Precautionary Nominee


"Policymakers need to take a precautionary approach to environmental problems," said New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman at a recent National Academy of Sciences meeting. "We must acknowledge that uncertainty is inherent in managing natural resources, recognize it is usually easier to prevent environmental damage than to repair it later, and shift the burden of proof away from those advocating protection toward those proposing an action that may be harmful."

On its face, Whitman's comments appear to be endorsing of the "precautionary principle," which some environmental policy analysts have aptly summed up as "regulate first, ask questions later." Under the precautionary principle all new technologies are guilty until proven innocent.

"Ms. Whitman's seeming acceptance of the precautionary principle is worrisome," says Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-market research organization based in Washington, D.C. "For any government official to weigh the risks of technological and institutional innovation as being inherently greater than the risks of technological and institutional stagnation is to turn a blind eye to the future of America and the world."

The activist campaign to get the precautionary principle adopted as policy has already made considerable headway. Under the Clinton administration, the precautionary principle has made its in way into two important United Nations treaties. The first of these is the Biosafety Protocol, which will regulate world trade in biotech products. The second is the new treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which bans the production of 12 organic chemicals, including some pesticides. The POPs treaty is expected to serve as a future framework for banning other chemicals disliked by activists.

The strictest interpretations of the precautionary principle jettison entirely the notion of tradeoffs, requiring that any new technology never cause any harm to the environment or human health. Of course, accurately predicting in advance the benefits and harms that a technology may one day produce is an impossible task. This inherent uncertainty means that opponents of a new technology can always stall its introduction by endlessly demanding that more research be done to rule out even their most farfetched fears.

Ultimately, the broad adoption of the precautionary principle by the EPA regulators would transform the agency from one charged with improving the natural environment into a de facto technology licensing authority.

"I believe that the reality of running America's largest regulatory agency will make apparent to Ms. Whitman the severe negative consequences that the precautionary principle would have on fostering a healthy natural environment," says Smith. "I hope that Ms. Whitman will come to understand–as her boss president-elect Bush already does–that we need more rapid rates of technological and institutional innovation if we are to successfully integrate the planet's ecological and economic aspirations."