Increasingly, governments and environmental activists are demanding that producers of both new and old technologies prove that their products are totally safe. Although this “better safe than sorry” attitude may seem like a reasonable approach to risk regulation, health and environmental risk issues are not so simple. Nothing is totally without risk, and the reason for adopting new technologies in the first place is that they often improve our well-being by protecting us from the risks of older, more established products and practices. Even very risky new technologies may often be better than the alternatives. However, from industrial chemicals to consumer products and everything in between, advocates of precautionary regulation insist that the mere possibility of one increased risk should be sufficient to take useful products off the market or prevent them from ever being used.
New medicines protect us from diseases, even though there is always a risk of side effects. Automobile innovations, from airbags to antilock brakes, make traveling safer, even though they pose their own risks. And food and agriculture technologies—such as preservatives, pesticides, and bioengineered crops—help make our food supply safer and less expensive, and lighten farming’s impact on the environment. So, by demanding perfect safety, a precautionary regulatory philosophy can actually make our world less safe by denying society the benefits of new technologies. Regulation’s proper goal should be to permit experimentation and the introduction of new technologies, while balancing the risk of moving too quickly into the future against the very real risk of lingering too long in the past.