The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Placing the Precautionary Principle Before Profit

**This Post Is By Eric Anderson**

The overwhelming majority of Americans simultaneously live in two states of denial. The first, psychological denial, enables the second – the illusion we live in something other than a State of denial.

We live in psychological denial because we continue to think that we all share the equal right to opportunity, when in fact, the profit held by the 400 richest people in America exceed the profit held by two-thirds of American households. We live in denial because we continue to think those 400 people earn their profit, when in fact, by externalizing the byproducts of production they are subsidized at the expense of our safety, health and well-being. And we live in denial because we continue to think our politicians democratically represent us, when in fact it’s far from hyperbole to say 400 oligarchs represent us.

Collectively these issues — and too many more to mention — equate to living in a State of denial. The State denies our right to financial well-being. It denies our children their right to an ecologically sustainable future. And it denies we, the people, our right to collectively choose the rules by which we govern ourselves.

But if we are the State, which our Constitution tells us that we are, then how did we get here? How did we allow the few the right to amass such obscene wealth at the expense of the many? How did we allow the few the right to condemn our children to ecologic disaster? And how did we come to allow the few the right to represent the many?

I submit that we arrived at this sordid chapter in American history because we collectively forgot that there are no rights, without attendant duties. Simply put, the many failed in their collective duty to ensure that the few uphold their duty. We failed by obsessively focusing on our own rights. We allowed the few to profit at the expense of the many before looking to our well-being. But for the sake of our progeny, it is time the many force the few to do their duty. That duty is to place the precaution principle before profit.

The precautionary principle states: Activities that present an uncertain potential for significant harm should be prohibited unless the proponent of the activity shows that it presents no appreciable risk of harm.

The principle’s wisdom is demonstrated by the resilience of several age-old adages. We have long been warned to look before we leap. Warned to save nine stiches, by making one in time. Warned to avoid a pound of cure, by taking an ounce of prevention. And warned that it’s better to be safe, than sorry.

For example, beginning in the 1970’s many economists and business leaders began a thought crusade promoting market efficiency, proceeding on the untested theory that, if allowed to become obscenely wealthy, the benefits afforded the rich through deregulation would “trickle down” to everyone else. In hindsight, however, it’s not difficult to argue that the theory presented “an uncertain potential for significant harm.” And indeed, we have been harmed by the political backlash ensuing from the unprecedented economic inequality that has resulted. Would the many not have been better served by a policy prohibiting this neoliberal agenda until it’s proponents had shown it presented no appreciable risk of harm?

So too, in response to overwhelming public dismay over the ecologic destruction wrought by a century of unbridled capitalism, Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. Unfortunately, NEPA is all sound and no fury. It requires only Federal agencies to take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of their actions, and to engage all practicable measures to prevent environmental harm. A hard look? All practicable measures? Would we be facing the civilization threatening crisis we call anthropogenic global warming if, instead, we had required the prohibition of all activity posing a risk of significant ecological harm unless the proponent of the activity showed that it presented no appreciable risk? Would we really be worse off today for having placed precaution for our delicate ecology, over profit for the few?

And finally, we hear no end to the furor over the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC. But the process of rubber stamping rule by oligarchs arguably began in 1976 with the Court’s ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo. There, it was decided that money and speech are synonymous under the 1st Amendment. And two years later, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the Supreme Court recognized corporation’s right to put that money where their mouth is, concluding that the value of speech in the course of political debate does not depend on the identity of the speaker. But two issues go unspoken in these decisions. The first is the volume of speech. The many are only allowed to turn the volume of their speech up to 1. But the few richest among us are allowed to turn the volume up to 11. The second is the duration of speech. The many only speak as long as they live. While the few, through their corporations, are allowed to speak in perpetuity. Would not the many be better served by a policy that prohibited such legal assault by the few until it’s proponents had shown that it presented no appreciable risk of harm to our democracy?

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau states “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil for one who strikes at the root.” Make no mistake; there is no greater evil than a society that allows the few to profit at the expense of the many by exacting our equality, our ecology, and our democracy. Surprise, surprise — money is the root of the evil that bedevils us. But the good news is that the time tested, common sense cure has been right in front of our faces all along. We must demand a Constitutional Amendment forever enshrining the precautionary principle in the Constitution as a shield for we, the people, against the incessant pursuit of profit by the few. No better remedy for our ills exists. The many must begin to do their duty, and force the few to place the precautionary principle before profit.

If you enjoyed this article, and want more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


The Mueller Report: Who Cares?


Yes, Gender and Minority Prejudice Exists


  1. Creigh Gordon

    I have this wacky idea that what the free speech clause of the First Amendment is not really about our right to flap our jaws, it’s about our right to hear all sides of an issue. Which puts all these Supreme Court decisions in a different light.

  2. bruce wilder

    the prohibition of all activity posing a risk of significant ecological harm unless the proponent of the activity showed that it presented no appreciable risk?

    What could such a statement possibly mean?

    Are there, in fact, any activities that pose no risk?

