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Risky Business

Article published on TCS on March 9, 2005.

The French Parliament gathered last month to insert the so-called Environmental Charter into the French Constitution. As stated by Nicolas Hulot and Dominique Bourg in their article from the 28 February edition of Le Figaro, « the possible refusal to approve this text could only be a matter of stubborn indifference towards the accumulation of ecological problems ».

The Environmental Charter, and especially Article 5, which imposes the precautionary principle, is billed as an efficient tool necessary to solving today’s environmental challenges. The two authors mentioned above are « almost ashamed to have to remind here that the precautionary principle is neither an anti-science principle, nor an anti-progress principle. » They should be completely ashamed, actually, as it is quite clear that this principle is the enemy of progress.

The precautionary principle has been on the rise since its very first appearance in the 1980s in Germany, where a committee of experts were asked to study the means to ensure the environmental protection of the North sea. Since then, the Kyoto Protocol has been ratified and the principle even has been included in the European Constitution project. But its success is scary if you understand the nature of this principle. It in no way removes risk, but rather increases the level of risk to individual prosperity.

What is the true nature of this principle? The precautionary principle is nothing but a modern tool for social engineering aimed at reducing certain types of risks through state intervention. It can be explained in two different ways. On the one hand, it means that — in its name — it is necessary to prove that an activity does not imply any risk for the environment in order to be allowed. On the other hand, it requires no demonstration (i.e. scientific proof) that an activity implies a risk for individuals or for the environment in order to ban it. This is what Hubert Reeves underlines in a recent article in Le Monde. As he puts it, « waiting for the scientific certainty stage to be reached in order to change the evolution of things could be suicidal. »

The precautionary principle reverses the burden of proof. From now on, any activity will be guilty of damaging the environment and subject to prohibition unless it has been proven that it is of no danger.

This is dangerous because the principle forgets that risks and uncertainties are inherent features in human action, always have been and always will be. We are fortunate that throughout history individuals did not wait for approval from social engineers before they confronted risks. The progression of knowledge and achievement has allowed us to go ahead cautiously in the development of human activities, without forbidding this or that activity.

This is, however, what the precautionary principle proposes to do. In order to remove the risk linked to an activity, the easiest way is to cancel the activity itself. Nevertheless, purely and simply forbidding an activity, a production, an enterprise, also puts an end to the trial-and-error process necessary for the development of our knowledge. It also means reducing the level of our savings as well as limiting the spontaneous development of social institutions able to manage the risk.

Precaution as a principle does not attempt to reduce the risk linked to an activity, but rather to remove it. This could well destroy the potential beneficial consequences of innovation as well as market mechanisms, which have allowed man to reduce the risks he inexorably faces.

Used by politicians, this authoritative and centralized means of managing risks, forces all the members of a society to take the risk associated with prohibiting a certain activity. We can only fear disastrous consequences.

There’s also an inherent contradiction: as the precautionary principle cannot remove all risks, but only suppress some of them while forcing us into taking others, it should submit to its own test. Its proponents should have to prove that its implementation does not imply any irreversible or damaging risks for the population. This is impossible; so, just to be safe, the principle should be banned.

Cécile Philippe is Director and President of the Molinari Economics Institute

Cécile Philippe

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