Europe has been suffering from a disease outbreak that is debilitating its population, leading to economic malaise and destroying its innovative culture and entrepreneurial mindset. It’s called “precautionaria” and while often poorly diagnosed, it has been the source of a wide range of self-inflicted harm, irrational decisions and unnecessary anxiety. Also referred to as risk aversion, those afflicted with precautionaria leave themselves open to exploitation by unscrupulous actors and fear-mongers.
Sufferers of precautionaria often perceive the world through paranoid apocalyptic scenarios, express largely fear-driven reactions to irrational uncertainties and hold that the best corrective measures (to deliver a safe, secure situation) is to stop all related actions (regardless of the consequences). They express a pathological distrust of humanity, technology and innovative solutions. These sufferers often long for some idealised simpler times in the past which, when combined with an incapacity to properly perceive reality, leads to the voluntary rejection of many great human achievements.
Until now, most people have not seen the severity of precautionaria, a disease feeding off of fear, ignorance and misinformation. Below is a brief description of the symptoms and causes with some suggestions on how it can be treated.
Risk Aversion: To those inflicted, it is quite simple: risk is a four-letter word and must be avoided at all costs. Those with precautionaria favour the hazard-based approach – remove all exposures to anything that might cause harm to therefore avoid having to manage risks. Western regulators have found this simplistic “Just say No!” strategy quite attractive but have, in the process, largely lost their risk management capacity.
Simplistic perfect-world idealism: Precautionaria affects human reasoning and thought patterns. A recent outbreak has spread largely among the affluent youth who found a reason to skip school and condemn complex solutions provided by their elders. Sufferers truly buy into the marketing arguments that they are capable of saving the planet simply through their personal choices – that the fixes to the climate and biodiversity would be easy and quick if everyone just behaved like them. Precautionarians have an open willingness to blindly impose this behaviour upon others.
Irrational fear of uncertainty: The COVID-19 pandemic gave precautionaria ample opportunity to spread and infect the minds of individuals into thinking any uncertainty was a crisis that needed to be addressed by abrupt cessation. So while the coronavirus mortality rates were nearly insignificant among low-risk populations, people allowed themselves to be locked up, economies shut down and many more faced terrible consequences (mental health, domestic violence, substance abuse…) because of this limited risk.
Belief that others can keep them “safe”: This illness manifests itself in a belief that there is such a thing as 100% safe. Governments have convinced these sufferers that they need to submit and be nannied by good-shepherd regulators building a perfect, safe world … easily achieved by removing any possible hazard. The precautionaria afflicted have lost the capacity to manage risks for themselves (to lower exposures and make themselves safer rather than safe).
Passive approach to challenges: Precautionaria contributes to a docilian general public that passively addresses problems by stopping any actions possibly connected with a threat. A Swedish teenager living in a prosperous suburb demonstrated just how sclerotic this disease was as she growled all of the things people must stop doing to save the planet (and millions nodded and blindly complied). Before this virus, humanity would have taken such challenges as a call to innovate, solve problems and overcome; now we need to be made ashamed of ourselves and voluntarily lower the quality of our lives.
Selfish affluence: Precautonaria is widespread in affluent societies. When you have money, adopting a green virtuous life of purpose is easy and precaution can be easily justified. You can choose organic without sacrifice. You can demand phasing out of fossil fuels because your solar panels and battery ensure your bills stay low and you will never have to worry about blackouts. Going GMO-free? No problem – you’re worth it. Not only can you avail of taxpayer-funded subsidies for your electric car (that can easily be recharged in your garden), you then demand that others also adopt to your virtuous choices, regardless of their means. You can afford it, so “leave it in the ground”. Precautionaria is a privilege of the rich imposed on the poor.
Zealot megaphones: When activists and dogmatic fundamentalists take root at the core of media, institutional and societal structures (eg, France), and use their influence and zeal to censure dialogue and debate, public immunity to precautionaria is greatly reduced. When these organisations have wide access to public funds and communication tools, scientists get drowned out in the calamitous narrative and the disease finds fertile ground to proliferate. The precautionaria virus will spread more vociferously if we continue to silence scientific experts and replace them with idealists and fundamentalists on citizen panels.
Apocalyptic Urgency: Precautionaria is often accompanied by a sense of urgency based on the continuous hymns of: “No time to lose!”, “Act Now!!!”, “The Science is clear!”… Amplified by massive exposure on social media, this has led to serious policy mistakes with regrettable consequences and major precautionary fails. The Sri Lankan economy has collapsed and shortages amplified due to an immediate shift to organic food production (based on the urgent demands of some Indian guru banging on about a “Poison Cartel“). Europe is facing an energy crisis as rushed policy shifts out of fossil fuels has led to gas shortages, price surges, energy provider bankruptcies and forecasted blackouts (based on the pronouncement of some Swedish teenager that her house was on fire).
