Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing The Precautionary Principle

Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing The Precautionary Principle

by Wes Jackson

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Protecting Public Health and the Environment describes the history, specific content, and scientific and philosophical foundations of the principle of precautionary action.


Protecting Public Health and the Environment describes the history, specific content, and scientific and philosophical foundations of the principle of precautionary action.

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Protecting Public Health & the Environment

Implementing the Precautionary Principle

By Carolyn Raffensperger, Joel A. Tickner


Copyright © 1999 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-303-4



Andrew Jordan and Timothy O'Riordan

This chapter outlines the history of the Precautionary Principle and discusses its current status in national and international environmental policies. We need to know about the genesis of the principle before considering how to improve its application in the future. To this end, we open this chapter by discussing the broad meaning of the Precautionary Principle as it has emerged in the last twenty years. We discuss the origins of the principle in the environmental policy of the former West Germany. We go on to outline seven "core" elements of precautionary thinking and the extent to which they find expression in contemporary environmental policy. Finally, we begin the process of considering how to improve existing tools of decision making to incorporate precautionary thinking. Paradoxically, we conclude that the application of precaution will remain politically potent so long as it continues to be tantalizingly ill-defined and imperfectly translatable into codes of conduct, while capturing the emotions of misgiving and guilt. Indeed, as we move into an era of greater scientific engagement with various political interests over the application of precautionary measures in particular decision-making situations, and when futures have to be selected rather than decreed, so the Precautionary Principle will become part of the mainstream and the more participatory politics of the transition to sustainability.


The modern environmental movement proceeds by capturing ideas and transforming them into principles, guidelines, and points of leverage. Sustainability is one such idea, now being reinterpreted and implemented in the aftermath of the 1992 Rio Conference (for reviews see O'Riordan, Jordan and Voisey, 1998; O'Riordan and Voisey, 1998). So too is the Precautionary Principle being reinterpreted and implemented. Like sustainability, it is neither a well-defined nor a stable concept. Rather, it has become the repository for a jumble of adventurous beliefs that challenge the status quo of political power, ideology, and environmental rights. Neither concept has much coherence other than it is captured by the spirit that is challenging the authority of science, the hegemony of cost-benefit analysis, the powerlessness of victims of environmental abuse, and the unimplemented ethics of intrinsic natural rights and intergenerational equity. It is because the mood of the times needs an organizing idea that the Precautionary Principle is getting attention.

To stop the sustainability concept from becoming completely meaningless, Norton (1992, 98) calls for the following:

a set of principles, derivable from a core idea of sustainability, but sufficiently specific to provide significant guidance in day to day decisions and in policy choices affecting the environment.

Precaution is one such principle, for it provides an intuitively simple approach to ensuring that human intervention in environmental systems is made less damaging. Admittedly, precaution lacks a specific definition. As yet, it cannot prescribe specific actions or solve the kind of moral, ethical, and economic dilemmas that are part and parcel of the modern environmental condition. Nonetheless, the Precautionary Principle has much efficacy because it captures an underlying misgiving over the growing technicalities of environmental management at the expense of ethics and open dialogue; of environmental rights in the face of vulnerability; and of the manipulation of cost-benefit analysis by powerful vested interests supporting development.

So what kind of practical steps does the Precautionary Principle require decision makers to take? To date, precaution provides few, if any, operable guidelines for policy makers nor does it constitute a rigorous analytical schema. Yet, it is accepted by many national governments and supranational entities such as the United Nations (U.N.) and the European Union (EU), for example, as a guiding principle of policy making. It is found in the climate convention and the Rio Declaration (Cameron, 1994). There is little doubt that for the big global issues of climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and biodiversity loss, the Precautionary Principle carries much greater legal (and by extension political) weight than it does in day-to-day local environmental issues. What remains desperately unclear is how this high-level interpretation of precaution can be translated to the areas of pollution control, risk management, and waste minimization and assimilation, especially where trans-border policies are required.

In a nutshell, precaution challenges the established scientific method; it tests the application of cost-benefit analysis in those areas where it is undoubtedly weakest (i.e., situations where environmental damage is irreversible, possibly catastrophic, or simply unknown); it calls for changes to established legal principles and practices such as liability, compensation, and burden of proof; and it challenges politicians to begin thinking through longer timeframes than the next election or the immediate economic recession. Precaution also exposes the existing discipline-bound and reductionist organization of academic research and raises difficult issues about the quality of life for future generations and other species. It is profoundly radical and potentially very unpopular. But it is enduring, and it resonates with the anxieties of the modern age.

