__________________________________________________________ The Proactionary Principle



The Proactionary Principle was authored by Max More, based in large part on Extropy Institute’s Vital Progress Summit I, 2004 and the Keynote statements and Summit participants’ discussions. The keynote participants were Ronald Bailey, Robert A. Freitas, Jr., Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil, Max More, Christine Peterson, Michael Shapiro, Gregory Stock, Natasha Vita-More (Chair), Roy Walford. I'd like to thank everyone who contributed their time and intelligence to the proceedings.


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Version 1.2, July 29, 2005

People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies a range of responsibilities for those considering whether and how to develop, deploy, or restrict new technologies. Assess risks and opportunities using an objective, open, and comprehensive, yet simple decision process based on science rather than collective emotional reactions. Account for the costs of restrictions and lost opportunities as fully as direct effects. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have the highest payoff relative to their costs. Give a high priority to people’s freedom to learn, innovate, and advance.

Unpacking the Proactionary Principle

We can call this “the” Proactionary Principle so long as we realize that the underlying Principle is less like a sound bite than a set of nested Chinese boxes or Russian matroshka (babushka) dolls. If we pry open the lid of this introductory-level version of the Principle, we will discover nine component principles lying within:

  1. Freedom to innovate: Our freedom to innovate technologically is valuable to humanity. The burden of proof therefore belongs to those who propose restrictive measures. All proposed measures should be closely scrutinized.
  2. Objectivity: Use a decision process that is objective, structured, and explicit. Evaluate risks and generate forecasts according to available science, not emotionally shaped perceptions; use explicit forecasting processes; fully disclose the forecasting procedure; ensure that the information and decision procedures are objective; rigorously structure the inputs to the forecasting procedure; reduce biases by selecting disinterested experts, by using the devil’s advocate procedure with judgmental methods, and by using auditing procedures such as review panels.
  3. Comprehensiveness: Consider all reasonable alternative actions, including no action. Estimate the opportunities lost by abandoning a technology, and take into account the costs and risks of substituting other credible options. When making these estimates, carefully consider not only concentrated and immediate effects, but also widely distributed and follow-on effects.
  4. Openness/Transparency: Take into account the interests of all potentially affected parties, and keep the process open to input from those parties.
  5. Simplicity: Use methods that are no more complex than necessary
  6. Triage: Give precedence to ameliorating known and proven threats to human health and environmental quality over acting against hypothetical risks.
  7. Symmetrical treatment: Treat technological risks on the same basis as natural risks; avoid underweighting natural risks and overweighting human-technological risks. Fully account for the benefits of technological advances.
  8. Proportionality: Consider restrictive measures only if the potential impact of an activity has both significant probability and severity. In such cases, if the activity also generates benefits, discount the impacts according to the feasibility of adapting to the adverse effects. If measures to limit technological advance do appear justified, ensure that the extent of those measures is proportionate to the extent of the probable effects.
  9. Prioritize (Prioritization): When choosing among measures to ameliorate unwanted side effects, prioritize decision criteria as follows: (a) Give priority to risks to human and other intelligent life over risks to other species; (b) give non-lethal threats to human health priority over threats limited to the environment (within reasonable limits); (c) give priority to immediate threats over distant threats; (d) prefer the measure with the highest expectation value by giving priority to more certain over less certain threats, and to irreversible or persistent impacts over transient impacts.
  10. Renew and Refresh: Create a trigger to prompt decision makers to revisit the decision, far enough in the future that conditions may have changed significantly.

A Proactionary Alternative to the Precautionary Principle

The Proactionary Principle emerged out of a critical discussion of the widely used “precautionary principle” during Extropy Institute’s Vital Progress Summit I in 2004. The precautionary principle has been used as a means of deciding whether to allow an activity (typically involving corporate activity and technological innovation) that might have undesirable side-effects on human health or the environment. In practice, that principle is strongly biased against the technological progress so vital to the continued survival and well-being of humanity.

Understanding that we need to develop and deploy new technologies to feed billions more people over the coming decades, to counter natural threats from pathogens to environmental changes, and to alleviate human suffering from disease, damage, and the ravages of aging, those involved in the VP Summit recognized two things: The importance of critically analyzing the precautionary principle, and the formation of an alternative, more sophisticated principle that incorporates more extensive and accurate assessment of options while protecting our fundamental responsibility and liberty to experiment and innovate.

