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The limitations of the precautionary principle

Dominic Lawson draws out some perceptive conclusions about the recent volcanic ash problem for the airline industry:

Underlying all this, however, is something quite new, which, like the phrase “zero tolerance”, is from across the Atlantic. This is the idea that there is no such thing as an accident — a concept that is heaven on earth for litigators. On the basis of the so-called precautionary principle (which, if it had existed in prehistoric times, would have been bad news for the caveman who discovered fire) governments are expected to remove all possibility of risk from the field of human conduct. It was something akin to this sort of thinking that caused the British Medical Journal to state in 2001 that it would no longer use the word “accident” because even earthquakes, avalanches and volcanic eruptions were predictable events against which we could, and should, take precautions. We have just seen what happens when the authorities do have a fully fledged “precautionary” volcano safety policy. It does not survive the first encounter with reality.

The problem, alas, is that “reality” is something that many of those in power are uninterested in. As he notes, when the PP is applied to small groups – such as farmers – they lack the political and business clout to kick up a fuss. What really forced policymakers to back down on the airline travel restrictions was the fact that hundreds of thousands of travellers were faced with massive delays and thousands of businesses were affected.

I understand one blessing of the flight restrictions was that this whole kerfuffle prevented Tony Blair from playing more of a role in the election campaign. Silver linings and black clouds, etc. (Excuse the cloud pun). It would be nice to think that this globetrotting parasite could be permanently stuck in a departure lounge.

15 comments to The limitations of the precautionary principle

  • Eric

    Wait, what? This is our fault?

  • The precautionary principle has moved from a stop-gap (recognising insufficient information is currently available for a sound decision) to a fully developed policy in praise of ignorance on material matters.

    Best regards

  • Ian Bennett

    It would be nice to think that this globetrotting parasite could be permanently stuck in a departure lounge.

    Even nicer to think of him stuck in a little windowless office, being “investigated” by a customs official.

  • Kevin B

    Blaming the Yanks for the Precautionary Principle is probably a bit rich. That particular bit of statist theology is deeply rooted in European legal theory from the German Vorsorgeprinzip to the Maastricht Treaty.

    The UN, too, is deeply involved, with everything from the Montreal treaty to Rio to Kyoto and onwards and backwards being based on the crazy notion that you don’t need science to stop people doing things as long as a vociferous enough lobby group can kick up enough fuss against it.

    Zero tolerance does come from the States – New Joisey to be exact – where it was applied to policing and led to the broken windows theory. Having struggled to defeat it’s anti-crime manifestation, the left co-opted the phrase and applied it to anything that fit their goals, finding it’s apotheosis in the “zero tolerance for intolerence” nonsense which leads to ‘hate’ crime tribunals.

    In years to come, historians will look back and pinpoint things like Montreal and Kyoto as pivotal events in the collapse of Western Civilization.

  • f0ul

    It is a shame that the Precautionary Principle is taking the blame for people who are misusing it.
    In its original form, the PP also involves time. You should test until you reach the limit of your testing ability, and use that as your guide – until you have improved your testing ability further.

    Another aspect of the PP is that it always makes everyone look a bit silly in hindsight!

  • Blaming the Yanks for the Precautionary Principle is probably a bit rich.

    Not at all… the ‘Yanks’ tend not to invent this stuff, they just package and promote it to the world more effectively than anyone else… the flip side of that admirable go-getter American cultural trait.

  • John B

    I am becoming fairly certain that this was an opportunity not to be missed to get “those peasants” in their budget airline aeroplanes out of the sky and return luxury to where it “rightfully” belongs: in the hands of the select ruling class which maintains its monopoly by monopolies and skilful fleecing of the rest.
    Now I watch with interest but some despair to see if the budget airlines cease to exist.

  • Peter melia

    I do not believe for one minute in the “precautionary principle”.
    It involves neither precautions (of what kind?) nor principles (what principal, please define?).
    Anything we do has risk, and the only honest precautionary principal to “protect” against that risk (of doing something) is to stay in bed all day.
    Neither do I believe in accidents, for I know they do not exist.
    Volcanoes and such, being the result of geophysical phenomena, are not accidental.
    However, if any any human construct fails, someone, somewhere, has caused it.
    Take for example, a car crash. Anything imaginable resulting in the failure of a car in any way of, was certainly caused by some human failing, such as, lack of diligence in on the part of the driver or other road user, inattention in driving, faulty mechanical work, incorrect design, incorrect choice of materials. The same argument can be applied to the roads the car was on at the time of the accident. Somewhere along the line, someone was culpable.
    But there was no accident.
    Similarly any failing of any kind, can be, must be, ascribed to human failing.
    Because (allowing for the God exclusion) we made everything on this planet, then as such we are responsible for the continued safe working of everything on the planet.
    And anything that goes wrong, anywhere, is always someone’s fault.
    Nothing “just happens”.
    Perhaps if we switched our attitudes from “it just happened” to “someone was responsible”, we might be better off.
    NB. any errers in this post are accidontal!

  • I have to disagree with some of what Peter Melia has written, here at least:

    Neither do I believe in accidents, for I know they do not exist. [...] Take for example, a car crash. Anything imaginable resulting in the failure of a car in any way of, was certainly caused by some human failing, such as, lack of diligence in on the part of the driver or other road user, inattention in driving, faulty mechanical work, incorrect design, incorrect choice of materials. The same argument can be applied to the roads the car was on at the time of the accident. Somewhere along the line, someone was culpable. But there was no accident.

    A great many ‘road incidents’ are caused by the coincidence (in space and time) of two or so mistakes. An even greater number of collisions never occur because ‘the other driver’ does the right thing. [And thank you to all those other drivers who fail to make a mistake when I've just made one.] In many cases, the second mistake is the simple one of lack of attention for a short period (as is the first one).

