…because some thoughts are worth remembering
It seems natural to not want to introduce objects or procedures into our lives that might cause us harm. To go step beyond and state that we should not allow things into our lives until they are proven harmless is referred to as precautionary principle.
It can be problematic when applied unilaterally because it doesn’t take into account that this alternative, even though its harmlessness is not completely proven, may be a better solution than the present situation. We often fail to recognize the risks we continue to take with the status quo, as in the case of driving cars: self-driving cars may not be 100% accident proof (especially when it has to navigate human-driven cars) but it may cause less accidents compared to human-driven cars.
We also set a higher standard for introducing a new solution, as in the case of wind turbines. People are concerned about the turbines’ effect on birds’ flight paths, as they should be. Feral cats kill more birds, but fewer protest against feral cats. Wind turbines can also reduce peak loads on our existing electricity infrastructure known to pollute the air, and therefore, the birds’ environment.
Where precautionary principle may be useful is in approaching introduction of chemicals we ingest or come to contact with, such as preservatives, artificial flavoring, insecticides, and cleaning agents. In the US, more so than the EU, we wait for some market data to come out (e.g., people experiencing digestive problems eating foods with specific chemicals) or law suits before they are taken off the shelf. It’s a slow process and thousands must suffer before appropriate actions are taken (if at all). Causality is often difficult to prove.
In these cases, I prefer the EU’s approach where if new compounds are to be introduced in objects we consume or procedures that expose us to them, their relative harmlessness must be first demonstrated.
Photo: Flatonia, Texas