Saturday, November 05, 2011

Assessing Harm: Precautionary versus Proactionary Principles

"Stakeholders who do not subscribe to the precautionary principle will have difficulty agreeing to actions that presume a precautionary stance."
“There are two views that are diametrically opposed at the critical point of how one assesses harm, and until this is understood it is impossible to reach consensus. What level of risk is achievable and acceptable?”
extract from my Book:  Thompson, J. P. (2011). Certified: Feasibility of Audit-Based Certification to Prevent Invasive Plant Pests in the Nursery Industry. Washington: Northeast Midwest Institute. 112 pp  +xii
            From a philosophical perspective, stakeholders of scientific policy debates are divided between advocates of the “precautionary” principle on the one hand and the “proactionary principle” on the other. The precautionary stakeholders want action now because they believe that severe or irreversible harm to the public interest will result from the lack of regulatory action in the absence of a scientific consensus. The burden of proof in this case would fall upon those who would advocate taking the action. The “proactionary” parties are guided by their belief system, and are opposed to early action “when restrictive measures are proposed.” Risks and opportunities should be assessed “according to available science, not popular perception.”[1]      
            Supported by the precautionary principle, conservation advocates promote changes in horticultural business models to reduce or eliminate the risk of invasive species. A core tenant of this principle states that “exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the environment.”[2] Belief in the precautionary principle compels action because of the evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new ideas and thinking for conducting human activities are necessary. Realizing that human activities may involve hazards, proponents of the precautionary principle think that society “must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. It follows then that corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors.”[3]
            Proponents of the precautionary principle are motivated “[w]hen an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. This necessarily involves an examination of the full range of alternatives, including the ’no action’ alternative.”[4] Not all stakeholders that have an interest in plant pest issues share this philosophy. As a result of the lack of consensus on the need to act, the door is opened for misunderstanding, argument, opposition, and inaction. R.B. Stewart’s reduction of the precautionary principles provides a useful summary: [5]
·   Scientific uncertainty should not automatically preclude regulation of activities that pose a potential risk of significant harm (Non-Preclusion PP).
·   Regulatory controls should incorporate a margin of safety; activities should be limited below the level at which no adverse effect has been observed or predicted (Margin of Safety PP).
·   Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be subject to best technology available requirements to minimize the risk of harm unless the proponent of the activity shows that they present no appreciable risk of harm (BAT PP).
·   Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be prohibited unless the proponent of the activity shows that it presents no appreciable risk of harm (Prohibitory PP).
            In contrast to the precautionary principle, the proactionary principle is based on the idea that consequences of actions in complex systems are often unpredictable and irreversible. The principle, which is based upon the philosopher Max More’s writings, states that a “(p)eople’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed:[6]
·   “Assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception.
·   “Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone.
·   “Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation value.
·   “Protect people’s freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.”
            The two competing principles produce a general dichotomy between industry and natural area constituencies: industry asks the basic risk-assessment question -- "How much harm is allowable?” whereas natural and sustainable resource stakeholders ask -- "How little harm is possible?" The foundation for basic disagreement is laid at the beginning before any discussion of a species takes place. The nature of the two principles is incongruent. The precautionary principle’s preventive anticipation, willingness to take action in the absence of conclusive scientific proof, sense of urgency, and emphasis on generational equity engenders a visceral reaction from some stakeholders. This reaction can obscure areas of possible agreement such the “…proportionality of response or cost-effectiveness of margins of error to show that the selected degree of restraint is not unduly costly.” [7]
 Copyright: ©John Peter Thompson. Reproduction of this publication for educational or other non-commercial purposes is authorized without prior written permission from the copyright holder provided the source is fully acknowledged. Reproduction of this publication for resale or other commercial purposes is
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[1]     More, Max. 2004. The Proactionary Principle, Version 1.0: Draft for public comment. Extropy Institute. [Online] Extropy Institute’s Vital Progress Summit I, 2004. Retrieved February 7, 2011 from
[2]     Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle. (1998). Retrieved 2009, from Science and Environmental Health Network:
[3]     Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle (1998). Retrieved 2009, from Science and Environmental Health Network:
[4]     Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle (1998). Retrieved 2009, from Science and Environmental Health Network:
[5]     Stewart, R. B. (2002). Environmental Regulatory Decision Making Under Uncertainty. Research in Law and Economics Vol. 20, pp.76. [Online] 2002.
[6]     More, Max (2004). The Proactionary Principle, Version 1.0: Draft for public comment. Extropy Institute. [Online] Extropy Institute’s Vital Progress Summit I, 2004. Retrieved February 7, 2011 from Extropian is defined as an evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition
[7]     Six Basic Concepts of Precautionary Principles. (2008). Retrieved 2009, from The Global Development Research Center:


Cindy said...

Hi John..You succinctly clarify the opposing positions. I realize this is only an exerpt & do not know the entire context. It is admirable to try to reconcile these competing viewpoints..but those "visceral" reactions are hard to overcome. It reminds me of the Super Committee deliberations & I despair that ever the twain shall meet. I shall be interested to see how you propose to resolve this dilemma...I sm afraid there will be no resolution until survival much more clearly depends upon it. By then it may be too late.

pfh said...

John, I think the two "sides" you describe are both somewhat shaped by our natural ignorance of the issues. We both have great difficulty knowing what is happening and how to change it when the subject is our interactions with complex environmental systems.

The main reason seems to be that humans generally define their environment as being in their heads, as a social construct of a physical world. That means we substitute our own stereotypes for nature’s and the economy’s largely unknown physical systems. That the debates are then about social constructs for environmental systems we have hardly any ability to study at all…, is a real problem. I think that’s what generally makes the debate pointlessly rhetorical in character, a battle of "..isms" rather than discussions of our world. That also somewhat dangerously applies to the disconnected rhetorical thinking of both the “good guys” and the “bad guys”, is what I’m finding.

I made a now well confirmed radical discovery that seems to prove the point. That's that (nominally) 80% of the energy purchased for providing business operating services is naturally untraceable, because of how nature hides the information from us. You can demonstrate the information is missing, but no amount of effort would let you significantly reconstruct it. So… because the ISO 14000 standards rely entirely on traceable information to assess environmental impacts, it seems that (nominally)overlook 80% of all business environmental impacts of energy use cannot be directly attributed, so they’re being ignored. The systems science indicates that they are and will remain "invisible".

My paper on the subject takes the obvious shortcut, beginning impact assessments counting them as "average" for lack of information rather than counting them as "0" for lack of information. That has the effect of raising the measured impacts of business decisions by (nominally) 500%!

John Peter Thompson said...

pfh wrote an intriguing reply but the link to his paper does not work today - hoping to read and reply when the site is back up