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September-October 2010
Vol. 35, No. 5

Precautionary Principle: Better safe than sorry

In “Hungry for oil: Feeding America’s expensive habit,” a piece produced for National Public Radio, Jeff Brady writes: “Extracting oil is not as simple as it used to be. The easy-to-find oil is drying up, and companies are taking on more expensive and complicated drilling techniques as a result. … Some environmental and human health concerns possibly associated with [these techniques] may include the potential mishandling of solid toxic waste, potential risks to air quality, potential contamination of ground water, and the unintended migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface within a given radius of drilling operations.”

It is precisely due to situations of this nature that member states of the United Nations, UNESCO and the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) mandated the elaboration of the Precautionary Principle.

The Precautionary Principle deals with the complex nature of economic activities that would exploit natural resources using technologies that could result in serious and/or irreversible harm. The principle of precaution demands that the natural foundations of life be preserved and that irreversible types of damage be avoided. Damage done to the natural world should be avoided in advance. Precaution must be exercised when conclusively ascertained understanding of harm is not yet available. If conclusive knowledge of harm were available, the Prevention Principle would apply.

“In its most basic form, the Precautionary Principle is a strategy to cope with scientific uncertainties in the assessment and management of risks, It is about the wisdom of action under uncertainty: Look before you leap, better safe than sorry, and many other folkloristic idioms capture some aspects of this wisdom. Precaution means taking action to protect human health and the environment against possible danger of severe damage.” (8)

A predecessor to the Precautionary Principle is the Polluter Pays Principle which requires that the costs of pollution be borne by those who cause the pollution. This principle made its first official appearance in global parlance in 1972. Later, in the 1992 Earth Summit, it was enshrined in Agenda 21 as a principle of sustainable development. Today it is a generally recognized principle of International Environmental Law, even though local compliance is often difficult to enforce.

The Precautionary Principle builds on the same moral foundation for protecting human rights and natural resources. However, it goes beyond computing the consequences of pollution; it faces beforehand the possibility of unpredictable developments because of insufficient scientific knowledge. Its objective is to provide guidance in cases of risk where outcomes and probabilities are not well known. “The unquantified possibility of risk is sufficient to trigger the consideration of the Precautionary Principle.” “Interventions are required before possible harm occurs, or before certainty about such harm can be achieved, that is, a wait-and-see-attitude as a strategy is excluded.” (13)

In 2005, COMEST and UNESCO presented to the member states of the United Nations the following working definition for the Precautionary Principle: When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm. Morally unacceptable harm refers to harm to humans or the environment that is: threatening to human life or health, or serious and effectively irreversible, or inequitable to present or future generations, or imposed without adequate consideration of the human rights of those affected. (14)

The document is careful to state what the Precautionary Principle is not. “It is not based on ‘zero risks’ but aims to achieve lower or more acceptable risks or hazards. It is not based on anxiety or emotion, but is a rational decision rule, based in ethics, that aims to use the best of the ‘systems sciences’ of complex processes to make wiser decisions.” (16) It does not provide broad and general judgments; rather, it proceeds on a case-by-case basis and, like all court cases, relies on human judgment.

The Precautionary Principle obviously applies in cases affecting global climate change. It would seem to clearly apply as well in cases with implications for food security, in cases affecting the safety of drinking water, in cases of genetic modification of seed, in cases of deep ocean drilling for oil, as in the Gulf case; and, in many other cases.

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