The Precautionary Principle: Bedrock of Sustainability?

By Jonathan Wootliff

First mooted back in 1972 at a United Nations conference in Stockholm, the so-called “precautionary principle” has become as much anathema to some and godsend to others. A local and timely example of this highly controversial concept is a growing debate about the right of Asian Carp to swim in the Great Lakes.

Five Great Lakes states are calling for the Chicago Area Waterway System to stop this particular species of carp—the silver carp to be precise—from moving into Lake Michigan from waters connected to the Mississippi River. Participants of the unbelievably-named Redneck Fishing Tournament are among those opposed to the prospect of being denied the opportunity to catch these shimmering fish which apparently have a habit of somersaulting in the air. Although a story of limited interest, the fracas is helping to throw a spotlight on to the precautionary principle which has consequences far beyond the future of a prospective new immigrant to the waters of this part of the world.

The Great Lakes lawyers are arguing that these voracious feeders—which can grow to more than 40 pounds—will have dire consequences for the region. In fact nobody really knows how well these fish will do, or whether they are being unfairly demonized in the absence of any evidence of their potential adverse impact.

Hosted nearly 40 years ago in the Swedish capital, the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment represented the first major gathering on international environmental issues and spawned many vexed issues, including climate change. I would argue that the precautionary principle represents the mother of all environmental debate and the bedrock of sustainability. And I would further contend that, in spite of its relatively low-profile to date—particularly in the United States—that it is only a matter of time before the concept takes center stage.

image: Mike Licht

In essence, the precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm, in the absence of scientific consensus that it is actually unsafe, the burden of proof that it is not dangerous falls on those taking the action. In this case, unless their proponents can prove that the arrival of Asian Carp will be harmless to the ecosystem, the fish must be kept out of the lake.

This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of dangerous consequences from taking a particular course or making a certain decision when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. Importantly, this implies that when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk, there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm. It is also asserted that these protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

First embraced by the European Union, it is the precautionary principle that effectively killed Monsanto’s grand ambitions to introduce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the agricultural systems of its member states. With the knowledge that GMOs remain outlawed in Europe, only a fool would denounce the precautionary principle as marginal or unimportant.

The principle was implemented in an international treaty as early as the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This formed a major part of the Vienna Convention that led to the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons and revolutionized the refrigeration and air conditioning industries.

In the United States, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 contain provisions for implementing the Montreal Protocol, as well as explicit, separate authority for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? (EPA) to regulate ozone-depleting chemicals.

In spite of it still being predominantly anchored on the other side of the Atlantic, there is no doubt that the precautionary principle is gaining popularity in the United States. Inevitably, the principal is seen as a friend of the environmental movement, but it is gaining support in legislative circles.

The City of San Francisco, for example, passed a precautionary principle purchasing ordinance in 2005, which requires the city to weigh the environmental and health costs of its $600 million in annual purchases, for everything from cleaning supplies to computers. Members of the Bay Area Working Group on the precautionary principle including the influential Breast Cancer Fund, helped bring this to fruition.

Anger and concern in the aftermath of the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe is helping to win further support for the principle. While it’s impossible to envisage a ban on deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere, there is bound to be an increasing burden of responsibility on the part of the oil companies to prove their facilities will do no harm before permits are awarded.

There is evidence that the precautionary principle has growing traction at the EPA. The agency’s head of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, Mathy Stanislaus, recently stated that implementing the precautionary principle is a key to EPA’s environmental justice efforts. And I know many senior staffers at the organization who follow this line of thinking.

“We can’t wait until we have all the conclusive interpretive science to make a decision,” said Stanislaus. While his critics suggest that this is indicative of a Luddite fear of new technology, it’s hard to forecast anything but increased support for this approach.

This all underlines the need for corporations to actively engage with society, particularly with non-governmental organizations that so often articulate the concerns of ordinary people. With trust in business now at an all-time low, according to multiple surveys, new innovations have got to pass the approval test of the general public.

Government is showing itself increasingly reluctant to defend the corporate world and more intent on being seen as the protector of the common man and woman. Growing perception that adverse environmental impacts will sooner or later harm us is going to accelerate this trend.

The precautionary principle presents some tough challenges for companies. I believe it will only gain in strength. And those businesses with a true commitment to corporate social responsibility and sustainability will focus more on environmental health and safety rather than investing in trying to stop the inevitable.

Jonathan Wootliff is the former Communications Director for Greenpeace International and now heads the Corporate Accountability practice at Chicago-based Reputation Partners, where he works with global corporations to build effective corporate accountability strategies, particularly on environmental issues.

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One Response to “The Precautionary Principle: Bedrock of Sustainability?”
  1. larry himmelblau says:

    “The Precautionary Principle” is a horrible concept!
    Specifically when applied to toxicology and medicine. Should I take a tylenol if I think a meeting tommorow will give me a headache. Should be ban all chemicals that might have a possible chance of having a small effect on some people without doing the consensus testing.

    The title should not be applied In the case where there is an obvious cause and effect. The carb kills native fish. The native fish are valueable as food the carb is not. Preemptive acts are needed.

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