Precaution reflects the mood of distrust over the introduction of risky technologies, processes, and products that are assumed to be forced on the unknowing and susceptible public by commercial interests, allied to governments, and exerting manipulative, self-interested power over consumers. This is the challenge introduced by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck (Beck, 1992) who argues that society is trapped in a loop whereby risky technologies to which it is inextricably wedded produce socially disruptive and damaging effects such as pollution and habitat loss. Precaution is one of the devices through which that loop can be broken. However, in his characterization of modern society as a struggle to cope with reflexive modernization, Beck does not give the "resistance through precaution" movement as much credit as it deserves.

As precaution becomes increasingly integrated into modern environmentalism, it may well run the risk of following the dangerously successful, epistemologically ambiguous pathway pioneered by sustainability. We say "dangerously successful" because it is precisely the uncritical accumulation of meanings, often contradictory and impractical, that have characterized the success of the sustainability notion in recent years, blunting its uncomfortable message that the existing trajectory of development is socially and environmentally unsustainable.

Lawyers and scientists say the concept is unclear and lacks content. In particular, they argue that it fails to specify where and when precautionary measures should be applied and by whom. We argue below that precaution is a culturally framed concept that has evolved along different pathways and at different rates in different countries. Searching for a single, all-encompassing definition is, therefore, likely to be a fruitless endeavor because individuals will never agree upon what is or is not precautionary in a given situation. Cultural theory tells us that there is no one single context of risk perception. We all "see" the world in a different way, although four broad archetypes can be distinguished (Jordan and O'Riordan, 1997; O'Riordan, Marris, and Langford, 1997). So those who regard the environment as inherently robust and capable of withstanding sustained human impact will tend to be less precautionary than those who regard human impact on nature as unpredictable and potentially calamitous. These value positions are deeply entrenched, and scientists and policy makers need to be more sensitive to this when they communicate risk to the body politic.

We are happy to accept that the Precautionary Principle offers no more than a broad guide to policy makers to move to anticipate problems before they occur, which could involve acting before there is full scientific understanding of the circumstances. Arguably, the precise meaning of precaution will only emerge when stakeholders come together to make a decision in a particular context, trading costs against benefits and determining tolerable levels of damage. After all, what is precautionary in one cultural context may not be regarded as precautionary in another. For example, the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into food products is generally tolerated in the United States but is being resisted in Europe. Part of the reason for this difference, which has led to protracted trade disputes between the two areas (Vogel, 1997), is the richer culture of "natural food" preferences among Europeans. Part, too, is the active engagement by high profile NGOs in Europe in what they see as symbolic entry of GMOs into the food chain. Recently, the Austrian Government announced it would oppose cultivation approval in the EU for a genetically modified tomato developed by the British firm Zeneca. The tomato has been cultivated and sold in pureed form in Britain since 1996. Zeneca needs the EU's approval before it can cultivate and market the product in the rest of Europe. The company is confident that the product is safe and believes the public has nothing to fear—sales of the engineered puree in the United Kingdom are apparently double those of the conventional product. Environmental groups in Austria had mounted a last minute campaign to convince the national consumer affairs ministry to block commercialization on the grounds that its safety was unproven. A Greenpeace Austria spokesperson described the tomato as "another example of a genetically modified plant that nobody needs and only serves to optimise the profits of big companies [while] we consumers have to bear the risks" (Environmental Data Services (ENDS) Daily, 1998a). So the political stakes are higher in Europe than in the United States, and the context of risk perception reflects the role of precaution.

The cultural context, therefore, is not just a matter of accounting for the spatial variability of the environment (i.e., the carrying capacity of one locality being greater than another). Rather, people should be provided with the means to work out what precaution means for them in their own localities. We try to identify the principles that should guide that process of searching and discovery. Involving the public in precautionary environmental management is not simply a normative demand for better government. On the contrary, if precaution involves acting before the availability of full scientific information, then grounds other than "good science," such as ethical, moral, or political, are required to legitimate policy decisions. This is why decisions that are imposed without prior consultation are unlikely to be regarded as truly precautionary. Precaution means being honest and open about uncertainty rather than dismissing, ignoring, or downplaying it. It means exploring the worst-case scenario and searching out the ill-informed and possible "losers" from a course of action, asking what they regard as legitimate.