    Given that this sort of ‘road incident’ is the accidental coincidence of two (otherwise minor) mistakes, the collision (or whatever) clearly is an accident.

    Peter goes on:

    Similarly any failing of any kind, can be, must be, ascribed to human failing. Because (allowing for the God exclusion) we made everything on this planet, then as such we are responsible for the continued safe working of everything on the planet. And anything that goes wrong, anywhere, is always someone’s fault. Nothing “just happens”.

    Finally, my irony detector clicks in: or at least I hope irony was his intent. Otherwise we have another ‘incident’ of misunderstanding on my part, and far worse on his. And whose fault is that?

    Thinking more widely, it strikes me most firmly that the worst ever ‘incidents’ caused by human activity are those caused by government. And those are truly incidents of intent, thought out (though usually without much care) over a sufficient period that wiser thoughts should have prevailed.

    So, generally: personal accident; government incident. And I’m so glad that the current UK government has brought to my attention, this distinction in meaning, and insisted on the correct word use.

    Best regards

  • John B

    Yes. Whether irony or not, Peter is being less than intelligent.
    Sure, everything is a logical progression of cause and effect and indeed nothing is accidental. If one knew everything one could precisely predict the future.
    But we do not know everything, in fact we have a slender grasp on the events of the universe, so we have to look for trends and make intelligent approximations.
    Which is what I have done above when I see the strong possibility that the budget airlines are going to run into trouble. They were ferociously resisted when they started up and like every other aspect of liberty at the moment, are under massive attack.
    Bottom line is they don’t have taxpayer funding.
    Flag carrier airlines are also not supposed to receive taxpayer funds but I am sure something can be done about that.

  • so this could be described as a ‘happy accident’ for those Enemies Of Freedom then..?

  • Slartibartfarst

    Having been involved in several DCP (Disaster Contingency Planning) exercises for large financial institutions in Australasia, I have become inured to the cretinous focus that bureaucratic and so-called “consultants” minds seem to have on:
    (a) disastrous event definition (analysis of potential “threats”).
    (b) analysis of cost of that event.

    Such things are probably of academic interest at best, and irrelevant at worst.

    The most pragmatic approach is that taken by the Defence Forces and (sometimes) Civil Defence Authorities, viz.:
    (a) What is the geographic coverage of the event’s impact across the society/organisation? (e.g., is it purely local to a department, or a building, or city-wide, or across a larger geographic area?)

    (b) Given that coverage, then what core (essential and mission-critical) processes are likely to be knocked out or otherwise disabled?

    (c) What standby resources and people do we need to put in place and have prepared now, so that if/when such core processes are disabled, they can be restarted at relatively short notice from the same or some other location? This would mean that the core processes of the society/organisation could be restored to a useful state.

    Then it’s decision time as to whether you will put the necessary preparatory recovery steps in place, or just cross your fingers and hope that it’ll never happen in your lifetime.

    When you take this approach, an event in British history stands out as startlingly clear: If Guy Fawkes had succeeded in blowing up the Houses of Parliament, then this would probably not have been a disastrous event under these criteria.

  • John B

    Yes, Wh00ps, a happy accident.
    One can go too far, of course, in looking through smoke and mirrors. As, for instance, to ask what actually caused the explosion on the offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico last Tuesday?
    I does seem that powers within the US seem determined to keep the US dependant on foreign oil as apparently there are massive reserves just north of, and under the north, of Alaska that for one reason or another have been declared off limits.
    If that oil was exploited then the impoverishing of the West would receive a major blow.
    But the Icelandic volcano. Yes, a happy accident not to be wasted?
    Speculation. Yes. But I don’t think one should be put off exploring things by the possibility of ridicule.

  • Paul Marks

    These ideas are indeed international (as is “PCism” – i.e. Marxist Frankfurt School idenity politics).

    We associate the idea of the “precautionary pricniple” (i.e. the denial of traditional legal ideas – both of Roman law and of Common law, that the court system can NOT save us from all bad things in life) with the United States for two reasons.

    Firstly because Americans tend to take up new ideas quicker than other people – bad ideas as well as good ones.

    But also because there is more DEBATE in the United States.

    When something like the “precautionary principle” (or a national and local government duty to promote “diversity”… or whatever) comes to Britain (or other nations) it just “goes into effect on the nod” everyone acts as if the idea had always been law and any dissent is considered insane.

    In the United States there is often a “push back” against bad policies or evil principles – no such “push back” occurs here.

    So, paradoxically, people in Britain think “what a funny thing is going in the United States” (because they hear of the resistance and the debate) whereas their own national and local government will follow all the same policies (and take them much further) without the people knowing anything about it (although their children will be educated in the new doctrines at school and university).

    By the way, in local government it is the practice (if a new policy is ever admitted to be new – which is rare) to say how “excited” one is by the new policy or scheme.

    To not say one is “excited” by whatever is considered very weird (indeed almost a sign of mental illness) – and any expression of formal dissent produces total shock.

    Almost needless to say – an expression of dissent is as far as one can legally go.

    Both spending plans and reglatory practice (such as the “precautionary principle”) are not decided upon by the “democratic process” (indeed, formally speaking, such a process hardly exist).

    Most important policy (both on spending and on regulatory practice) comes from the administrative structure – votes (if there are any) come AFTERWARDS and are simply a rubber stamp (one is reminded that the policy is compulsory and will go into effect regardless of the outcome of the vote, and that voting against certain policies is at least on the borders of a crime – especially when it comes to things like “health and safety” or “diversity” (and so on and so on).

  • To not say one is “excited” by whatever is considered very weird (indeed almost a sign of mental illness)

    A laughing-crying moment there, Paul.