable effects.
choosing among measures to restrict technological innovation,
prioritize decision criteria as follows: Give priority to risks
to human and other intelligent life over risks to other species;
give non-lethal threats to human health priority over threats
limited to the environment (within reasonable limits); give
priority to immediate threats over distant threats; prefer the
measure with the highest expectation value by giving priority to
more certain over less certain threats, and to irreversible or
persistent impacts over transient impacts.
Alternative to the Precautionary Principle
Principle emerged out of a critical discussion of the widely used
“precautionary principle” during Extropy Institute’s Vital
Progress Summit I in 2004. The precautionary principle has been used
as a means of deciding whether to allow an activity (typically
involving corporate activity and technological innovation) that might
have undesirable side-effects on human health or the environment. In
practice, that principle is strongly biased against the
technological progress so vital to the continued survival and
well-being of humanity.
Understanding that we need to develop and deploy new technologies to
feed billions more people over the coming decades, to counter
natural threats from pathogens to environmental changes, and to
alleviate human suffering from disease, damage, and the ravages of
aging, those involved in the VP Summit recognized two things: The
importance of critically analyzing the precautionary principle, and
the formation of an alternative, more sophisticated principle that
incorporates more extensive and accurate assessment of options while
protecting our fundamental responsibility and liberty to experiment
The precautionary principle, while well-intended by many of its
proponents, inherently biases decision making institutions toward
the status quo, and reflects a reactive, excessively pessimistic
view of technological progress. By contrast, the Proactionary
Principle urges all parties to actively take into account all
the consequences of an activity—good as well as bad—while
apportioning precautionary measures to the real threats we face, in
the context of an appreciation of the crucial role played by
technological innovation and humanity’s evolving ability to adapt
to and remedy any undesirable side-effects.
While precaution itself implies using foresight to anticipate and
prepare for possible threats, the principle that has formed around
it threatens human well-being. The precautionary principle has
become enshrined in many international environmental treaties and
regulations, making it urgent to offer an alternative principle and
set of criteria. The need for the Proactionary Principle will become
clear if we understand the flaws of the precautionary principle.
principle appears to have originated with the German principle of Vorsorgeprinzip.
No single formulation of the principle has been universally adopted.
Variations exist between influential formulations, such as those
involved in the North-Sea conferences from 1984 to 1995, as well as
those expressed in the Rio Declaration of 1992 and the UN Framework
Climate Convention of 1992. All versions do have in common three
elements: The possibility of harm to humans or the environment,
resulting from a technology or activity; scientific uncertainty
regarding cause-effect relationships; and the justifiability of
taking precautionary measures.
According to the popular and relatively clear version found in The
Wingspread Declaration (1999), the precautionary principle states
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 established scientifically.
this context, the proponent of the activity, rather than the public,
should bear the burden of proof.”
should permit no new technology to be developed and no new
productive activity to take place unless we can scientifically prove
that no harm to health or environment will result.
Statements of the precautionary principle vary in several ways.
It’s worth making a basic distinction between a weaker and a
stronger formulation. The weaker form refers to threats of serious
or irreversible harm or damage. The stronger version (such as
both of the above statements) omits this condition and so claims
more than the weaker: it calls for precautionary measures even when
the possible harm is not a
serious or irreversible one.
Variants of the
precautionary principle differ in a second important way, depending
on whether they include a cost-effectiveness
clause. The Rio Declaration of 1992 incorporated such a clause:
there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full
scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing
We should also pay
attention to a third way in which formulations of the precautionary
principle vary. The particular phrasing of the clause concerning our
knowledge of the causal relationship between the alleged threat and
health or the environment, shift the burden of proof to different
degrees. If the claim is that that restrictive precautionary
measures are justified and required “if any possibility” of harm
exists, then restrictions of any kind will be much easier to
justify. A less drastic claim says that precautionary measures are
justified even if the cause-effect relationship has not been fully
versions of the precautionary principle are inadequate for their
purpose, and are systematically skewed against economic and
technological progress and development. It can easily be wielded to
prevent the introduction of all kinds of new technologies. A wide
range of international environmental treaties and regulations
already incorporate the principle and use it to restrict numerous
activities. Alar, a chemical for regulating growth in apples, was
withdrawn from distribution in 1989 following misinformed public
clamor regarding its alleged carcinogenicity. Dr. Elizabeth Whelan
has noted how the principle has been used to ban “a
health-enhancing chemical like chlorine” because of doubtful
“adverse effects on wildlife—or its effect in high dose
laboratory animal experiments.”
principle is a favorite tool of those who oppose medical
applications of biotechnology as well as any form of agricultural
biotechnology, especially genetically modified crops and livestock.
