The Precautionary Principle

Once that judgement is made, it is the task of risk management to prevent, reduce, or alter these consequences by choosing appropriate actions. Risk management is always confronted with the following questions: How much transformation of ecosystems is tolerable? Where do societies set the boundary between acceptable and non-acceptable risks? Such a fundamental judgment cannot be justified by an all-encompassing substantive rule. Rather, one needs procedural principles that help societies to make tolerability judgments and to select risk management options. One of these rules refer to the precautionary principle. This principle has been formulated in many different ways in many different places (one root may be the 'foresight principle' adopted to German environmental law in the 1960s). The most widely used formulation of the principle can be found in the Rio Declaration:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious of irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. (Rio Declaration 1992, Principle 15)

This articulation of the principle allows risk managers to initiate regulatory actions even if the scientific evidence about risks is not yet conclusive. But how much evidence is evidence enough to trigger such actions? Is the precautionary principle an instrument to ban all new activities because one can always find claims for serious harm regardless of the 'true' nature of the intervention? How accountable are risk managers if they can (freely or even arbitrarily) decide what evidence they will accept as sufficient to invoke the precautionary principle?

Despite the intensity of attention that the principle has received in the policy arenas, there remain a number of serious ambiguities and queries concerning the nature and appropriate role of the precautionary principle in governance. These are addressed - if not resolved - in a burgeoning academic and more policy-oriented literature. In order to understand the principle in the context of a larger array of risk management strategies, it is necessary to look more deeply into the fabrics of ecological risks. This is done in the next section.

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