    And, what does it mean for a proponent to “show” no risk? (Logically, should it not be the opponent who shows risk? none of us being able to prove a negative of course, not to mention the emergence of knowledge amid uncertainty — we never find out about risk until we try; we only learn from mistakes; are we to make no mistakes?)

    Or, are the weasel words, “significant” and “appreciable” supposed to get us past the failure to wrestle honestly with the problematic aspects of any standard or system of governance?

    Being well-intentioned is not a valid excuse for failing to think.

    The precautionary principle was how Cheney argued us into Iraq, wasn’t it?

  3. Eric Anderson

    I’m not familiar with any scientific studies done by Cheney et al showing there was a statistically significant risk that Iraq posed an appreciable risk of harm to the world.

    But if you are, I would enjoy reading them.

  4. Bill Hicks

    This falls into the category of what I call a “We MUST…” essay. As in: point out an intractable societal problem and then state “We must” do X, Y or Z to combat the problem when it should be pretty obvious that “we” will never do anything of the sort.

    If you doubt what I say, spend a day walking around and closely observing your fellow “citizens.” Notice how most of them are completely distracted by their screens? Then engage them in conversation. You’ll be lucky if 1 in 20 even have any clue what you’re talking about let alone have any desire to take any risk or make any sacrifice in the name of change.

    My advice? Give up on writing “We MUST…” essays. They’re insulting to both your intelligence and ours.

  5. bruce wilder

    Could there be a scientific study of any intervention, any novel method of production of any good that proved that it was without risk?

    It defies what we understand of knowledge itself and how we learn to even imagine.

  6. Hugh

    The precautionary principle has been around a long time. “First do no harm” is also a statement of it. What Eric is saying is, or should be, common sense. Where harm is likely to occur, then we should a different way. If we do not know something is harmful but come to know it, then again the precautionary principle should inform future action as well as rollback past action. Scientific studies may or may not be useful in determining its application or when it should kick in. If we are talking climate change or overpopulation, we need a critical mass of the data to act. We have that. If we are talking wealth and social inequality, then it isn’t science but our societal values which determine what precautions we take to limit that inequality.

  7. John

    Why do you think the denial you correctly identify is going to go away when it comes to seeing the need for a constitutional amendment?

  8. bruce wilder

    I live in California, where idealism and the precautionary principle have gotten us signs on every building “warning” of the presence of substances known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.

    That is the science. That is the politics.

    Where is the common sense?


    I am encouraged that \”the equal right to opportunity\” has been raised.

    While we may be achieving the equal right to political opportunity in our institutions, we are not achieving the equal right to economic opportunity in our institutions.

    The Center for Economic and Social Justice ( ), is dedicated to realizing the right to equal economic opportunity for all. The Capital Homestead Plan provides a program for correcting our institutions, which now enable the situation described to exist in our society.

  10. Smeagol

    \”Are there, in fact, any activities that pose no risk?\”

    No. Additionally, many activities pose significant real risks that are not appreciable at the outset or during them. Unless the objective is simply to give structure to expression of discontent, this is a principle with very limited utility.

    The whole piece suffers significantly of specification error. The few didn\’t condemn anyone to ecological disaster – you did, I did, we all did. Participation in those activities was broad based and enthusiastic. What the few did was to profit much more than everyone from those activities. As problems go, that\’s an easy fix. The activities and the practical necessity of participating in them are much, much more difficult problems.

  11. Eric Anderson

    You make some good points. Hopefully, this thread can be used to constructively address what is possible. Like I said in response to Ian’s recent mitigating climate change post — We should be making the arguments that will be made a decade from now because we don’t know what will pass for common sense at that point.

    So, to your point, yes, we can quantitatively address the hard science through the precautionary principle. But we can also use science to address qualitative concerns. Anecdotally:

    My M.S. thesis was an effort to tease out the reasons different environmental groups choose to utilize litigation, vs. choosing to utilize community organizing in order to achieve their aims. To do so, I analyzed a massive sample of comments made to the Forest Service during the NEPA administrative notice and comment period on proposed timber projects. Initially, I sought to code these comments into pro litigation, or pro community organizing, to determine if the was an objective statistical difference. Put a TON of work into. At my defense, my primary advisor said I needed to scrap it all and focus on the qualitative aspects because the numbers simply muddied what the comments themselves made crystal clear, and sent me back to the drawing board. He was right.

    As such, I see the possibility of using the public notice and comment period to qualitatively analyze the impacts of proposed policy changes to see if they have the potential to significantly harm the public. Should that have occurred prior to the invasion of Iraq, the fact that there was no there, there, would surely have been drawn out.

    And it certainly seems preferable to a bunch of old fogey’s with no expertise in the subject matter pontificating about things they know nothing about — I’m looking at you SCOTUS.

    Just thoughts.

    I think that’s why we all come here.

  12. different clue


    Here is a case where the Overclass Few engineered a condemnation path to ecological disaster.

    Here is a link to how that anti-transportation conspiracy was carried out against Los Angeles in particular . . .
    which set in motion the smogicide of Los Angeles and the airborn ozone death of forest downwind from Los Angeles.

