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The precautionary principle is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.

The precautionary principle is most often applied in the context of the impact of human actions on the environment and human health, as both involve complex systems where the consequences of actions may be unpredictable.

As applied to environmental policy, the precautionary principle stipulates that for practices such as the release of radiation or toxins, massive deforestation or overpopulation, the burden of proof lies with the advocates. [1] An important element of the precautionary principle is that its most meaningful applications pertain to those that are potentially irreversible, for example where biodiversity may be reduced. With respect to bans on substances like mercury in thermometers, freon in refrigeration, or even carbon dioxide exhaust from automobile engines and power plants, it implies:

"... a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof [or] 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." [2]

The concept includes ethical responsibilities towards maintaining the integrity of natural systems, and the fallibility of human understanding.

Some environmental commentators take a more stringent interpretation of the precautionary principle, stating that proponents of a new potentially harmful technology must show the new technology is without major harm before the new technology is used.(Montague, 1998)

Origins and theory

The formal concept evolved out of the German socio-legal tradition in the 1930s, centering on the concept of good household management. [3] In German the concept is vorsorgeprinzip, which translates into English as precaution principle.

Many of the concepts underpinning the precautionary principle pre-date the term's inception. For example, the essence of the principle is captured in a number of cautionary aphorisms such as "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", "better safe than sorry", and "look before you leap".[4] The precautionary principle may also be interpreted as the evolution of the ancient medical principle of "first, do no harm" to apply to institutions and institutional decision-making processes rather than individuals.

In economics, the precautionary principle has been analysed in terms of the effect on rational decision-making of the interaction of irreversibility and uncertainty. Authors such as Epstein (1980) and Arrow and Fischer (1974) show that irreversibility of possible future consequences creates a quasi-option effect which should induce a "risk-neutral" society to favor current decisions that allow for more flexibility in the future. Gollier et al. (2000) conclude that "more scientific uncertainty as to the distribution of a future risk — that is, a larger variability of beliefs — should induce Society to take stronger prevention measures today."


The application of the precautionary principle is hampered by the wide range of interpretations placed on it. One study identified 14 different formulations of the principle in treaties and nontreaty declarations.[5]

In deciding how to apply the principle, analyses may use a cost-benefit analysis that factors in both the opportunity cost of not acting, and the option value of waiting for further information before acting. One of the difficulties of the application of the principle in modern policy-making is that there is often an irreducible conflict between different interests, so that the debate necessarily involves politics.

International agreements and declarations

The World Charter for Nature, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1982, was the first international endorsement of the precautionary principle. The principle was implemented in an international treaty as early as the 1987 Montreal Protocol, and among other international treaties and declarations [6] is reflected in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (signed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development).

European Commission On 2 February 2000, the European Commission issued a Communication on the precautionary principle,[7] in which it adopted a procedure for the application this concept, but without giving a detailed definition of it. Earlier, the Maastricht Treaty adopted the principle as a fundamental element of environmental policy: Article III-233 of the draft Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe [8]:

Union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.

After the adoption of the European Commission's Communication on the precautionary principle, the principle has come to inform much EU policy, including that in areas beyond that of environmental policy. It is implemented, for example, in the EU food law and also affects, among others, policies relating to consumer protection, trade and research, and technological development. While a comprehensive definition of the precautionary principle was never formally adopted by the EU, a working definition and implementation strategy for the EU context has been proposed in Fisher et al. (2006):

"Where, following an assessment of available scientific information, there are reasonable grounds for concern for the possibility of adverse effects but scientific uncertainty persists, provisional risk management measures based on a broad cost/benefit analysis whereby priority will be given to human health and the environment, necessary to ensure the chosen high level of protection in the Community and proportionate to this level of protection, may be adopted, pending further scientific information for a more comprehensive risk assessment, without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of those adverse effects become fully apparent".

USA On July 18, 2005, the City of San Francisco passed a Precautionary Principle Purchasing ordinance, which requires the city to weigh the environmental and health costs of its $600 million in annual purchases – for everything from cleaning supplies to computers. Members of the Bay Area Working Group on the Precautionary Principle including the Breast Cancer Fund, helped bring this to fruition.

Corporate The Body Shop International, a UK-based cosmetics company, recently included the Precautionary Principle in their 2006 Chemicals Strategy.


The application of the principle can be seen in the public policy of requiring pharmaceutical companies to carry out clinical trials to show that new medications are safe, as well as effective.

Fields typically concerned by the precautionary principle are the possibility of:

The precautionary principle is often applied to biological fields because changes cannot be easily contained; they affect everyone. The principle has less relevance to contained fields such as aeronautics, where the few people undergoing risk have given informed consent (e.g., a test pilot). In the case of technological innovation, containment of impact tends to be more difficult if that techology can self-replicate.

Application of the principle modifies the status of innovation and risk assessment: it is not the risk that must be avoided or amended, but a potential risk that must be prevented.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Thus, in the case of regulation of scientific research, there may be a third party beyond the scientist and the regulator: the consumer.

Change of laws controlling societal norms

Associate Justice Martha Sosman's dissent [9] in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the decision of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that mandated legalization of same sex marriage, is an example of the precautionary principle as applied by analogy to changes in culturally significant social policy. She describes the myriad societal structures that rest on the institution of marriage, and points out the uncertainty of how they will be affected by this re-definition. The disagreement of the majority illustrates the difficulty of reaching agreement on the value of competing perspectives.

