The Precautionary Principle: Better Safe than Sorry?

Also known as the Precautionary Approach or Precautionary Action, the Precautionary Principle is a concept best summed up by the proverb “better safe than sorry” or the medical maxim to “first do no harm.”

While there is no single definition, it typically refers to acting to prevent harm by not doing anything that could have negative consequences, even if the possibility of those consequences is uncertain.

In this article, we will explore how the Precautionary Principle works, its strengths and drawbacks, the best way to use it, and how we can apply it in our own lives.

Guilty until proven innocent

Whenever we make even the smallest change within a complex system, we risk dramatic unintended consequences.

The interconnections and dependencies within systems make it almost impossible to predict outcomes—and seeing as they often require a reasonably precise set of conditions to function, our interventions can wreak havoc.

The Precautionary Principle reflects the reality of working with and within complex systems. It shifts the burden of proof from proving something was dangerous after the fact to proving it is safe before taking chances. It emphasizes waiting for more complete information before risking causing damage, especially if some of the possible impacts would be irreversible, hard to contain, or would affect people who didn’t choose to be involved.

The possibility of harm does not need to be specific to that particular circumstance; sometimes we can judge a category of actions as one that always requires precaution because we know it has a high risk of unintended consequences.

For example, invasive species (plants or animals that cause harm after being introduced into a new environment by humans) have repeatedly caused native species to become extinct. So it’s reasonable to exercise precaution and not introduce living things into new places without strong evidence it will be harmless.

Preventing risks and protecting resources

Best known for its use as a regulatory guideline in environmental law and public health, the Precautionary Principle originated with the German term “Vorsorgeprinzip” applied to regulations for preventing air pollution. Konrad Von Moltke, director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy, later translated it into English.

Seeing as the natural world is a highly complex system we have repeatedly disrupted in serious, permanent ways, the Precautionary Principle has become a guiding part of environmental policy in many countries.

For example, the Umweltbundesamt (German Environmental Protection Agency) explains that the Precautionary Principle has two core components in German environmental law today: preventing risks and protecting resources.

Preventing risks means legislators shouldn’t take actions where our knowledge of the potential for environmental damage is incomplete or uncertain but there is cause for concern. The burden of proof is on proving lack of harm, not on proving harm. Protecting resources means preserving things like water and soil in a form future generations can use.

To give another example, some countries evoke versions of the Precautionary Principle to justify bans on genetically modified foods—in some cases for good, in others until evidence of their safety is considered stronger. It is left to legislators to interpret and apply the Precautionary Principle within specific situations.

The flexibility of the Precautionary Principle is both a source of strength and a source of weakness. We live in a fast-moving world where regulation does not always keep up with innovation, meaning guidelines (as opposed to rules) can often prove useful.

Another reason the Precautionary Principle can be a practical addition to legislation is that science doesn’t necessarily move fast enough to protect us from potential risks, especially ones that shift harm elsewhere or take a long time to show up. For example, thousands of human-made substances are present in the food we eat, ranging from medications given to livestock to materials used in packaging. Proving that a new additive has health risks once it’s in the food supply could take decades because it’s incredibly difficult to isolate causative factors. So some regulators, including the Food and Drug Administration in America, require manufacturers to prove something is safe before it goes to market. This approach isn’t perfect, but it’s far safer than waiting to discover harm after we start eating something.

The Precautionary Principle forces us to ask a lot of difficult questions about the nature of risk, uncertainty, probability, the role of government, and ethics. It can also prompt us to question our intuitions surrounding the right decisions to make in certain situations.

When and how to use the Precautionary Principle

When handling risks, it is important to be aware of what we don’t or can’t know for sure. The Precautionary Principle is not intended to be a stifling justification for banning things—it’s a tool for handling particular kinds of uncertainty. Heuristics can guide us in making important decisions, but we still need to be flexible and treat each case as unique.