    The careful engineering of mass farmercide after WWII was another such case of Overclass ecological condemnation engineering. It is one of the things discussed in this book here . . .
    It also discusses the Overclass drive to Free Trade whereby America’s own thingmaking base and ability was shut down and replaced with hyper-pollutive substitute thingmaking bases in China, Mexico, Vietnam, Bangladesh and counting . . .
    (By the way, Tony Wikrent might find interesting the fact that Charles Walters was the first person I heard about Henry Carey from, and Tony Wikrent was the second).

    If a necessary precondition for solving global warming turns out to be the forcible rounding up and the systematic physical extermination of all Overclass and Upperclass opponents and obstructionists against solving the problem . . . . in order to remove that social-class demographic barrier to solving the problem . . . would that be an ethical and moral thing to do? Or even suggest?
    Or is that thinking the unthinkable and speaking the unspeakable?

  13. Willy

    I foresee something between J.D. Powers and a League of Precautionary Principals. (A Precautionary Principle think tank might need to happen first though, to work out the kinks.)

    I’d think such an organization would have far more rational merit than, say, the Mises Institute after the infamous Rothbard-Cato split. As we know, that fateful event resulted in articles such as this one which bases disproving the negative effects from global warming, on World Bank life expectancy charts:

    Sad times indeed. But they do seem to keep bringing in the coin.

  14. bruce wilder

    Eric Anderson

    I am not trolling you.

    And, I am very much in favor of public policy caution in the face of uncertainty (what we do not know that we do not know)

    In my small way, I try to make arguments for general constraint on economic activity — not just the particular ones that present acute hazards or even known but diffuse hazards, but all use of energy of any kind. This remains an unfamiliar argument but if civilization survives, it will be because the need for constraint is recognized and heeded.

    Regarding Iraq, even allowing that the issues were not seen as matters for high science, there were people who were concerned with and invested in investigation, evidence and dare I say, truth. So, please do not imagine that no one concerned themselves with the rationales for and likely consequences of a public policy of invading Iraq. David Kelly, Valerie Plame, Hans Blix, “Larry” Wilkerson, Jay Garner even — these are names that come to my mind rather quickly. They were put aside in favor of fools and tools, and the fools and tools paid no price for their corruption and incompetence. Tom Friedman, William Safire, Tony Blair, Paul Bremer … that cast of villains is huge and their public status andin many cases reputation unimpaired — George A Bush has been recalled by some pundits as a standard of behavior for clown-in-chief Trump, with no sense of absurdity or irony. A cautionary tale, but not about failing to investigate or deliberate because there were people who were honest and ready to exercise good judgment, but about failing to value truth or respect consequences.

  15. Eric

    For those that think I just pulled this out of my keister. It’s already being implemented, but again, in a tattered down version:

  16. Hugh

    smeagol’s arguments are nihilist. He confounds all kinds of risk into a catchall which precludes the precautionary principle. But there are many different kinds of risk and the chance of each risk can be greater or smaller. In addition, we may not know all the relevant risks. But there are cases where whether we know all the risks or have complete knowledge of them, we can still act to minimize them and/or reverse their effects.

    Similarly, the idea that we are all as responsible as say Trump, the Koch brothers, Mitch McConnell, the rich and elites in general is ludicrous. They have power, and going all the way back to the Framers, the few have gone to great lengths to make sure that the rest of us are kept disempowered and set against each other. So no, Virginia, not all responsibility is the same. But nice try.

  17. Willy

    Back when neoliberalism was gaining traction I paid for school by working blue collar jobs. My associates in that lowbrow realm had the horse sense to know even back then that this ‘new and improved’ economic philosophy would not end well for them. But they had nothing like a Koch brothers organization working on their behalf. Or I should say more accurately, pop-propagandizing on their behalf. Populist propaganda doesn’t have to be fake. It can be backed by historically proven facts or best practices scientific projections, like a Luca Brazi looming in the background. By comparison ridiculous outfits such as the Mises Institute have something more like a Wizard of Oz behind a curtain. But they have something we don’t have – a working knowledge of human psychology. They learned to be skilled at reaching voters.

  18. Eric Anderson

    Dang Willie,

    You make me think of the ad industry, social media, search engines, etc. All just further examples of the “move fast and break things” mentality of the capitalist class. Hell for that matter, every major animal extinction event can be attributed to the adoption of some new technology.

    The label “conservative” has always astounded me, populated as it is by corporate cheerleaders. Corporations and their leaders are responsible for more radical social experimentation in a day than “liberals” have throughout history.

  19. Willy

    Eric, I lived it. I continue to live it. I know too many union members, blue collar types, Christians… who consistently vote against their interests, proven history, science and the core philosophies of their own organizations. Most people seem pretty clueless and prefer to just run with their mob.

    Consider the terrible grief expressed by Korean citizens in this video:

    That must have been a very great man. Yet in Seoul there were no such displays.

    I don’t mind people here hobnobbing over the finer points of answers, but even the best answers won’t be nearly enough. We’ll have to overcome very skilled social manipulators.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén