Precaution goes to war

The war on terror is being waged in the language of radical environmentalism.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics World

Before the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, the American right had been critical of the ‘precautionary principle’ – the notion that any scientific or technological development that poses unknown risks should be avoided.

On global warming, President George W Bush had been lambasted by environmentalists for refusing to sign up to the ‘better safe than sorry’ logic of the Kyoto Protocol. In response, some on the right challenged the idea that environmental policy should be steered by potential, but remote, risks and dangers.

The precautionary principle has become a key weapon for green campaigners. They argue that we should err on the side of safety, even where there are substantial costs and little evidence of potential problems.

Now, America’s war on terror is a clear example of precaution in action – but it has been most enthusiastically prosecuted by the right, revealing just how shallow their objections to precaution really are.

Post-11 September there have been many over-the-top reactions to the threat of terror, most obviously in airline security. Bush recently gave such fears a more systematic formulation, with his ‘pre-emptive’ strategy – the new US policy of attacking hostile, ‘terrorist’ nations before they have a chance to attack the USA. The only difference between ‘pre-emption’ and ‘precaution’ seems to be that Republicans were too embarrassed to use the word precaution.

Warmongers and greens sometimes sound very similar. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld highlights the problem of ‘unknown unknowns’ in the war on terror – a term also used by Professor Robin Grove-White, a leading advocate of the precautionary principle. In July 2001, Grove-White advised the UK government that the ‘unknown unknowns’ associated with genetic modification, BSE and other green causes were the greatest source of worry (1).

At the briefing where he pondered ‘unknown unknowns’, Rumsfeld dodged a question about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction with another classic precautionary line: ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ Put plainly this means that there isn’t any evidence, but you should believe anyway – and has rightly been ridiculed by critics as an abandonment of reason (2).

As for many greens who use the ‘absence of evidence’ line, for Rumsfeld fear fills the space where facts should be.

Concern about terrorists abusing technology (in the Bush version) or out-of-control corporations and maverick scientists abusing it (in the green version) are actually variations on a theme. The conspiracy theories of the right echo those of anti-capitalists, who believe the world is controlled by shadowy conspiracies of individuals with malicious but uncertain motivations.

In the recent BBC drama Fields of Gold, which raised questions about the safety of GM technology, the plot twist merged together the two scenarios so that it became impossible to distinguish between the threat posed by corporate-government irresponsibility and the threat posed by the lone eco-terrorist.

After 11 September, Bush declared war, with little evidence that there was a coordinated campaign against the USA. The various attempts to conjure up an enemy – from Afghanistan to the ‘axis of evil’, from the Philippines to Columbia – look more and more like desperate conspiracy-mongering. The connections exist only in the fantasies of the American elite.

The lack of evidence to back up our post-11 September fears only seems to aggravate those fears. Without facts, there is nothing to stop imaginations running wild. Those who believe the war on terror is driven by rational evaluation of secret evidence about Iraqi anthrax are as deluded as those who thought the interventions in Somalia and the Balkans were ‘all about oil’.

So how did the critics of environmentalism in the Bush administration so easily fall for the precautionary principle? While some on the right have defended science and technology, they fail to grasp the deep suspicion of human action that underlies the precautionary outlook. It is the mistrust of humanity, the fear of technology being abused by out-of-control individuals, that drives much of the green agenda. Such fears have long been shared by the right on issues like crime – and now it seems to be driving the war on terror.

In his speech announcing the pre-emptive strategy, Bush said the ‘gravest danger to freedom lies at the perilous crossroads of radicalism and technology’ (3). Here, the combination of potent technology and mistrusted humanity takes centre stage. Such concerns are bringing Bush closer to environmentalist fears over new developments like nanotechnology. When longtime critic of GM technology Sue Meyer raises concerns about ‘the potential for accidents and mistakes as a result of nanotech’, she may find herself sharing ground with the Bush administration, with its worries over nanoterror (4).

In the wake of 11 September, many claimed that the old left/right divide had been reborn, that Reaganite zombies had risen from the dead. On the contrary, it is becoming clear that all sides now share a risk-averse worldview. The war on terror has been less about reordering the world in the interests of US economic concerns, than reordering it in accordance with US paranoia.

The new priority is safety first – and last. There was no moral re-armament on the right. No new national purpose was forged. They put forward no defence of Western civilisation. Instead, the pro-war responses to anti-war protesters degenerated into hysterical dismissal of anyone who challenged the priority of safety, which was elevated into a new moral absolute. This elevation was much more in tune with the popular response, allowing the right to find a way back into the mainstream.

The risk-averse morality embodied in the precautionary principle is highly unstable and irrational. How long before we have a ‘precautionary war’ in Iraq, or somewhere else?

Read on:
spiked-issue: War on Iraq

War on what?, by Brendan O’Neill

Risk management goes global, by Christopher Coker

Risk, science and society, by Professor Sir Colin Berry

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Rumsfeld is quoted in: DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers 12 February 2002

Grove-White quoted in: Who will save us from destruction?, Daily Telegraph, 18 July 2001, at

(2) DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers 12 February 2002

(3) Bush Pledges Pre-emptive Strikes, Guardian Unlimited, 2 June 2002

(4) Sue Mayer, in Science: Can we trust the experts?, Hodder and Stoughton, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon UK). For the Pentagon’s concerns about nanoterror, see No Nano Secrecy, Please, Tech Central Station, 24 April 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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