The Different Meanings of Precaution

This article presents a scientific overview of the meanings and applications of the precautionary principle in ecological risk assessment and management. The term risk is understood in this document as an uncertain consequence of an event or an activity with respect to something that humans value. Risks always refer to a combination of two components: the likelihood or chance of potential consequences and the severity of consequences of human activities, natural events, or a combination of both. Such consequences can be positive or negative, depending on the values that people associate with them. In addition to the strength and likelihood of these consequences, characterizing risks includes contextual aspects such as the distribution of risks over time, space, and populations. With respect to ecology, risk denotes the probability of ecosystem damage as a result of human interventions or natural events (such as earthquakes, wildfires, or flooding).

The focus on ecological risk should be seen as a segment of a larger and wider perspective on how humans transform the natural into a cultural environment with the aims of improving living conditions and serving human wants and needs. These transformations are performed with a purpose in mind (normally a benefit to those who initiate them). When implementing these changes, intended (or tolerated) and unintended consequences may occur that meet or violate other dimensions of what humans value. These are the risks. It is the major task of risk assessment to identify and explore, preferably in quantitative terms, the types, intensities, and likelihood of the (normally undesired) consequences related to the consequences that human actions or events exert on ecosystems. In addition, these consequences are associated with special concerns that individuals, social groups, or different cultures may associate with these risks. Ecosystem changes can be physically measured or observed but they only get meaning through interpretation by humans. Different individuals, different groups, and different cultures have different criteria and perspectives of what kind of physical changes matter to them and how they are valued. These social processes of attributing value and meaning to consequences of actions and events also need to be assessed and included in the risk evaluation for making prudent judgements about the tolerability or acceptability of risks.

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