Lack of trust: Precaution is taken when there is no trust (in agents, materials, processes…). If I see icy steps and I don’t have the right shoes or support means, I will find another route or turn around and go back. Activists are imposing sacrificial climate mitigation options because they do not trust solutions proposed by scientists and industry. Consumers are being led to distrust the food chain, ignore reassurances from food scientists and demand less technology and increased food insecurity when choosing organic. This is of course a vicious circle as precautionaria further undermines trust in research and technology, leaving us even more vulnerable.
Low scientific understanding: Precautionaria breeds when there is fear-based concerns. If there is uncertainty, then the answer is “No!” – the process or substance must be disallowed. There is no need for technological competence or scientific expertise. There is only two measures to impose: “Is it safe?” and “Are you certain?”. A citizen panel can easily apply this tool and be trusted to take the precautionary path. Citizen-led participatory processes offer no other choice or capacity than to voluntarily expose themselves to this disease.
Regulatory cowardice: Precautionaria thrives in functionarially-inept regulatory systems. Applying the precautionary principle is the path of least resistance for any regulator without conviction. Taking precaution (better safe than sorry) means you can always play the “protecting public health and safety” card, exempting you from any responsibility for the consequences of lost benefits or of being wrong. In taking precaution, you are never wrong, just, very often, not right, or at best, delaying decisions until other events take over. Often the consequences of such cowardly non-decisions don’t bite until well after these cunning politicised snakes move on in their regulatory career paths. Leaders with the courage to put their reputations on the line to promote emerging technologies that will benefit society are hard to find today.
Patience: As much as precautionaria panic buttons can cause distress for decision-makers, patience and due diligence will allow cooler heads to prevail. I cannot think of a single instance where some alarmist, apocalyptic forecast was accurate (but fear often trips up such reasoning leading to some devastating precautionary policy decisions). If left alone, the precautionaria virus usually clears up on its own after sufficient exposure to reality.
Benefits: Whenever a public sees benefits outweighing uncertainties, precautionaria vanishes like morning fog on a sunny day. Mobile phones were not banned following the ominous advice of the Stewart Report in 2000 because the public was unwilling to let a small uncertainty lead to significant lost benefits. Despite the horrible human health and environmental consequences, internal combustion vehicles continue to be allowed on the roads based on the benefits they provide for human mobility (and the prospects for continued exposure reductions). Should we really be injecting Botox directly into our faces? The benefits say “Yes!”. Clear public demand for the benefits serves as a vaccine against precautionaria. Benefits communications is key.
Scientific literacy: Precautionaria is a disease widely spread by fear and misinformation (it is the equivalent of a regulatory STD). If a population is better educated on a science or technology, if they are aware of our capacity to manage risks and reduce exposures and they understand the importance of the benefits for all people (particularly the most vulnerable and poor), then infection transmission rates will decline and public dialogue will become less apocalyptic and more rational. The French understand how the nuclear industry manages risks (the Germans apparently do not, and thus now depend on nuclear energy from France).
Risk management: Sadly though, our Western societies have become more technophobic and risk averse demanding 100% safety and certainty. The public needs to understand how the risk management process works to reduce hazard exposures, continuously improve safety measures and seek to deliver more goods and less cost to humanity and the environment. It is not about “safe” but about “safer” and while nothing is certain, a continuous risk reduction process should be recognised for its merits. Precautionaria-immune industries like automotive or telecoms have delivered increased benefits with continuously decreasing exposures.
Ridicule: Sometimes precautionaria fear campaigns become overplayed and, well, downright silly. Acrylamide, for example, could never transmit the virus for too long in part because so many couldn’t stop laughing. Government and industry actors have codes of conduct that demand respect and professional behaviour, even in the face of pure stupidity, so they cannot laugh out loud. But the right mix of satire and ridicule may limit the passion for spreading the zealot infection.
Isolation and lockdown: The EU policy process is badly infected by precautionaria and any participation allows this disease to legitimise itself upon new hosts and super-spreaders. Regulatory scientists participating in European Commission hazard-based assessments and consultations have no chance of having their research and data accepted under the present demands for certainty and safety. There is, frankly, no point for scientists to further pretend the process is fair or pretend to go through the motions. If companies and researchers were to quarantine themselves and not be involved in any European consultations or processes, it would delegitimise the process and force the Commission to treat the infection.
Precautionaria can be beaten, but it must be treated like most diseases spread by ignorance and misinformation: first by raising awareness of the facts, reinforcing the benefits and exposing the fear-mongers profiting from its exploitation. But unlike other diseases that impose significant public health consequences, the failure of Western regulators to stand up and join the fight to stamp out this virus has left humanity weakened and vulnerable. Until our leaders find the courage needed to do their job, precautionaria will continue to fester and undermine social goods and services.
Note: The Risk-Monger is happy to be back on the speaking circuit (after 18 months of precautionaria mismanagement). This article was written in preparation for a speech next week to a large group of regulatory scientists. I am looking forward to the exchanges and developing these ideas further.