Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, gives an effective defense of the Precautionary Principle in Monday's San Francisco Chronicle. The city just enacted a law that requires the "do-no-harm" precept to be taken into consideration when it makes decisions on the environment.
In a previous post on Greenpeace's nanotech study, I talked about my general agreement with the Precautionary Principle, but I also argued that it's too early to apply it to nanotechnology, since not enough is known about nanoparticles to even have a doubt.
Blumenfeld makes an effective case for the principle when he looks back at how failure to follow it created problems with lead and asbestos. He urges that "environmental decision-making be based on rigorous science – science that is explicit about what is known, what is not known and what may never be known about potential hazards. "
Sounds great so far, but the alarm bells go off for nanotech advocates when he writes: "Unfortunately, in today's regulatory system, lack of proof of harm is usually misinterpreted as proof of safety."
I'm not sure if that's a misinterpretation, or simply the human urge to progress despite an element of risk. If we didn't have the instinct for taking risks, I'd be chiseling this message on a cave wall.
When Blumenfeld correctly acknowledges that "a risk that is unnecessary, and not freely chosen, is never acceptable," he encapsulates perfectly the nature of the current nanotech/environment debate. When you read on this Weblog, in Small Times and in increasingly frequent reports in the mainstream media about the need for a worldwide conversation about the "societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology," it's precisely these questions that society needs to answer: "Which risks are necessary? If we choose to take a risk, was the choice made freely?"
As nanotech comes of age, variations of these questions are going to be heard for decades and centuries to come.
But, we're only talking about San Francisco. What do they have to do with the rest of the world? For one thing, the city is usually galaxies ahead in its approach to social, political and technological issues. The rest of the country will eventually catch up, and look to San Francisco for precedent. We need to pay close attention as a nebulous concept like the Precautionary Principle – complete with subjective definitions of "acceptable risk" – becomes codified into law.