The precautionary principle refers to preventing harm by not doing anything that could have negative consequences.

It is best set out by using the proverb "better safe than sorry" or the medical motto, "first do no harm." The principle has strengths and weaknesses, and it is helpful to know the best way to use it and how we can apply it.

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The Precautionary Principle: Better Safe than Sorry?

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Even if we make the slightest change within a complex system, we risk far-reaching unintended consequences.

The Precautionary Principle reflects working with and within complex systems. It focuses on waiting for more complete information before risking the possibility of damage, especially if the possible impact would have a bigger negative impact. For example, invasive species can cause native species to become extinct, therefore extreme caution is advised.

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The Precautionary Principle prompts us to question our intuitions about the right decisions. The principle was first applied to regulations in Germany for preventing air pollution. It consists of two core components in German environmental law:

  • Preventing risks: Legislators shouldn't take action if knowledge of the potential environmental damage is incomplete or uncertain.
  • Protecting resources: The burden of proof rests on proving lack of harm, not on proving harm. Some countries use the principle to justify bans on genetically modified food.

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When dealing with risks, we need to be aware of what we don't or can't know for sure.

How to use the Principle:

  • Competing priorities should be combined with other decision-making principles. E.g. "Explore vs exploit" means focusing on existing options before trying alternatives.
  • The decision to take precautionary action should be based on current science, and plans should be in place for how to update that decision if the science changes.

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  • When the costs of waiting are low and the safety of something is uncertain.
  • When preserving optionality is a priority. Ensuring we don't restrict the available resources or leave messes we can't deal with.
  • When the potential costs of risks are greater than the cost of preventative action.
  • When alternatives are available.

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The Precautionary Principle is not applicable:

  • When the scale of a potential risk is too low for precautionary action to have a benefit.
  • When the tradeoffs are substantial and known. When we know that not taking action will cause more damage than taking it.
  • When the risks are known and priced in. That means people are aware of the risks and voluntarily decide it is worthwhile.
  • When only a zero-risk option would be satisfying. There is seldom a 100% safe option.
  • When taking risks could strengthen us. Never taking any risks is generally a worse idea than taking sensible ones.

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