Research Letter 2.4

‘The Precautionary Principle’: Apply with Caution

On the news, in the courts and in the scientific literature, it seems that ‘The Precautionary Principle’ is being invoked to support the actions of one or another party (or both?) in disputes over management policy. What it means seems to depend on who wants to claim it! There are even books about interpretingand applying the Principle (O’Riodan and Cameron 1994, Deville and Harding 1997) but, as the following quotations indicate, the debate continues:

What then is The Precautionary Principle?

Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration [states]: ‘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 measure[s] to prevent environmental degradation’. (Rose 1997).

Given the history of the concept - it is not the purpose of this Letter to solve the problem! Rather, I take a set of questions that may be used as a guide to the appropriate use of the Principle; they are taken from Calver et al. (1999) - who have drawn them from the work of Deville and Harding (1997).

Are precautionary measures needed?

How precautious should we be?

What precautionary measures can be applied?

What precautionary measures should be applied?

These questions seem to be designed to make sure that: (1) the problem is carefully stated, (2) information is assembled to identify how critical the problem really is, (3) a variety of alternative policies may need to be considered, and (4) a suitable choice is made. If the problem is serious enough to be considered in the light of the Precautionary Principle then the answer to question 4 above may involve ‘experimental management’, formal scientific experiment or, at least, monitoring.

Two likely responses of scientists to the quoted definition of the Precautionary Principle are that: (1) there is no such thing as “full scientific certainty” or, (2) the answer to the underlying problem being addressed is to be found in more research. Rose (1997) picks up on the first of these two views. She notes - after attributing to an American Scientist, Frank Egler, the view that ‘ecosystems may not only be more complex than we think, they may be more complex than we can think’ - that: This view represents a fundamental paradigm shift: from the proposition that incomplete knowledge is an obstacle to be overcome, to the proposition that incomplete knowledge is a property of a living system.

Whatever our views, it is true that none of us know everything about everything. Isn’t this what managers of many persuasions have been saying for years: “We can’t wait for all the information needed because important decisions have to be made NOW!”. Perhaps the Precautionary Principle would suggest that, at the very least, such imperatives for decision making should involve all the resources available inside and outside the responsible agency, and involve preparations for the future time when the same, or similar, problem will demand an answer “NOW”.

Literature :

Calver,M.C., Bradley, J.S. and Wright, I.W. (1999). Towards scientific contributions in applying the precautionary principle: an example from southwestern Australia. Pacific Conservation Biology 5, 63-72.

Christensen, P. (1998). The Precautionary Principle and grazing, burning and medium sized mammals in northern New South Wales. Australian Forestry 61, 195-203.

Deville,A. and Harding, R. (1997). Applying the Precautionary Principle. The Federation Press, Sydney.

O’Riordan, T. and Cameron, J. (eds) (1994). Interpreting the Precautionary Principle. Earthscan Publications Ltd, London.

Rose, D.B. (1997). Indigenous ecological knowledge and the scientific community. In: B.J. McKaige, R.J. Williams and W.M. Waggit (eds) Bushfire ’97 Proceedings, Australian Bushfire Conference, 8-10 July 1997, Darwin. Pp. 69-74. Parks Australia North, Darwin.

A.. Malcolm Gill

December 20, 2001