The precautionary principle, while well-intended by many of its proponents, inherently biases decision making institutions toward the status quo, and reflects a reactive, excessively pessimistic view of technological progress. By contrast, the Proactionary Principle urges all parties to actively take into account all the consequences of an activity—good as well as bad—while apportioning precautionary measures to the real threats we face, in the context of an appreciation of the crucial role played by technological innovation and humanity’s evolving ability to adapt to and remedy any undesirable side-effects.

While precaution itself implies using foresight to anticipate and prepare for possible threats, the principle that has formed around it threatens human well-being. The precautionary principle has become enshrined in many international environmental treaties and regulations, making it urgent to offer an alternative principle and set of criteria. The need for the Proactionary Principle will become clear if we understand the flaws of the precautionary principle.

Principle Against Progress

The precautionary principle appears to have originated with the German principle of Vorsorgeprinzip. No single formulation of the principle has been universally adopted. Variations exist between influential formulations, such as those involved in the North-Sea conferences from 1984 to 1995, as well as those expressed in the Rio Declaration of 1992 and the UN Framework Climate Convention of 1992. All versions do have in common three elements: The possibility of harm to humans or the environment, resulting from a technology or activity; scientific uncertainty regarding cause-effect relationships; and the justifiability of taking precautionary measures.

According to the popular and relatively clear version found in The Wingspread Declaration (1999), the precautionary principle states that:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not established scientifically.

In this context, the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

Al alternative formulation:

We should permit no new technology to be developed and no new productive activity to take place unless we can scientifically prove that no harm to health or environment will result.

Statements of the precautionary principle vary in several ways. It’s worth making a basic distinction between a weaker and a stronger formulation. The weaker form refers to threats of serious or irreversible harm or damage. The stronger version (such as both of the above statements) omits this condition and so claims more than the weaker: it calls for precautionary measures even when the possible harm is not a serious or irreversible one.

Variants of the precautionary principle differ in a second important way, depending on whether they include a cost-effectiveness clause. The Rio Declaration of 1992 incorporated such a clause:

“Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures.”

We should also pay attention to a third way in which formulations of the precautionary principle vary. The particular phrasing of the clause concerning our knowledge of the causal relationship between the alleged threat and health or the environment, shift the burden of proof to different degrees. If the claim is that that restrictive precautionary measures are justified and required “if any possibility” of harm exists, then restrictions of any kind will be much easier to justify. A less drastic claim says that precautionary measures are justified even if the cause-effect relationship has not been fully established.

All versions of the precautionary principle are inadequate for their purpose, and are systematically skewed against economic and technological progress and development. It can easily be wielded to prevent the introduction of all kinds of new technologies. A wide range of international environmental treaties and regulations already incorporate the principle and use it to restrict numerous activities. Alar, a chemical for regulating growth in apples, was withdrawn from distribution in 1989 following misinformed public clamor regarding its alleged carcinogenicity. Dr. Elizabeth Whelan has noted how the principle has been used to ban “a health-enhancing chemical like chlorine” because of doubtful “adverse effects on wildlife—or its effect in high dose laboratory animal experiments.”

The precautionary principle is a favorite tool of those who oppose medical applications of biotechnology as well as any form of agricultural biotechnology, especially genetically modified crops and livestock. GM foods and medical biotech have enormous potential for meeting global needs for improved health and adequate nutrition. The effects of a widely applied precautionary principle would be disastrous for countries that need to use pesticides or genetically modified crops to feed their populations.


What’s Wrong with the Precautionary Principle?

The precautionary principle has at least six major weak spots. It serves us badly by:

  1. assuming worst-case scenarios
  2. distracting attention from established threats to health, especially natural risks
  3. assuming that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive or neutral, never negative
  4. ignoring potential benefits of technology and inherently favoring nature over humanity
  5. illegitimately shifting the burden of proof and unfavorably positioning the proponent of the activity
  6. conflicting with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.


First, the precautionary principle always assumes worst-case scenarios. Any release of chemicals into the environment might initiate a chain of events leading to a disaster. Genetically modified organisms might cause unanticipated, serious, and irreversible problems. By imagining the proposed technology or project primarily in a worst-case scenario—while assuming that refraining from action will have no disastrous consequences—the adherents of the principle immediately tilt the playing field in their favor.

