As human capability reaches the point where we think we can remould the fundamentals of nature itself, what's guiding us – and how can we avoid becoming the architects of our own extinction? Dr Rupert Read, Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, argues for the Precautionary Principle: an idea that some claim is limiting and anti-‘progressive’, while others consider it the only logical way to prevent global catastrophe.
The Precautionary Principle
This section contains a collection of primary and supplementary reading around the Precautionary Principle: a non-naive way to avoid paranoia and paralysis when discussing ecological policy. The Precautionary Principle is also on Facebook and Twitter.
A video explaining the Precautionary Principle.
We are moreover (and this is less widely understood) not predictable not only in practice but also in principle: i.e. this is not a limitation that can be overcome. For if the human future could be predicted, it would then be deliberately altered. Therefore it cannot be predicted. Human creativity and novelty and our ability to respond to predictions means that our actions cannot possibly by reliably modelled, even in principle.
In the twentieth century, ideological dispute focussed on the battle between Left and Right, Labour and Capital. That struggle is still very relevant. But it’s become clear that it’s only one part of a much bigger picture. For, over the past couple of generations it’s become clear that the leading forces on both sides of that struggle share much common ground: they are both signed up to ‘growthism’, the belief that endless ‘economic growth’ is possible and desirable.
A swathe of Ecologist articles have recently considered various different aspects of the case against GM crops.
The purpose of the current article is slightly different. It is to take a step back, and think through systematically the reasons why GM crops are (and will for the foreseeable future probably remain) wrong.
From the point of view that is increasingly, I believe, becoming understood as the ethical basis for such reasoning: that of the Precautionary Principle.
The Philippines Supreme Court recently made a worldwide landmark decision, from a jurisprudential point of view, invoking for the first time ever the precautionary principle as a decisive basis for acting against GM crops. This decision has come under fire from scientists in the Philippines and America for being ‘anti-science’, but it has also been strongly defended. The defence throws up an issue of interest for philosophers, as the case for the defence prominently invokes recent work on the precautionary principle.
Advocates of GM lean heavily on the claim that GM is ‘science’. But this is itself a highly dubious assumption. GM is essentially a technology. It is more like engineering than science. And of course this is actually tacitly acknowledged in the very concept / framing of ‘genetic engineering’.
We need to be less fixated on the evidence, where the human world is concerned, and more determined to take up a precautionary stance.
We present a non-naive version of the Precautionary (PP) that allows us to avoid paranoia and paralysis by confining precaution to specific domains and problems.