Precaution vs Promethean: The philosophical dividing line that will define 21st century politics

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.

That belief has been shattered by humanity’s breaching of the ecological limits to growth, as witnessed first by the ozone hole and then by ongoing climate crisis. Yet – because of ideological inertia, and because of the very powerful interests that are literally invested in ‘growthism’ – it remains, in Gramsci’s terms, a ‘hegemonic’ belief. A philosophy dominating the airwaves, the academic world, etc.

The key political battle-line of the 21st century will be that between the forces of ‘growthism’, whether of Left or Right, and those who acknowledge the necessity for a ‘post-growth’ society. But even as that battle-line emerges into clarity it is becoming subsumed within a larger philosophical struggle: between those who want self-consciously to embrace the risks of continuing along a growthist path – and those who do not. Between, that is, those who think that humans are destined forever to seize endlessly more powers from the gods, to seek to become gods – and those who recognise the lesson of our hubris, in breaching the limits to growth, as being: that nemesis awaits, unless we start to exercise a more precautionary sensibility, one which seeks to deflate our reckless tendency to play god, and thus to reduce the risk that we will quite literally ruin ourselves and Earth.

For my own part, I am strongly on the precautionary side, in this new defining struggle, a struggle which will determine whether human civilisation makes it into the 22nd century at all. I’ve been working with Nassim Taleb and others (2014) on formulating a version of the Precautionary Principle (henceforth ‘PP’) that will demonstrate clearly the unwisdom of taking a permanently Promethean stance.

The (our) PP states that, where the stakes are high, a lack of full knowledge or of reliable models – a lack of certainty – should not be a barrier to legitimate precautionary action. We shouldn't, in other words, need (an illusory) certainty in order to justify protective action. We should seek to build down latent threats (to ourselves), rather than endless ramping them up – which is what ‘Prometheanism’ without restraint, reckless would-be endless ‘growth’, does.

Invoking precaution is thus (an alternative or) a complement to invoking evidence. Our contemporary politics, economics, risk-management, and medicine is fixated on evidence, over-attached to being ‘evidence-based’. Advocates takes this fixation to be… self-evident. Such dogmatism is dangerous. For: One can’t have ‘evidence’ of things that haven’t happened yet, nor to any meaningful degree of things that are very rare, or are dependent upon human decision (such as the entire social and political world). Moreover: Much of what the advocates of being ‘evidence-based’ call "evidence" isn’t even evidence when examined under rigorous statistical methods.

Thus, and as I’ve argued previously (Read 2008, 2012), there are limits – unsurpassable limits – on the knowability of our future.

We might think that as we come to know more, these limits will diminish. But this is not true. The PP is increasingly relevant, due to ever-more-complex man-made dependencies that propagate impacts of policies across the globe: this applies strongly to ‘globalised’ economic/financial systems and to ‘globalised’ ecosystems (e.g. the climate system).

Though, in case you are worried that this increasing relevance augurs an engrossed role for the PP, let me reassure you that the PP is essential for a limited set of contexts and can be used to justify only a limited set of actions. GMOs are one good example: they represent a public risk of global harm. Likewise, the PP should be used to proscribe various forms of financial behaviour that have a potentiality to unleash ‘black swans’: unpredictable, ruinous events.

In conclusion: It would be wrong to gamble, where our very future is at stake. And being ‘evidence-based’ can, ironically, amount to being just such a foolish and unethical gambler…

So: this is the precautionary side in the struggle now shaping up. The ‘Promethean’ side is ably represented by Steve Fuller, Mark Lynas, and mainstream economics.

Let the struggle continue…


Read, Rupert et al, 2008: There Is No Such thing As a Social Science
Read, Rupert, 2012: Wittgenstein Among the Sciences
Read, Rupert; Taleb, Nassim; Douady, Raphael; Norman, Joseph; Bar-Yam,Yaneer, 2014: “The precautionary principle”,