Interpreting the Precautionary Principle

posted Tuesday, January 2, 2007        

Interpreting the Precautionary Principle

Edited by Tim O’Riordan and James Cameron

Definitions of the precautionary principle

As Sonja Boehmer Christiansen points out in the chapter that follows, the precautionary principle evolved out of the German socio-legal tradition, created in the heyday of democratic socialism in the late 1920′s to early 1930s, centering on the concept of good household management. This was regarded as a constructive partnership between the individual, the economy and the state to manage change so as to improve the lot of both society and the natural world upon which it depended for survival. This invested the precautionary principle with a managerial or programmable quality, a purposeful role in guiding future political and regulatory action.

As Boehmer Christiansen argues, the German concept of Vorsorgeprinzip means much more than the rough English translation of foresight planning. It absorbs notions of risk prevention, cost effectiveness but in a looser economic framework, ethical responsibilities towards maintaining the integrity of natural systems, and the fallibility of human understanding. The right of nature means, in part, giving it room to accommodate to human interference, so precaution presumes that mistakes can be made. For the Germans, therefore, precaution is an interventionist measure, a justification of state involvement in the day to day lives of its lander and its citizenry in the name of good government. Social planning in the economy, in technology, in morality and in social initiatives all can be justified by a loose and open ended interpretation of precaution. As we shall see, it is precisely the unravellability that makes precaution both feared and welcomed.

Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s these notions of care and wise practice have been extended to six basic concepts now enshrined in the precautionary principle.
Preventative anticipation: a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof of evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay will prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations.
Safeguarding of ecological space or environmental room for manoeuvre as a recognition that margins of tolerance should not even be approached, let alone breached. This is sometimes known as widening the assimilative capacity of natural systems by deliberately holding back from possible but undesirable resource use.
Proportionality of response or cost-effectiveness of margins of error to show that the selected degree of restraint is not unduly costly. This introduces a bias to conventional cost benefit analysis to include a weighting function of ignorance, and for the likely greater dangers for future generations if life support capacities are undermined when such risks could consciously be avoided.
Duty of care, or onus of proof on those who propose change: this raises profound questions over the degree of freedom to take calculated risks, thereby to innovate, and to compensate for possible losses by building in ameliorative measures. Formal duties of environmental care, coupled to an extension of strict liability for any damage, no matter how unanticipated, could throttle invention, imagination and growth. Alternatively, when creatively deployed such strictures could encourage imagination and creativity in technology, economic valuation, technological advance and unusual forms of ameliorative compensation. Hence the concept of proportionality can be regarded either as a deadweight or a touchstone for the visionary.
Promoting the cause of intrinsic natural rights: the legal notion of ecological harm is being widened to include the need to allow natural processes to function in such a manner as to maintain the essential support for all life on earth. The application of ecological buffers in future management gives a practical emphasis to the thorny ethical concept of intrinsic natural rights.
Paying for past ecological debt: precaution is essentially forward looking but there are those who recognize that in the application of care, burden sharing, ecologically buffered cost effectiveness and shifting the burden of proof, there ought to be a penalty for not being cautious or caring in the past. This suggests that those who have created a large ecological burden already should be more “precautious” than those whose ecological footprints have to date been lighter. In a sense this is precaution put into reverse: compensating for past errors of judgment based on ignorance or an unwillingness to shoulder an unclearly stated sense of responsibility for the future. This element of the principle is still embryonic in law and practice, but the notion of “common but differentiated responsibility” enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the concept of conducting precaution “according to capabilities” as laid down in principle 15 of the Rio Declaration reflect to some extent these ideas.

By no means all of these interpretations are formally approved in international law and common practice. At present the line is to act prudently when there is sufficient scientific evidence and where action can be justified on reasonable judgments of cost effectiveness and where inaction could lead to potential irreversibility or demonstrate harm to the defenders and future generations. In substance, the application is usually derived for chemicals whose effects are potentially toxic, persistent or bioaccumulative (i.e. concentrating in the food chain from one predator to another), or where certain combinations or concentrations of chemicals could alter the physical and chemical state of soil or water. In this sense the notion in international affairs is mostly one of prevention, and justification of some action rather than to claim scientific uncertainty as a reason for delay.

Let us put precaution into both the sustainability perspective and that of proportionality, or economic-societal justification of possible adverse costs in favour of taking care. On the sustainability front, economists like to speak of weak and strong sustainability as a major distinction, with very weak and very strong variants on either side. The most accessible reference is Turner (1993). Very weak sustainability is based on the presumption that losses of environmental resources (natural capital) can be made up by innovation, ingenuity, imagination and adaptation. In Figure 1.1 rising damage costs spurs an interest in damage avoiding market prices, regulatory behavior and technological substitution. Precaution has a place, mostly as a spur to innovation and managerial adaptation. So the line of precautionary action lies towards the upper left of the diagram, namely where the threat of irreversible damage is palpable, and the benefits of intervention are clear.

Weak sustainability places more emphasis on extended cost benefit analysis, that is in introducing firmer measures of the value of safeguarding ecological and biogeochemical processes that are irrecoverable if lost. These processes and their associated species mix are referred to as critical natural capital. The distinction between weak and strong sustainability lies in the degree to which the precautionary principle and its economic interpretation is applied to ensuring the protection of critical natural capital, including the creation of new critical capital by deliberate management. Note here that the curve of safeguard tends move towards the right, i.e. to ensure that plenty of life support systems remain intact. Both models of sustainability take a more sanguine view of inbuilt resilience of natural systems.

Very strong sustainability favours a more fundamentalist mode of ecological solidarity with the earth. Here the line is to adapt to the frames set by natural systems, and to build precaution into an approach to living that is altogether more in empathy with the natural world. The amount of “ecological footprint” becomes progressively lighter, and the precautionary line drops to the lower right hand zone of the diagram, being triggered at the point of relatively little damage. Here, the bias of “proporationally” favours early action in the face of pessimism over the ability of the earth to cope with human intervention for the survival of the human species. [p.p. 16 20]

Earthscan Publications Ltd, 1994. ISBN 1-85383-200-6 Available from Island Press, Phone: 800-828-1302 or 707-983-6432; FAX: 707-983-6164

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