For all the flurry surrounding precaution—being portrayed as a decisional/procedural instrument to protect human and environmental health from the (potential) dangers of human activities—the history shows that we are dealing with something else entirely.
To clarify precaution a bit further first, it cannot be put on par with prevention. The latter usually means avoiding damage rather than remedying it after the damaging event. The damage to be avoided is clearly defined as resulting from a specific process or product in a causal chain of events: cutting one’s finger in a food processor; food poisoning as a result of consuming food-borne pathogens, and so forth. Thus, prevention entails putting in place measures to ensure, up to a certain degree, that an already identified danger cannot materialise, or to reduce its likelihood. When the Allies liberated Europe, the local population was often warned not to enter meadows, woods, or go along the verge of the roads, because of possible enemy mines. The warning written on many a message board in Europe in those days tells a bitter story: ‘If you pass this point, you’ve had it’.
Precaution on the other hand means an action taken in advance to protect against possible danger, failure, or injury. Precaution essentially takes prevention a critical step further, by deciding not to postpone physical, legal or political intervention to prevent potential damage merely on the grounds that scientific evidence of a potential causal hazard chain is limited or even absent. Thus, taking precautionary measures means that regulation of some sort will be introduced at an earlier stage, or that more stringent regulation will be introduced, or that an existing regulation will be applied to ban a product or process even before it is certain that a potential danger will, or indeed can, materialise. So, ‘never try anything for the first time’ might be a tongue-in-cheek translation of precaution, although, we shall see that at least in Europe this understanding might still be a good understanding thereof.
Historically speaking, precautionary thinking—more of a culture, really—should perhaps mainly be seen as a reaction: it is a response to the self-confidence mainstream society had in the ‘progress’ of post-war civilisation. It is an antithesis, which materialised when especially Western civilisation was stirred by stories and facts about pollution and the degradation of nature and part of the Western societal elite—convened especially in the Club of Rome—was disquieted by the reality of the sovereign Nation State which—in their view—was powerless to deal with the big world problems. From a historical perspective, the precautionary principle is part and parcel of a green romantic.
Green thinking combines pessimism about human nature with a misanthropic view on human society inflicting great harm on nature, and the competence of people to choose the ‘right’ government. This overt double pessimistic perspective on humans and human society contrasts with the fact that this perspective spawned numerous optimistically inclined non-governmental institutions by which a ‘green society’ was to be accomplished. Confidence about human possibilities to reshape society, albeit in a radically different political context, came forth from the prevailing notion of Utopian social engineering.
The mind-set of green thinking is never better portrayed than in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf the Grey, one of the key characters in the novel, spells out Tolkien’s vision of a ‘green’ pastoral society in the following passage, which is a peculiar mix of sustainability as outlined by the World Commission on Environment and Development and the precautionary principle: ‘…Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till…’
The industrial progress witnessed and abhorred by Tolkien he countered with an image of a pastoral idyll of the Shire, the land of the Hobbits. With this representation of the Shire with its small scale technology like blacksmiths, wind- and watermills (entirely in line with the ideals of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful), Tolkien clearly referred to a past he constructed to his liking, in which he ignored the harsh historic reality of feudal repression, selfish farmers, pestilence, famine and extreme poverty of the rural community in large areas of the countryside of pre-industrial Europe. The opposite of this moral spectrum is to be found in Mordor, the land of the malevolent Lord Sauron who uses science and technology for its own purposes, destroying nature in the process. Mordor, naturally, is the mirror image of the Western society. So is the evil magician Saruman, who’s technology refers to the ‘Dark satanic mills’ of the romantic and mystic writer William Blake (1757–1827).
The paradox that (possibly) eluded Tolkien was that his pastoral idyll of the Shire was born out from the very industrialisation process he detested, leaving the countryside devoid of the massive small-scale rural industrial activities with their unhealthy working conditions and extremely long working hours of past centuries. A countryside, which was promptly filled with people rich enough to create a landscape teeming with the pastoral pleasantries Tolkien so much favoured and idealised in his work. (That Tolkien, whom I admire, was on track on a deeper level I will revisit later.)
So it seems that aficionados of precaution carry with them a nostalgic streak of days past, fostering a ‘Tolkienian’ paradox, when everything was small-scale, pre-industrial and safe, being unaware of the fact that this nostalgia feeds off the relative safety we now can enjoy because of science and technology. To illustrate this paradox Tolkien unwittingly made famous, the oddball study Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the Precautionary Principle 1896-2000 (Late Lessons) from the European Environment Agency states about new technology that ‘their very novelty might be taken as a warning sign’. It thus seems that the EU is a nostalgic institution, and unfortunately enough official EU-material can be mustered to make that case.
Understanding the history of precautionary culture might still not detract from the hypothetical validity of the logic of precaution. This will be our next subject.
Bramwell, A. 1989. Ecology in the 20th Century. A History. Yale University Press, New Haven, London.
Veldman, M. 1994. Fantasy, the Bomb and the Greening of Britain. Romantic Protest, 1945–1980. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Hanekamp, J.C., Verstegen, S.W., Vera-Navas, G. 2005. The historical roots of precautionary thinking: The cultural ecological critique and ‘The Limits to Growth’. Journal of Risk Research 8(4): 295–310.
Dr. Jaap C. Hanekamp is a chemist at the Roosevelt Academy, Netherlands.