Resource management

The Traffic Light colour convention, showing the concept of Harvest Control Rule (HCR), specifying when a rebuilding plan is mandatory in terms of precautionary and limit reference points for spawning biomass and fishing mortality rate.

Several natural resources like fish stocks are now managed by precautionary approach, through Harvest Control Rules (HCR) based upon the precautionary principle. The figure indicates how the principle is implemented in the cod fisheries management proposed by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

In classifying endangered species, the precautionary principle means that if there is doubt about an animal's or plant's exact conservation status, the one that would cause the strongest protective measures to be realized should be chosen. Thus, a species like the Silvery Pigeon that might exist in considerable numbers and simply be under-recorded or might just as probably be long extinct is not classified as "data deficient" or "extinct" (which both do not require any protective action to be taken), but as "critically endangered" (the conservation status that confers the need for the strongest protection), whereas the increasingly rare, but probably not yet endangered Emerald Starling is classified as "data deficient", because there is urgent need for research to clarify its status rather than for conservation action to save it from extinction.[How to reference and link to summary or text]



In the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, Bill Durodie points out that:

In essence, the precautionary principle says that not having the evidence that something might be a problem is not a reason for not taking action as if it were a problem. That's a very famous triple-negative phrase that effectively says that action without evidence is justified. It requires imagining what the worst might be and applying that imagination on the worst evidence that currently exists. But once you start imagining what could happen then there is no limit. This is a shift from the scientific "what-is" evidence-based decision making to the speculative imaginary "what-if"-based worst-case scenario.

Do no harm

  • "Do no harm", in fact, can be applied more directly to "don't violate natural rights and damage economies" when faced with a "threat" not proven to exist.


  • Since imposition of the precautionary principle involves assuming things not yet proven, it need not weigh risk versus benefit. By definition, the principle focuses on size of the consequences, rather than the chance of it happening.
  • Critics of the principle argue that it is impractical, since every implementation of a technology carries some risk of negative consequences. [How to reference and link to summary or text]
    • Proponents counter that the principle is not an absolute rule, it is a conceptual tool to clarify arguments, and especially an issue of where the burden of proof lies. Someone in a debate regarding a proposal can say, I oppose this proposal on the grounds of the precautionary principle, without necessarily invoking the precautionary principle for other proposals.
      • However, such selectivity in its use is in itself criticised, because it leaves open the possibility that it will only be used in the context of technologies that advocates of the principle typically oppose - such as nuclear fission or genetically modified organisms. Indeed, selective application of principles in government are considered a fundamental form of injustice, which is why selective enforcement is considered an abuse of power.


  • Another criticism of the precautionary principle is that it is only applied to new technologies, not the existing technologies that the new technology might supersede.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
    • Proponents of the principle argue that this is a misapplication of the principle, and that it should be applied to existing as well as new technologies.

For example, whereas proponents of healthy life extension argue that significant research effort should be expended to find a way to slow or even reverse the effects aging, some precautionists argue that the known effects of overpopulation and the resulting pollution and drain on resources provide reasons not to radically extend the human lifespan. [10]

In another example, some argue against expanded use of wind power, fearing noise pollution, potential bird kills, and a negative effect on the landscape, while proponents of wind power argue that its negative effects are greatly outnumbered by those of coal power and other currently used forms of electricity generation.

  • Its use is sometimes confused with protectionism (such as the case of beef fed with hormones, as dealt with by the World Trade Organisation), or as Neo-luddism in the case of opposition to genetic engineering, nanotechnology, stem cell research and related therapy, or even development of wilderness areas.
  • Likewise, the precautionary principle is almost always[How to reference and link to summary or text] presented by those who will profit from the government force involved, on the principle of "Fear Equals Funding", for example: government agencies seeking the power to expand their control, or scientists whose funding has become based upon fear of some frightening scenario like global warming or asteroid impact.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

See the Proactionary Principle, a less-restrictive alternative to the precautionary principle, which shifts the burden of proof to those who propose restrictive measures.


  • Arrow, K.J. and Fischer, A.C. (1974), "Environmental preservation, uncertainty and irreversibility", Quarterly Journal of Economics 88(2):312-319.
  • European Union (2002), European Union consolidated versions of the treaty on European Union and of the treaty establishing the European community, Official Journal of the European Union, C325, 24 December 2002, Title XIX, article 174, paragraph 2 and 3.
  • Epstein, L.S. (1980), "Decision-making and the temporal resolution of uncertainty", International Economic Review 21(2):269-283.
  • Elizabeth Fisher, Judith Jones and Rene von Schomberg. (eds) (2006),Implementing the Precautionary Principle: Perspectives and Prospects, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, US: Edward Elgar
  • Christian Gollier, Bruno Jullien and Nicolas Treich (2000), "Scientific Progress and Irreversibility: An Economic Interpretation of the ‘Precautionary Principle’", Journal of Public Economics 75(2):229-253.
  • Harremoës, Poul, David Gee, Malcolm MacGarvin, Andy Stirling, Jane Keys, Brian Wynne, Sofia Guedes Vaz. The Precautionary Principle in the 20th Century: Late Lessons from Early Warnings, Earthscan, 2002. Review, Nature, 419, Oct 2002, 433
  • O’Riordan, T. and Cameron, J. (1995), Interpreting the Precautionary Principle, Earthscan Publications, London.

See also

External links

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