Precautionary Principles

While probably no one actually wants to make mistakes, we do often seem fated to live by the rule of unintended consequences. But as Dietrich Dörner cogently summarizes in The Logic of Failure, we have the capacity to learn from our mistakes. Most importantly, he writes, “we can learn that it is essential to analyze our errors and draw conclusions from them for reorganizing our thinking and behavior.” Recognizing and correcting errors, and the sources of errors, can help us avoid future errors.

Sometimes we make errors of fact; we really did not know what could happen. Or we may make errors of judgment, believing we are doing right, only to see the results unravel. Cause and effect may be unclear. At other times, as Dörner notes, we judge our own well-being as paramount and discount the collateral damage to others. But self-preservation and “looking out for Number One” often come at the price of health, economic well-being or personal relationships. And although cutting corners and expecting others to pick up our slack often have clear and obvious consequences, we may choose to ignore them, even to our later if not immediate detriment.

The precautionary principle dictates that we diligently seek to anticipate potential negative consequences of our actions. This works on both the individual and the larger world stage. When debating the role of human contribution to climate change, for example, some contend that although we do not understand exactly how the climate system works, it behooves us to reduce our carbon footprint as a precaution. As bioethicist Peter Singer recently argued concerning the ecologic legacy we may be leaving future generations, the right thing to do is to make radical changes in consumption now.

Perhaps a technological miracle is just around the corner,” Singer writes, “one that will enable everyone in the world to consume energy at something like the levels at which we consume it, without bringing about disaster for everyone. It isn’t ethically defensible, however, to do nothing while hoping for a miracle, given that it will be others, not us [the West], who suffer the gravest consequences if that miracle never arrives.”

In contrast, Bjorn Lomborg argues that a proper cost-benefit analysis leads to the conclusion that increased economic growth today will allow investment in the technological miracles of green, carbon-neutral energy tomorrow: “As we get richer and such immediate concerns as water, food and health become less of an issue, we become more open to environmental concerns.” Lomborg is the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. He says that reducing resource use today would be counterproductive.

Applying the precautionary principle, then, becomes a game of number crunching and never-ending ruminations. The debate is sure to go on until we have to do something. Even then, would the expedient course be the right course?

An often overlooked set of principles can help us accurately gauge actions and their impact on others. When we come to accept that the biblical Commandments provide valid insights into a way of thinking that guards against unwanted, dangerous and often destructive consequences, these 10 statements become a powerful guide to behavior that does not produce unwanted consequences.

Unfortunately, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21) are often viewed as merely a list of “thou shalt nots.” This is not surprising; the majority are restrictive in nature, but not because they exist to take the fun out life. They are actually protective; knowing what not to do directs one down the better path. Several are simply instructive (telling the reader to know, remember or honor, for example). As Jesus explained, the Commandments provide a holistic outline of how to manage one’s relationships with God and with fellow man. They provide a baseline or metric from which one can evaluate one’s actions in the world. They give insight into the very nature of God (Matthew 5:17–48; Matthew 19:16–22; Luke 10:25–37; 2 Peter 1:4).

The first four are reminders that humankind does not own creation but that we have an obligation to our Creator. The other six are a summation of what could be called the simplest precautionary principle: to care for another as one cares for self (Matthew 22:35–40).

Thinking beyond self is at the core of the Commandments. Providing a guide for right relationships—with both God and fellow man—is their purpose. Not only do they protect others, but they give context to our lives by helping us see all of creation as an integrated whole. Because the human tendency for selfishness and disregard for others remains, however, the Commandments are a constant reminder of better options that are always available, always possible and never outdated.

Raw materials to support industrialization and the invention of new synthetic materials (including new organisms and bioreactors requiring new feedstocks) will be subject to increasing global competition in the coming decades. In view of this, a set of green commandments would prove invaluable for helping us think through the consequences of our actions. Suggestions that reach deeper than “change from incandescent to LED” or “use ceramic rather than plastic” will be needed as we navigate the transitions ahead.

With this in mind, the Commandments are reconfigured below as behaviors that would lead us away from unintended consequences in our increasingly globalized relationships.

  1. All of our tools of creation originate with God. Use all things with care.
  2. God exists outside of created objects. God is not in what you build, nor does what you build make you God.
  3. We acknowledge and honor God by our right actions; belief in God requires certain behaviors that see the world in increasingly inclusive ways.
  4. All creation follows specific cycles. The Sabbaths are for the benefit of all.
  5. Humans practice honoring God by honoring the human family.
  6. Failing to care for fellow man is wrong; it is tantamount to murder.
  7. Seek purity in all things.
  8. Strive to give.
  9. Deception destroys relationships.
  10. Seek contentment, not consumption.