‘Precautionary Principle’ advocates rarely call for applying this principle neutrally across the board — Notable & Quotable – WSJ.com

Law professor Jonathan Adler writing May 25 in the American:

It’s better to be safe than sorry. We all accept this as a commonsense maxim. But can it also guide public policy? Advocates of the precautionary principle think so, and argue that formalizing a more “precautionary” approach to public health and environmental protection will better safeguard human well-being and the world around us. If only it were that easy. . . .

[P]recautionary principle advocates rarely call for applying this principle neutrally across the board. Rather, they seek to burden private actors, most notably corporations, that propose altering the environmental landscape in some way or introducing a new product or technology into the stream of commerce. This creates a higher barrier to adopting and implementing new technologies, and justifies lengthy approval programs and restrictions on technological advance.

An obvious question: why is it safer or more “precautionary” to focus on the potential harms of new activities or technologies without reference to the activities or technologies they might displace? There is no a priori reason to assume that newer technologies or less-known risks are more dangerous than older technologies or familiar threats. In many cases, the exact opposite will be true. A new, targeted pesticide may pose fewer health and environmental risks than a pesticide developed ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.

via Notable & Quotable – WSJ.com.