So how should we use the Precautionary Principle? Sven Ove Hansson suggests two requirements in How Extreme Is the Precautionary Principle? First, if there are competing priorities (beyond avoidance of harm), it should be combined with other decision-making principles. For example, the idea of “explore versus exploit” teaches us that we need to balance doubling down on existing options with trying out new ones. Second, the decision to take precautionary action should be based on the most up-to-date science, and there should be plans in place for how to update that decision if the science changes. That includes planning how often to revaluate the evidence and how to assess its quality.

When is it a good idea to use the Precautionary Principle? There are a few types of situations where it’s better to be safe rather than sorry if things are uncertain.

When the costs of waiting are low. As we’ve already seen, the Precautionary Principle is intended as a tool for handling uncertainty, rather than a justification for arbitrary bans. This means that if the safety of something is uncertain but the costs of waiting to learn more are low, it’s a good idea to use precaution.

When preserving optionality is a priority. The Precautionary Principle is most often evoked for potential risks that would cause irreversible, far-reaching, uncontainable harm. Seeing as we don’t know what the future holds, keeping our options open by avoiding limiting choices gives us the most flexibility later on. The Precautionary Principle preserves optionality by ensuring we don’t restrict the resources we have available further down the line or leave messes for our future selves to clean up.

When the potential costs of a risk are far greater than the cost of preventative action. If a potential risk would be devastating or even ruinous, and it’s possible to protect against it, precautionary action is key. Sometimes winning is just staying in the game—and sometimes staying in the game boils down to not letting anything wipe you out.

For example, in 1963 the Swiss government pledged to provide bunker spaces to all citizens in the event of a nuclear attack or disaster. The country still maintains a national system of thousands of warning sirens and distributes potassium iodide tablets (used to reduce the effects of radiation) to people living near nuclear plants in case of an accident. Given the potential effects of an incident on Switzerland (regardless of how likely it is), these precautionary actions are considered worthwhile.

When alternatives are available. If there are alternative courses of action we know to be safe, it’s a good idea to wait for more information before adopting a new risky one.

When not to use the Precautionary Principle

As the third criteria for using the Precautionary Principle usefully, Sven Ove Hansson recommends it not be used when the likelihood or scale of a potential risk is too low for precautionary action to have any benefit. For example, if one person per year dies from an allergic reaction to a guinea pig bite, it’s probably not worth banning pet guinea pigs. We can add a few more examples of situations where it’s generally not a good idea to use the Precautionary Principle.

When the tradeoffs are substantial and known. The whole point of the Precautionary Principle is to avoid harm. If we know for sure that not taking an action will cause more damage than taking it possibly could, it’s not a good idea to use precaution.

For example, following a 2011 accident at Fukushima, Japan shut down all nuclear power plants. Seeing as nuclear power is cheaper than fossil fuels, this resulted in a sharp increase in electricity prices in parts of the country. According to the authors of the paper Be Cautious with the Precautionary Principle, the resulting increase in mortality from people being unable to spend as much on heating was higher than the fatalities from the actual accident.

When the risks are known and priced in. We all have different levels of risk appetite and we make judgments about whether certain activities are worth the risks involved. When a risk is priced in, that means people are aware of it and voluntarily decide it is worthwhile—or even desirable.

For example, riskier investments tend to have higher potential returns. Although they might not make sense for someone who doesn’t want to risk losing any money, they do make sense for those who consider the potential gains worth the potential losses.

When only a zero-risk option would be satisfying. It’s impossible to completely avoid risks, so it doesn’t make much sense to exercise precaution with the expectation that a 100% safe option will appear.

When taking risks could strengthen us. As individuals, we can sometimes be overly risk averse and too cautious—to the point where it makes us fragile. Our ancestors had the best chance of surviving if they overreacted, rather than underreacted, to risks. But for many of us today, the biggest risk we face can be the stress caused by worrying too much about improbable dangers. We can end up fearing the kinds of risks, like social rejection, that are unavoidable and that tend to make us stronger if we embrace them as inevitable. Never taking any risks is generally a far worse idea than taking sensible ones.

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We all face decisions every day that involve balancing risk. The Precautionary Principle is a tool that helps us determine when a particular choice is worth taking a gamble on, or when we need to sit tight and collect more information.