Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

Precautionary principle ad hoc

By Nancy Myers

I run across a lot of ad hoc definitions of the precautionary principle when I’m putting together one of our publications, Rachel’s Precaution Reporter.

First let me make clear that the principle is no mystery. There are several official definitions of the precautionary principle—Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio declaration and the  more positive and concise Wingspread definition of 1998 are most widely cited. Since SEHN convened Wingspread we’re pleased that this has now become a standard:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

Wingspread continues with corollaries essential to implementing precaution:

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.

All standard definitions have three elements: threats of harm, scientific uncertainty, and protective action (or nonaction).

But the proliferation of informal definitions of the precautionary principle means the idea has infiltrated the culture and people are putting it in their own words, for better or for worse.

In the better category, I thank Indiana activist Mary Jo Matheny for pointing out that “the precautionary principle is based on two ancient, universal maxims. They are: the axiom of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,’ and the portion of the Hippocratic Oath that reads, ‘First, do no harm.’”

In the same spirit, Jim Milone, a winemaker, says he and his company are “thoughtful, organic by default, and we gauge every decision by how it will affect others – a precautionary principle in practice.”

A hazardous waste manager in Minnesota also stresses consequences when he describes how the precautionary principle applies to his work: “You are aware of the consequences of what you buy, what you discard, and how the item is to be used.” Then he adds one of the Wingspread corollaries: “You choose the least hazardous product when an alternative exists.”

Rafe Mair, a Vancouver, BC columnist, rewords the definition and includes another corollary: “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 environment — 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.”

Good definitions are not always so wordy. Don Neubacher, superintendent of the Point Reyes National Seashore, said he would follow the precautionary principle in studying whether a proposed development would disturb the shoreline’s ecosystems, and this meant, “If we don’t have enough science maybe we should leave it alone.”

Or, as someone else put it, “The precautionary principle says that if you haven’t a clue what you are doing then what you do could make matters worse.”

Uncertainty, pure and simple.

“Can anyone state for me this so-called ‘Precautionary Principle’? I am sceptical as to its existence,” posts one commenter.

“The Precqautionary [sic] Principle is real and widely known,” answers another. “It is this. Nothing should ever be done for the first time.”

Cute, but not really.

For simplicity it’s hard to surpass “forecaring principle,” a literal translation of the German Vorsorgeprinzip. I invented that one some time ago and “forecaring” seems to have entered the English language, at least in some precautionary principle ordinances.

What’s your definition of the precautionary principle?