In “The Croods,” a box office hit cartoon showing a family of cavemen, the father issues daily warnings to his family that everything new is bad. He explains to his inquisitive daughter that they have survived for so long in their dangerous world by doing exactly the same thing every day and eschewing innovation. In our times, we would call his approach “the precautionary principle.”
The precautionary principle was on display when environmental activists petitioned a startup fundraiser Kickstarter to shut down the Glowing Plant Project, calling it “a new biotech threat coming from Silicon Valley.” As its name suggests, the project aims to create plants that will glow in the dark using synthetic biology. And while the idea may sound like a fad, it may have practical applications, e.g. living streetlights that would use their own energy to illuminate our cities.
Under pressure, Kickstarter amended its rules to ban startups from rewarding their donors with genetically modified products. The environmental activists further called on the regulators to subject similar projects to independent risk assessments. So far various agencies claimed that the issue is outside their jurisdiction.
The idea of making organisms glow is not new. A few years ago, FDA certified that there was no evidence that the Glofish, produced using similar technology, “pose any more threat to the environment than their unmodified counterparts.” But this will hardly satisfy the environmental groups who believe synthetic biology poses a major threat to conservation and sustainability of biological diversity.
There is logic to the precautionary principle. Innovation can and often does bring new risks. There were no driving related fatalities before the invention of cars and certainly fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And it would take a lightening strike to get a fatal electric shock before the invention of powerful electricity generators. Cars, electricity, vaccines and many other innovations came with substantial risks. But just imagine how riskier and poorer the world would be if we had used a precautionary principle to stifle innovation in those technologies.
My colleague Adam Thierer writes in his recent law review article:
New technologies help society address problems that are associated with older technologies and practices, but also carry risks of their own. A new drug, for example, might cure an old malady while also having side effects. We accept such risks because they typically pale in comparison with the diseases new medicines help to cure. While every technology, new or old, has some risks associated with it, new technologies almost always make us safer, healthier, and smarter, because through constant experimentation we discover better ways of doing things.
He further notes:
The precautionary principle destroys social and economic dynamism. It stifles experimentation and the resulting opportunities for learning and innovation. While some steps to anticipate or to control unforeseen circumstances and “to plan for the worse” are sensible, going overboard with precaution forecloses opportunities and experiences that offer valuable lessons for individuals and society.
So take it from the Croods – if we didn’t take risks and innovate, we’d still be living in caves.