The precautionary principle was introduced to break this odd connection between scientific certainty and political action, stating that even in the absence of certainty, decisions could be made. But of course, as soon as it was introduced, fierce debates began on its meaning. Is it an environmentalist notion that precludes action or a postenvironmentalist notion that finally follows action through to its consequences?
Not surprisingly, the enemies of the precautionary principle—which President Chirac enshrined in the French Constitution as if the French, having indulged so much in rationalism, had to be protected against it by the highest legal pronouncements—took it as proof that no action was possible any more. As good modernists, they claimed that if you had to take so many precautions in advance, to anticipate so many risks, to include the unexpected consequences even before they arrived, and worse, to be responsible for them, then it was a plea for impotence, despondency, and despair. The only way to innovate, they claimed, is to bounce forward, blissfully ignorant of the consequences or at least unconcerned by what lies outside your range of action. Their opponents largely agreed. Modernist environmentalists argued that the principle of precaution dictated no action, no new technology, no intervention unless it could be proven with certainty that no harm would result. Modernists we were, modernists we shall be!
But for its postenvironmental supporters (of which I am one) the principle of precaution, properly understood, is exactly the change of zeitgeist needed: not a principle of abstention—as many have come to see it—but a change in the way any action is considered, a deep tidal change in the linkage modernism established between science and politics. From now on, thanks to this principle, unexpected consequences are attached to their initiators and have to be followed through all the way.
—Bruno Latour, “Love Your Monsters: Why We Must Care for Our Technologies As We Do Our Children,” Breakthrough (Winter 2012)
"I could see from the first day that by one measure you were equal to the best rock climbers. You understood it. You knew you were in one damned awesome church, indeed the only one where religion comes close enough to Our Lord to give a little real sustenance."
“There’s a story I was told about some farfetched, terribly intense sect of Jewish people called Hasidim. They used to inhabit village ghettos in Russia and the Ukraine. It seems that one of their fold, a rabbi, was so devotional that he prayed to God forty times a day. Finally, after forty years, the rabbi grew impatient and said, ‘God, I have loved You for so long that I want You to reveal Yourself to me. Why won’t you reveal Yourself to me?’ Whereupon God did just that. He revealed Himself. How do you think the rabbi reacted?”
“I don’t know.”
Harlot began to laugh. I had never heard him give a full laugh before. It gave a clue to why he had chosen his name. Inside him were more people than one would have thought. His laugh was all over the place. “Well, Harry, the good fellow dived under the bed and began to howl like a dog. ‘Oh, God,’ the rabbi said, ‘please do not reveal Yourself to me.’ That, Harry, is a useful story. Before all else, God is awesome. It’s the first thing to know. If Christ had not been sent to us, no one would ever have gotten out of the cave. Jehovah was too much for all of us. There would have been no modern civilization.”
“What about Egypt, or Greece and Rome? Didn’t they take us out of the cave?”
“Harry, those cultures marked time. They were perfect examples of the obsessional. Devil’s abodes, all three, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Don’t be impressed by how beautiful they were. The Devil, you must never forget, is the most beautiful creature God ever made. Spiritually, however, those cultures did not choose to emerge from Plato’s cave. It took Christ to come along and say, ‘Forgive the sons for the sins of the fathers.’ That’s the day, Harry, that scientific inquiry was born. Even if we had to wait a millennium and more for Kepler and Galileo. So follow the logic: Once the father begins to believe that his sons will not suffer for his acts of sacrilege, he grows bold enough to experiment. He looks upon the universe as a curious place, rather than as an almighty machine guaranteed to return doom for his curiosity. That was the beginning of the technological sleigh ride which may destroy us yet. The Jews, of course, having rejected Christ, had to keep dealing with Jehovah for the next two millennia. So they never forgot. God is awesome. ‘Oh, God, do not reveal Yourself to me. Not all at once!”
He paused. He ordered another drink for each of us, Hennessey for himself, and Old Harper’s, I recollect, for me. “Let us have an Old Harper’s for Young Harry,” he actually said to the waitress, and went right back to his disquisition on the awesome: “I suspect that God is with us in some fashion on every rock climb.”
—N.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Ghost of Harlot (1991)