One September morning, the Lord Mayor of London was called to inspect a fire that had recently started in the City. Believing that it posed little threat, he refused to permit the demolition of nearby houses, probably due to the expense of compensating the owners. The fire spread and ultimately destroyed most of the city. The Great Fire of London had begun. Only when the fire became too extensive to be readily halted did the full extent of the danger become evident.
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.
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.
This article was first published in UEA.
A video explaining the Precautionary Principle.
Samuel Webb | Research Assistant, The University of East Anglia (Producer) Maren Albrigtsen | Production Assistant (Voice Artist)
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.
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.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, standard economic models assumed that people would act in a rational and predictable manner. These models are flawed, of course, for if modern psychology has taught us anything it is that we are massively complex beings who are ultimately in important respects not predictable, often not rational, and certainly often rational in ways that are judged irrational by ‘experts’. 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.
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.