The definition of the Precautionary Principle is evolving. It has its roots in common sense sayings like "better safe than sorry" and "look before you leap". Its origins are commonly said to be linked back to a German concept called Vorsorgeprinzip which carries with it a complex meaning including foresight, risk prevention, cost effectiveness, ethical responsibilities, and human fallibility. The term has been translated into English as the Precautionary Principle.
This article is taken from a paperback by the same name, Interpreting the Precautionary Principle. The article is in the library at the Ag Observatory i.
At the UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the Precautionary Principle was formally included in principle 15 of the Rio Declaration, which states:
"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 or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
The Precautionary Principle was further defined and clarified by participants at the Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network.
A simple summary:
- "When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."
- "The key element of the principle is that it incites us to take anticipatory action in the absence of scientific certainty."
- "The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof, insisting that those responsible for an activity must vouch for its harmlessness and be held responsible if damage occurs."
- "The precautionary principle is most powerful when it serves as a guide to making wiser decisions in the face of uncertainty."
This site has valuable information regarding the Precautionary Principle. Scroll down for the Wingspread consensus statement. Visit the FAQ page for a good general overview. Scroll to the bottom of the FAQ page for a list of some specific policies based on the Precautionary Principle.
The Precautionary Principle places an emphasizes on the prevention of hazard and a minimizing of risk. It encourages people to make the best possible choice among available alternatives including considering taking no action. It also shifts the burden of proof from people questioning a product or process to the people advocating it. Instead of an "innocent until proven guilty" approach, the possible harm is factored in and an expectation of some assurance of safety is preferred.
The US Green Building Council included a session on the Precautionary Principle at their Greenbuild conference in November of 2007. Three speakers examined the principle and discussed their experiences with it: Debbie Raphael from the city of San Francisco, Sandy Wiggins of Consilience. llc, and Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation. I'll share highlights from each speaker.
Debbie Raphael, Toxics Reduction/Green Building Program Manager, explained how the city of San Francisco took the Rio vision statement mentioned above in Principle 15 and created an ordinance. The ordinance is the foundation for purchasing decisions made by the city of San Francisco. In a nutshell, the ordinance helps the decision making process move beyond two commonly used questions: Is it legal? and Is it safe?. They determined these questions are not useful enough in decision making. And instead they have used the Precautionary Principle as a guiding force and now ask the question, Is it necessary? So, instead of saying for example, "Is a certain level of a carcinogen safe?" or "At what level can we consider it to be safe enough?", the question becomes: "Is it necessary?" This sets into motion the action of examining available alternatives with the goal always being to find the safest alternative in order to minimize harm. So, in the example provided, if alternatives that are not carcinogenic are affordable and work for the purpose needed, then the least harmful alternative is chosen on that basis.
Woven into the foundation of the Precautionary Principle and into the ordinance are two important characteristics: an obligation to minimize harm and public involvement in the process. Available scientific information is used but science is not expected to be the be all or end all. And science is acknowledged to have limits and fallibility. What we accept as scientific truth today may be refuted tomorrow. And when scientific information is uncertain but points to a serious or irreversible harm, then that can be reason enough for caution and for seeking a better solution. Public involvement gives people an opportunity to inject their values especially regarding potential risks. Debbie has witnessed this new decision making process help clarify the alternatives and provide solid defensible publicly guided decisions.
Sandy Wiggins is former chair of the board of directors of the US Green Building Council (USGBC). He spoke in broad terms about how our mind set and how the paradigms we operate within are the foundation for our decision making processes. What we control are the decisions we make. And the "fundamental increment for change is the individual human decision". So, we need to consciously set out paradigms and choose our decision making processes.
The USGBC has created a framework within which decisions can be made. The framework begins with the vision statement: "Buildings and communities will help regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation". From there, the council established five primary guiding principles: Ensure Inclusiveness, Exhibit Transparency, Establish Leadership, Reconcile Humanity with Nature, and Maintain Integrity. The underlying value system used to create and support these guiding principles are similar to those within the precautionary principle. And the last one, Maintain Integrity, specifically includes the precautionary principle in its' more specific next level statement: "USGBC will be guided by the precautionary principle in utilizing technical and scientific data to protect, preserve, and restore the health of the global environment, ecosystems, and species."
Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation spoke of the precautionary principle from the point of view of product development and the selection of chemical ingredients. The name of the company, Seventh Generation, is based on the Iroquois belief that "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations" and the precautionary principle is one of the tools they use to help reach this goal. Martin pointed out that the two basic factors to consider are hazards and risks. When there is a hazard you must in someway determine the risk in order to determine the best course of action. When the risk is clear, common sense tells us to avoid the hazard and therefore eliminate the risk. But, when the risk is uncertain, which is common, then it is prudent or cautious to avoid the potential hazard. Simply put, Seventh Generation creates products without including ingredients that are known to be hazardous. And if the hazard and subsequent risks are disputable, then the precautionary principle is used to avoid even a potentially harmful ingredient.
Three Year report of ordinance
Order GreenBuild proceedings
This page on the USGBC site has an order form for ordering all the proceedings of the Greenbuild Expo 2007. The standard proceedings cost $159. The session on the Preautionary Principle is one of the sessions.
You can find loads of information here including publicly accessible video archives of keynote and master speakers from Greenbuild 2007.