Risk management in practice typically involves some mixture of anticipation-“looking forwards”, and resilience-“bouncing back”. One key element of the risk management debate turns on where the emphasis should be laid between the two.
“Anticipationists” argue for extra weight to be given to measures designed to detect in advance the clues that signal potential threat in physical or organizational structures, and to act on those clues, even before scientific proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” has been obtained. Such an approach means laying more emphasis on methods of ex ante detection and prevention, and on regular “health checks” or “audits” of potentially dangerous organizations, locations or structures.
The case for adopting a more anticipationist or proactive approach is made in various ways. Some argue that the increasing complexity and uncertainty of contemporary society require an extension of precautionary “just in case” regulation, particularly in the field of pollution control. For example, Tait & Levidow (1992) note: “The Versorgensprinzip, or precautionary principle, originally enunciated by the West German government in 1976, has gradually become a focus for creative thinking on these subjects throughout the EEC and more widely. The precautionary principle is proactive in that it advocates the implementation of controls of pollution without waiting for scientific evidence of damage caused by the pollutant(s), and without necessarily requiring consideration of the relative costs and benefits of regulation to industry or the public”.
A good example of the precautionary doctrine in operation relates to the perceived safe levels of nitrate in drinking water. Concern about a possible link between nitrate levels and stomach cancers, as well as “blue baby” syndrome (infantile methaemoglobinaemia), led to the EEC formulating directives in the 1980s setting down strict limitations designed to control the problem. These precautionary measures will take some time to implement and will involve very substantial costs in some regions,