I had written this piece last year as a brief history of the precautionary madness that has led to our incapacity to manage risks today. I inserted it as a backgrounder in a chapter of my KeystoneCorona series, but I had always intended for it to be a stand alone article. As these little fairies continue to splash their precautionary pixie dust, we need to make the case for a rational return to risk management.
How did we get so jaded? Not at the individual level (while persons can be clever, people are generally stupid when they get together and share their fears). Rather, how did governments and regulators just stop doing their jobs or worse, stop thinking? How can the European Union continue to harm its future with innovation-sucking Green Deal strategies that will clearly harm its citizens and destroy prosperity? How can French and German governments vote for anti-agricultural policies that go against all of their scientists’ recommendations and risk provoking global food security crises? How could most European regulators have only one policy strategy to deal with the rising coronavirus pandemic death-toll; emotionally and economically devastating their populations while continually failing to manage risks and protect public well-being? Is it stupidity? Laziness? Has post-Cold War affluence removed the need to govern responsibly? Regular visitors to this site know I ask these questions quite frequently. Sadly, I have not been very good at finding clear answers.
What follows is a brief tale of how the fairies have come to govern us without basic risk management tools or scientific advice, but rather with the pixie dust of precaution. It is a Docilian tale that we should be telling to our policy studies classes for generations to come.
Once upon a time…
There were many policy crises in the 1990s with public reactions against GMOs, pesticides, chemicals, vaccines and issues surrounding technologies like nuclear energy and waste management. It was the time of tainted blood, dioxins in chickens, acrylamide, MMR vaccines and mad cows. Public trust in regulators was at an all time low as activist NGOs started to use new communication tools to spread fear and grow their funding. At the beginning of the millennium, a new approach to policy was adopted with the EU’s White Paper on Governance. Together with the European Environment Agency’s document on the precautionary principle, published four months later in 2001, the EU redefined policy management, moving from a system that took decisions on best available data and expertise, to one that involved a process of engagement, public participation and empowerment of stakeholders.
Managing policy quickly became managing public expectations with consultations and citizen panels becoming the levers of power and decision-making. This soon morphed into giving the public whatever they wanted, or rather, what they didn’t want. As fear became the palpable influence in motivating policy processes, amplified by emerging social media tribes, the public (as determined by a highly vocal minority of ideological gurus) indicated they did not want the introduction of new technologies, innovations or substances. They were comfortable enough (re: affluent) and rejected anything that entailed uncertainty. The precautionary principle became the easy choice for risk management – a powerful tool that could hoover up any fears that dusted the clean dreams of these ideologues (as well as any green shoots of innovation).
Making “the bad things go away” seemed easy and for two decades, the loud voices of this “public movement” systematically got what they wanted. People didn’t have to worry about managing risks – any possible hazards were being removed. They became docile, entitled and intransigent. Nuclear reactors were being decommissioned, beneficial seeds denied the chance to germinate, pesticides removed from the fields, chemicals banned … Of course the lights were going out more frequently and Europeans became net importers of food … but they were rich enough that few had noticed (except those less affluent). By the time of the second European Environment Agency tomb on the precautionary principle, science had been redefined: no longer to protect humanity from the threats of nature but to protect nature from the threats of man.
More consultation and more engagement with the “public” meant more actions to ban substances and technologies to allay their fears and assure them of a risk-free existence. And as the risks were removed, bigger fears were communicated by these groups, creating an ever more urgent need for more precaution. The fear-mongering machines were insatiable. A recent fear spread widely was that humanity was going to go extinct within the next decade unless we impose citizen assemblies to dismantle capitalism, modern agriculture, transportation and energy. By 2020, the precautionistas were obliging in protecting what had become a docilian mob (with armies of children filling the streets), demanding total safety from whatever they didn’t want (and they had a long list).
Things were going swimmingly … until somebody coughed in Wuhan.