A New Precautionary Principle

Kurt Cobb offers us a new precautionary principle: “The non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural.” By that he means: the onus should be on drug and chemical companies to prove their substances A. aren’t harmful, and B. actually solve some kind of societal problem. I personally don’t think many modern chemicals—or, for that matter, the processes requiring them—would pass either of the two prongs of this litmus test, but I’m something of a luddite.

As Cobb explains succinctly and eloquently: “Expectant mothers who took thalidomide to relieve the distressing (but temporary) symptoms of morning sickness—only to have deformed children later—were unknowingly taking large risks for small immediate gains. And, that seems to be the problem with much of what we label ‘progress.’ It’s only progress until the unanticipated side effects kick in.”

This idea is not drastically different from the old precautionary principle we all know and love. Note that the application of this principle rules out (or should rule out) nuclear power. And fracking. And ocean dredging. And…


2 thoughts on “A New Precautionary Principle

  1. Wohler synthesized urea in a lab in the 19th century, proving it was possible to make organic substances from inorganic substances and disproving the theory of vitalism. Is there a difference between natural and non-natural?

  2. From Wikipedia: Wöhler is regarded as a pioneer in organic chemistry as a result of his (accidentally) synthesizing urea in the Wöhler synthesis in 1828.[2] This discovery has become celebrated as a refutation of vitalism, the hypothesis that living things are alive because of some special “vital force”. However, contemporary accounts do not support that notion. This Wöhler Myth, as historian of science Peter J. Ramberg called it, originated from a popular history of chemistry published in 1931, which, “ignoring all pretense of historical accuracy, turned Wöhler into a crusader who made attempt after attempt to synthesize a natural product that would refute vitalism and lift the veil of ignorance, until ‘one afternoon the miracle happened'”.[3][4] Nevertheless, it was the beginning of the end of one popular vitalist hypothesis, that of Jöns Jakob Berzelius that “organic” compounds could only be made by living things.

    Technically there is no distinction between natural and non-natural, in that all things are natural–or, rather put, the term “natural” has no opposite. But the precautionary principle proposed here only demands that people who manipulate something already existing in nature justify their actions, instead of the reverse; “What can non-GMO apples do that GMO apples can’t?” is thus the wrong question. Inversely asked, GMO apples can presumably feed more people, but at what cost? That’s the question the precautionary principle demands.

    Instead, a good counter argument here would be that apples that we deem “natural” are also genetically modified (by both natural and artificial selection), but again, that’s not the point. The point is that any new technology needs to prove itself–but we’re never given that chance, because the development of technology is not democratic.

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