The precautionary principle emerged during the 1970s in the former West Germany at a time of social democratic planning. At the core of early conceptions of precaution (or Vorsorge) was the belief that the state should seek to avoid environmental damage by careful forward planning. The word Vorsorge means foresight or taking care, although it also incorporates notions of good husbandry and best practice in environmental management even in the absence of risk (von Moltke, 1988). There is no standard statement about its role or its meaning. Albert Weale (1992, 79) quotes one respected German commentator who has identified at least eleven separate meanings. The Vorsorgeprinzip (Precautionary Principle) was used by the German government in the early 1980s to justify the implementation of vigorous policies to tackle acid rain, global warming, and pollution of the North Sea. In relation to these problems, Vorsorge implied fitting the best available abatement technology in order to minimize polluting emissions at the source.

It is important to understand the context in which precautionary thinking first developed. For Hajer (1995) and Weale (1992, 1993), Vorsorge is part of a wider set of ideas or an ideology the Germans label "ecological modernization." This is still a vague notion, but like Brundtland it suggests that the relationship between environmental protection and development is not necessarily antagonistic and can be made to be mutually advantageous. The Precautionary Principle was warmly received in Germany because it seemed to legitimize greener forms of economic growth. One of the fundamental tenets of ecological modernization is that high environmental standards are an opportunity for, rather than a constraint upon, economic growth. High standards of environmental protection were seen to have the potential to spur the development of green technologies, reduce waste, and meet the demands of a more environmentally aware public. Remember that this was a time of unprecedented public concern about environmental damage, particularly the threat of acid rain to natural, coniferous forests to which the Germans are very emotionally and culturally attached. Significantly, the notion of ecological modernization fitted with the dominant path of postwar economic development in Germany, namely the income and employment linked to the export of goods and services with a high value-added technological content. The technology forcing capacity of progressive environmental standards has served the German economy well since the 1970s, encouraging the development of a lucrative clean technology sector that now employs 320,000 people (OECD, 1992). We should expect precaution to receive much less of a clear wind when it sets down limits to economic growth, such as the preservation of a particular habitat or the withholding of a new technology or product such as a genetically engineered crop on the grounds that scientific understanding of its long-term environmental impacts is insufficiently clear.

Both Weale and Hajer show, however, that the precautionary discourse found a less favorable hearing in countries such as the United Kingdom, with a long tradition of scientific corporatism and elitism. The United Kingdom, at that time, exhibited a more secretive and consensual style of environmental management and a deeply institutionalized preference for externalizing waste using long pipes and tall chimneys to make the optimal use of the waste assimilative capacity of the environment. These days of scientific nationalism in the United Kingdom are now over, due largely to the steady incursion of EU laws and policy procedures and the penetration of national policy networks by environmental pressure groups (Jordan, 1998a), although the lesson that precaution flounders in societies that are not instinctively risk averse is an instructive one nonetheless. Openness of information is increasingly the norm in Britain, and regulatory policy has become steadily more pro-active and consensual, though still in a punitive mode. These shifts are part of modernization generally but indicate too that precaution has been opportunistically adapted to these changes.

Precaution, then, emerged in a society experiencing unprecedented levels of support for environmental matters. It was used by German authorities in the early 1980s to justify the unilateral application of technology-based standards to reduce acid rain. Once in place, the Germans pressed the EU to adopt similar standards across the rest of Europe, to prevent its own industries being placed at a competitive disadvantage. This was not enlightened environmentalism at work but the dictates of a competitive market of member states. According to Weale (1998):

The policy debate was more dominated by competitive considerations rather than environmental concerns, as much of the delay [in adopting measures] was due to fears about comparative costs and benefits of individual states.


Excerpted from Protecting Public Health & the Environment by Carolyn Raffensperger, Joel A. Tickner. Copyright © 1999 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Carolyn Raffensperger is coordinator for the Science and Environmental Health Network, a national consortium of environmental groups dedicated to the use of science to protect the environment and public health based in Windsor, North Dakota. Joel Tickner is research associate at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and has served as advisor to numerous environmental organizations. Contributors Ken Geiser Wes Jackson Carolyn Raffensperger Joel Tickner Andrew Jordan Timothy O'Riordan David Santillo Paul Johnston Ruth Stringer Bo Wahlstrom Carl Cranor David Ozonoff Katherine Barrett Michael M'Gonigle Anita Bernstein Dominic Counsell Nicholas Ashford Mary O'Brien Laura Cornwell Robert Costanza Sanford Lewis Richard Sclove Madeleine Scammell Gordon Durnil Fred Kirschenmann Peter Montague Ted Schettler Peter deFur

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