A PRINCIPLE worth standing up for

The precautionary principle remains the greatest safeguard against reckless decision making that ignores risks to humanity, but we will need to fight for it in a post-Brexit world.

By Rupert Read and Samuel Webb, previously published in the ENDS report

These are hard times for those wanting to believe in Aristotle’s definition of humankind as the “rational animal”. The western world appears to be lurching backward into unveiled greed and denial in regards to the reality of our global ecology.

A more-than-symbolic example is US president Donald Trump’s brash move to redact climate research from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website. This is an audacious attempt to censor and alter the facts of climate change to suit his administration, which is chock-full of fossil fuel interests.

Unfortunately Trump’s perspective on environmental policies risks resonating in the UK. With climate deniers also present at the highest levels of government, and that government’s dismal record on all matters green, Britain’s position on combatting climate change is tenuous at best. Uncertainties over which policies are to be culled with the coming ‘Great Repeal Bill’ should raise cause for concern.

Times like these need entrenched defences for ecosystems. A key such defence is the ‘precautionary principle’. This offers a decisive, sceptic-proof argument in favour of climate and genetic protection.

The principle is reasonably well entrenched in the EU. But, so far as Britain is concerned, for how much longer will we be subject to the defence? Caroline Lucas recently asked a parliamentary question on what effect Brexit will have on the principle. The answer was that it will be absorbed into UK law as part of the Great Repeal Bill process. But this does little to reassure because it could be struck out by a simple parliamentary majority at any time afterwards.

The principle is currently subject to systematic propagandistic assault at the hands of a reckless, growth-at-any-cost ‘innovation principle’. Apologists for short-termist commercial interests do not want any significant regulation interfering with the money they want to make from biotech and the like. The case of GMOs demonstrates why adopting the innovation principle would be utterly reckless.

The alleged evidence that GM crops are safe is statistically insignificant when considered against the backdrop of the kind of timescale against which evidence should properly be judged: an ecological and evolutionary timescale – thousands of years.

Across such a long period, our exposure to as yet unseen, disastrous events becomes a very serious consideration. Where severe tail risks accompany new technologies, precaution thus enjoins us not to take those risks; risks of ruin should be considered far weightier than benefits, because the potential benefits of a technology simply cannot outweigh the potential for a truly disastrous outcome, even if the chances of that outcome are relatively small.

Unlike the innovation principle, which misses the point that growth-for-its-own- sake is surely an irrational aim in a ‘developed’ society such as ours, the precautionary principle remains the greatest safeguard against reckless decision making.

But there is a real danger that unless people stand up for the principle, we will lose it if we leave the EU; pro-GM interests are already actively gunning for it. And our view is that ending precaution and ushering in recklessness with regard to commercial ‘innovation’ could lead to a much bigger exit – humanity exiting the gene pool.

Without the principle to proactively protect us against climate catastrophe or bio- and eco-disasters, that final exit becomes a real prospect. To echo Churchill, who addressed a parallel question in the wilderness years: this is not “alarmism” it is rather a much-needed raising of the alarm.

Rupert Read (pictured) is reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia and chair of thinktank Green House. Samuel Webb is an undergraduate student and research assistant on UEA’s precautionary principle project