Second, the precautionary principle ignores background risk, distracting our attention from established dangers to health. Nature itself brings with it a risk of harms such as infection, hunger, famine, and environmental disruption. We should apply our limited resources first to major risks that we know are real, not merely hypothetical. The more we attend to merely hypothetical threats to health and environment, the less money, time, and effort will remain to deal with substantial health problems that are highly probable or thoroughly established. The principle errs in focusing on future technological harms that might occur, while ignoring natural risks that are actually occurring.

Third, adherents of the precautionary principle assume that proposed regulations and restrictions will cause no harm to health. Yet the very application of the principle itself can endanger our health. Consider, for instance, the consistent correlation between the health of a nation’s citizens and their standard of living. Widespread application of the precautionary principle, by hampering economic activity, will tend to reduce living standards and thereby worsen health. In addition, major efforts to eliminate small, speculative risks can unleash far greater and more likely harms.

Fourth, the precautionary principle fails to treat natural and human threats on the same basis. Users of the principle routinely ignore the potential benefits of technology, in effect favoring nature over humanity. The principle does not account for the fact that the risks created by technological stagnation are at least as real as those of technological advancement. As biochemist Bruce Ames of UCLA has demonstrated, almost all of our exposure to dangerous chemicals comes in the form of natural chemicals. Yet fear and attention are primarily directed toward synthetic chemicals. A particular chemical has the same effects regardless of whether its source is natural or synthetic. Despite this, scientifically unsound activists treat human-derived chemicals as guilty until proven innocent, and naturally occurring chemicals as innocent or insignificant.

Fifth, the precautionary principle illegitimately shifts the burden of proof by positioning advocates of proposed activities or new technologies as reckless, in contrast with the “responsible” advocates of “precaution”. The content—even the very name—of the precautionary principle positions environmental activists and Luddites as friends and protectors of the common person. The innovators are made to prove safety, having already been portrayed as indifferent to the common good and interested only in profiting.

Having illegitimately shifted the burden of proof, activists can impose their values without troubling themselves with evidence and without taking responsibility for the results of overly-precautious policies. For example, the Environmental Working Group opposed the use of pesticides, speculating about possible carcinogenic effects of trace amounts of their residues. They do not seem to have taken into account the probability that restricting pesticides would increase cancer rates.

Activists get away with the burden of proof trick by managing perceptions of risk instead of examining the real risks. This move is particularly dangerous because we have limited resources to address a multitude of risks. We cannot afford to make decisions driven by manipulated perceptions. It’s crucial that we rely on a comprehensive, scientifically grounded perspective when choosing which risks have the strongest claim on our attention.

Sixth, and finally, the precautionary principle conflicts with the more balanced approach to risk and harm derived from common law. Common law holds us liable for injuries we cause, our liability being proportionate with the degree of foreseeable risk. By contrast, the precautionary principle dismisses liability and acts like a preliminary injunction—but without the involvement of a court, without the burden of proof, and without taking responsibility for harm caused by the injunction.[1]


The Essence of the Proactionary Principle

If the precautionary principle had been widely applied in the past, technological and cultural progress would have ground to a halt. Human suffering would have persisted without relief, and life would have remained poor, nasty, brutish, and short: No chlorination and no pathogen-free water; no electricity generation or transmission; no X-rays; no travel beyond the range of walking.

Most activities involving technology will have undesired effects as well as desirable ones. Whereas the precautionary principle is often used to take an absolutist stand against an activity, the Proactionary Principle allows for handling mixed effects through compensation and remediation instead of prohibition. The Proactionary Principle recognizes that nature is not always kind, that improving our world is both natural and essential for humanity, and that stagnation is not a realistic or worthy option.

The Proactionary Principle stands for the proactive pursuit of progress. Being proactive involves not only anticipating before acting, but learning by acting. When technological progress is halted, people lose an essential freedom and the accompanying opportunities to learn through diverse experiments. We already suffer from an undeveloped capacity for rational decision making. Prohibiting technological change will only stunt that capacity further. Continuing needs to alleviate global human suffering and desires to achieve human flourishing should make obvious the folly of stifling our freedom to learn

Let a thousand flowers bloom! By all means, inspect the flowers for signs of infestation and weed as necessary. But don’t cut off the hands of those who spread the seeds of the future.


[1] Sam Kazman has elaborated on this point in “Better Never?”