The Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle in Compression Thinking

The Precautionary Principle is that any party, before taking action, is obligated to demonstrate to the extent possible that it will do no harm to either humans or the natural environment. A well-known current example is the case of 5G digital network deployment. Substantial investment is required, so naturally investors and promoters want 5G booster stations installed everywhere as fast as possible. On the other hand, large numbers of medical professionals and scientists have evidence that constant exposure to 5G radiation will harm the health of humans, wildlife, and who knows, perhaps even plants. Uncertainty abounds.

The Precautionary Principle cautions to delay widespread 5G rollout until health and ecological uncertainties are cleared up. Rollout is going fast in South Korea (they’re ahead of us!). Any severe radiation effects should show up in South Korea soon. Whatever happens, we should thank the Koreans for being guinea pigs.

But suppose adverse effects do not show up quickly, but build up over decades, thirty or more years elapsing before they become undeniable. The worst-case scenario is calamity years after the deed is done and damage irreversible. Exactly that situation has created many environmental messes, climate change being a big one.

By Compression Thinking, exercising the Precautionary Principle is an ethical obligation, incumbent upon all of us both as individuals and as organizations. However, that is not its history. The Precautionary Principle is usually explained more as a legal bias: whether the burden of proof of damage lies with plaintiff or defendant; regulator or regulated. Legal rulings tilt against whoever carries the burden of proof.

For example, Wikipedia’s history of the Precautionary Principle is written in legalese lite, and it ends by philosophizing whether strictly interpreting the Principle would freeze all decision making because zero risk is impossible. Less strictly interpreted, using the Principle has tied up decision-making in analysis paralysis. 

Having been involved in some of these wrangles, that’s what happens when the Precautionary Principle is interpreted legally. A project stays on hold for years while warring parties exhaust their legal challenges – one at a time – on a lengthy legal battleground. The assumption is that technical and economic progress is necessary, while environmental damage is only something to minimize when furthering growth objectives.

Rarely is there a full stakeholder dialog to assess the situation and work out how to concurrently examine expected outcomes for both humans and nature. Do that and a huge backlog of legal motions disappear – and major decisions are apt to take much less time for better outcomes to all parties, including nature.

Turn that assumption of inevitable growth and progress upside down. Suppose living in balance with nature is top priority, with economic “progress” being secondary. The Precautionary Principle suddenly becomes an ethical duty. Any economic development that diminishes our balance with nature will not be undertaken. That does not end of innovation and economic development. However, development must be high quality, quality in the sense that it does not encroach on nature any more than necessary for humans to have quality lives.

Obviously, observing the Precautionary Principle in this way is a huge change in human values. But changing how we think is what Compression Thinking is all about.