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Precautionary principle

The precautionary principle, a phrase coined circa 1988, is the ethical principle that if the consequences of an action, especially the use of technology, are unknown but are judged by some scientists to have a high risk of being negative from an ethical point of view, then it is better not to carry out the action rather than risk the uncertain, but possibly very negative, consequences.

It is similar to one version of the Hippocratic oath, First of all, do no harm, or, Better do nothing than cause harm.

Another way of describing it is that it favours inaction, at the risk of the negative consequences of doing nothing, over action, which risks negative consequences.

A major conceptual, and possibly legal, application of the principle is that it should shift the burden of proof in technology-related governmental or legal decision making

In the context of industrial development and rapid technological progress, actions by industries are (often) by default considered legal and ethical, unless a law exists against such actions, for example on the basis of expected negative consequences of those actions.

For the precautionary principle to be applied in practice in this type of situation, for example, against the use of genetically modified organisms, which a majority of Europeans believe could have many potentially negative consequences, it is generally necessary that citizens' groups have to debate the issue and put pressure on politicians and industry. So, in order to apply the precautionary principle, some groups (who fear the negative consequences of an action), need to take action themselves in order to constrain the industry to inaction.

In other words, the precautionary principle generally favours technological, industrial inaction by an industry, and socio-political action by groups of people concerned about the risks of physical action by the industry.

This principle is often invoked when the consequences are considered great enough that they may require significant economic changes, even when the uncertainties regarding likely consequences remain high. The phrase is often used by supporters of the green movement, and sometimes by politicians like the president of France, Jacques Chirac.

During the early part of the twentieth century, uranium was sometimes advertised in newspapers as a substance with medical benefits, even though today it is clear that the radioactivity of uranium is highly damaging to human health. If the precautionary principle had been used by newspaper owners or by government authorities, they would have taken the action of refusing to accept the advertisements, despite lacking certainty regarding the health danger of uranium.

The principle might also be called a rule of absention.

Table of contents
1 Criticisms
2 Applying the Principle
3 Application of the precautionary principle
4 External links


Critics of the principle argue that it is impractical, since every implementation of a technology carries some risk of negative consequences. Proponents counter that the principle is not an absolute rule, it's a conceptual tool to clarify arguments. 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.

Another standard criticism of the precautionary principle is that it is only applied to new technologies, not the existing technologies that the new techology might supercede. Proponents of the principle argue that this is a misapplication of the principle - existing as well as new technologies should be applied. It is however uncommon to use the precautionary principle as an argument for a new technology.

The precautionary principle, as stated, does not take into accounts the potential benefits of a technology, which may be substantial.

Its use is often interpretated as protectionism (such as the case of beef fed with hormones, dealt by the World Trade Organisation).

Applying the Principle

An application of the principle is that the presence of significant systematic uncertainties, related to the actual state of scientific knowledge, should not postpone the adoption of effective and proportionate measures to prevent the risk.

Strong and weak applications of the principle could be distinguished as follows.

The weak application avoids drastic application of the precautionary principle, to allow technological innovation development to proceed under minimal constraints. It searches to avoid limiting citizens' and consumers' liberty, as well as avoid economical restrictions, but at the risk of damaging citizens' and consumers' health or the health of the ecosystem of the Earth.

Invocations of the principle vary greatly, depending on the interests of each group, each one giving its own definition of risk and measures to take.

The precautionary principle was born of growing environmental concerns as early as 1980, and is reflected in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (signed at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

It is in particular discussed by non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and sometimes by presidents like Jacques Chirac.

Application of the precautionary principle

The principle is not a juridical principle, as it can hardly provide regulations sanctioned by laws. It doesn't describe what actions to take, but seeks to trigger reactions in advance, before any irreversible damage occur.

Fields typically concerned by the precautionary principle are:

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 (eg. test pilots) undergoing risk have given informed consent.

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 be prevented. The temptation towards scientific authoritarianism and interdiction of democratic debate is high, if the only parties concerned are the scientist (who recognises the danger) and the politician (who faces the danger). Besides, consumer reactions and fears that do not rely on scientific facts are often considered irrational or emotional, and so are not considered in final decisions.

However, many countries choose to consider consumer points of view, and media reporting, to create a new space for debate, where politicians, experts and journalists are answerable to other actors (e.g. consumer associations, juridical authorities).

The principle appears as a new mode of collective action. Some see in it new standards, others a political tool for decision-making.

Clarification of the content of the precautionary principle is much needed -- in and out of the WTO system -- in particular on the subject of multilateral agreements on environmental issues.

See also: safe trade, biosafety, biosecurity, informed consent, opportunity cost.

External links