GM foods and medical biotech have enormous potential for meeting
global needs for improved health and adequate nutrition. The effects
of a widely applied precautionary principle would be disastrous
for countries that need to use pesticides or genetically modified
crops to feed their populations.
wrong with the Precautionary Principle?
principle has at least six major weak spots. It serves us badly by:
attention from established threats to health, especially natural
that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive
or neutral, never negative
potential benefits of technology and inherently favoring nature
shifting the burden of proof and unfavorably positioning the
proponent of the activity
with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.
precautionary principle always assumes worst-case scenarios. Any
release of chemicals into the environment might
initiate a chain of events leading to a disaster. Genetically
modified organisms might
cause unanticipated, serious, and irreversible problems. By
imagining the proposed technology or project primarily in a
worst-case scenario—while assuming that refraining
from action will have no disastrous consequences—the adherents of
the principle immediately tilt the playing field in their favor.
Second, the precautionary principle ignores background risk,
distracting our attention from established dangers to health. Nature
itself brings with it a risk of harms such as infection, hunger,
famine, and environmental disruption. We should apply our limited
resources first to major risks that we know
are real, not merely hypothetical. The more we attend to merely
hypothetical threats to health and environment, the less money,
time, and effort will remain to deal with substantial health
problems that are highly probable or thoroughly established. The
principle errs in focusing on future technological harms that might
occur, while ignoring natural risks that are actually
Third, adherents of the precautionary principle assume that proposed
regulations and restrictions will cause no harm to health. Yet the
very application of the principle itself can endanger our health.
Consider, for instance, the consistent correlation between the
health of a nation’s citizens and their standard of living.
Widespread application of the precautionary principle, by hampering
economic activity, will tend to reduce living standards and thereby
worsen health. In addition, major efforts to eliminate small,
speculative risks can unleash far greater and more likely harms.
precautionary principle fails to treat natural and human threats on
the same basis. Users of the principle routinely ignore the
potential benefits of technology, in effect favoring nature over
humanity. The principle does not account for the fact that the risks
created by technological stagnation are at least as real as those of
technological advancement. As biochemist Bruce Ames of UCLA has
demonstrated, almost all of our exposure to dangerous chemicals
comes in the form of natural
chemicals. Yet fear and attention are primarily directed toward synthetic
chemicals. A particular chemical has the same effects regardless of
whether its source is natural or synthetic. Despite this,
scientifically unsound activists treat human-derived chemicals as
guilty until proven innocent, and naturally occurring chemicals as
innocent or insignificant.
precautionary principle illegitimately shifts the burden of proof by
positioning advocates of proposed activities or new technologies as
reckless, in contrast with the “responsible” advocates of
“precaution”. The content—even the very name—of the
precautionary principle positions environmental activists and
Luddites as friends and protectors of the common person. The
innovators are made to prove safety, having already been portrayed
as indifferent to the common good and interested only in profiting.
illegitimately shifted the burden of proof, activists can impose
their values without troubling themselves with evidence and without
taking responsibility for the results of overly-precautious
policies. For example, the Environmental Working Group opposed the
use of pesticides, speculating about possible carcinogenic effects
of trace amounts of their residues. They do not seem to have taken
into account the probability that restricting pesticides would
increase cancer rates.
Activists get away
with the burden of proof trick by managing perceptions
of risk instead of examining the real risks. This move is
particularly dangerous because we have limited resources to address
a multitude of risks. We cannot afford to make decisions driven by
manipulated perceptions. It’s crucial that we rely on a
comprehensive, scientifically grounded perspective when choosing
which risks have the strongest claim on our attention.
finally, the precautionary principle conflicts with the more
balanced approach to risk and harm derived from common law. Common
law holds us liable for injuries we cause, our liability being
proportionate with the degree of foreseeable risk. By contrast, the
precautionary principle dismisses liability and acts like a
preliminary injunction—but without the involvement of a court,
without the burden of proof, and without taking responsibility for
harm caused by the injunction.
of the Proactionary Principle
precautionary principle had been widely applied in the past,
technological and cultural progress would have ground to a halt.
Human suffering would have persisted without relief, and life would
have remained poor, nasty, brutish, and short: No chlorination and
no pathogen-free water; no electricity generation or transmission;
no X-rays; no travel beyond the range of walking.
Most activities involving technology will have undesired effects as
well as desirable ones. Whereas the precautionary principle is often
used to take an absolutist stand against an activity, the
Proactionary Principle allows for handling mixed effects through
compensation and remediation instead of prohibition. The
Proactionary Principle recognizes that nature is not always kind,
that improving our world is both natural and essential for humanity,
and that stagnation is not a realistic or worthy option.
Principle stands for the proactive pursuit of progress. Being
proactive involves not only anticipating before
acting, but learning by
acting. When technological progress is halted, people lose an
essential freedom and the accompanying opportunities to learn
through diverse experiments. We already suffer from an undeveloped
capacity for rational decision making. Prohibiting technological
change will only stunt that capacity further. Continuing needs to
alleviate global human suffering and desires to achieve human
flourishing should make obvious the folly of stifling our freedom to
Let a thousand
flowers bloom! By all means, inspect the flowers for signs of
infestation and weed as necessary. But don’t cut off the hands of
those who spread the seeds of the future.