In 2010, I carried out a small survey on how people talked about the precautionary principle on the Internet. I undertook a comparison of three languages, French, English and German. By entering “Precautionary principle” in google.fr , google.co.uk and google.de respectively, I obtained the following results: 650,000 results for “Principe de précaution”, about 400,000 for “precautionary principle” and finally less than 30,000 for “Vorsorgenprinzip”. I concluded at the time that French-speaking Internet users were more interested in this concept than their neighbours. It should be noted that the differences were all the more impressive as google.co.uk encompasses all English-language sites, a potentially much larger number of sources than the French-language sites. It is true that at the time France was still particularly aware of the concept because of the inclusion of the precautionary principle in the constitution.
However, it is worth noting in passing that France is the only country in the world to have given a primary legal status to this concept, originally conceived by the German philosopher Hans Jonas in the 1970s. It was in fact in February 2005 that the French parliament met in Congress in order to include the precautionary principle at the highest level of legal standards and to define it as “When the occurrence of any damage, albeit unpredictable in the current state of scientific knowledge, may seriously and irreversibly harm the environment, public authorities shall, with due respect for the principle of precaution and the areas within their jurisdiction, ensure the implementation of procedures for risk assessment and the adoption of temporary measures commensurate with the risk involved in order to preclude the occurrence of such damage.” It is logical that at the time the number of press articles, as well as the literature on the subject in the French language, would outstrip those in other languages.
What about today? In first place, we find “Precautionary Principle” with 1,120,000 in google.co.uk, then 452,000 for “Principe de précaution” in google.fr and finally “Vorsorgenprinzip” with only 163,000 results. So it seems that the subject eventually became widespread in the English-language web, while decreasing somewhat in France, and the level of results increased slightly in German-language sites. What can be learned from these empirical observations? We can suggest some theories without corroborative evidence, and one certainty: a concept that one would be likely to consider as universal does not have the same impact everywhere, even within countries who are culturally very closely linked.
So we need to dig a little deeper to find out what attracts users when they are running searches to learn about this principle. There is a fantastic and amazing tool perfect for this, namely “Google Suggest”, the algorithm which lists Google users’ top searches. We can then see that French speaking web users are googling topics such as “Principe de précaution santé” [“Precautionary Principle and Health”] or “Principe de précaution OGM” [“Precautionary Principle and GMOs”] While English speaking Internet users have been searching for “Precautionary Principle ecology” and “Precautionary Principle climate change” and German-speaking Internet users are interested in topics such as “Vorsorgeprinzip Wärmepumpe” [“Precautionary Principle and heatpumps”] or “Vorsorgeprinzip sozialversicherung” [“Precautionary Principle and Social Security”] Of course these searches are probably the result of the stories that made the front pages of national news media. Interestingly, one frequent search associated with “the PP” which is equally prevalent in all three languages is the European Union. But far be it from me to infer that European Internet users want to apply the precautionary principle to Brussels.
Without making the mistake of succumbing to relativism, let us just bear in mind that concerns vary from country to country, as we have seen. At any rate, we could identify other types of concerns. This is the case, for example, with the phrase “Antennes relais” [“Phone masts”], which appears with the frequently linked to “santé” [“health”] in google.fr, but not in English or German …. Which is a reasonable pointer towards the conclusion that this concern is a particularly French one.
This demonstrates the value of a site like The European Scientist which, by gathering a community of Internet users speaking one of the three languages (with the aim of adding others) will make it possible to compare different points of view on subjects of mutual interest. We should then be able to see differences of opinion emerging through the comments left on the site. Things which are problematic for some will not be for others and vice versa. It is an excellent way to get to know each other.
This post is also available in: FR (FR)