The Precautionary Principle Applied To The Environment

From time to time, there are discussions concerning various perspectives surrounding environmental management. The Precautionary Principle is often central to these discussions. Accordingly, and in simple terms, the environmental consequences of an action should be understood before an action is taken.

This principle can be applied at various levels. First, it can be ignored. Clearly, this is not prudent and has resulted in serious past environmental damage, such as due to mining in the Appalachians 100 years ago. Second, it can be applied at the “common sense” level; wherein the probable harmful consequences of an action should be researched and understood before an action is taken. Third, it can be applied at the “absolute” level, wherein all possible consequence of an action must be absolutely understood before an action is taken.

The common sense level weights the probable consequences against the probable benefits in determining if an action should be taken. This is analogous to a physician weighing the probable risks of a medication against the probable benefits to the patient.

At the absolute level, no action is ever taken because it is impossible to absolutely understand all environmental risks of an action at every place, at every time and through time. The demand for the application of the Precautionary Principle at the absolute level is a tool of the preservationists. Nothing is ever done.

Related to the Precautionary Principle is the fear of “unintended consequences.” Only by foregoing an action can all unintended consequences be absolutely avoided. It is impossible to fully anticipate all possible consequences of an action at every place, at every time, and through time. Again, nothing is ever done.

It is very difficult to live one’s life according to the Precautionary Principle as applied at the absolute level. If we are to demand absolute safety in the actions of others, then are we not obliged to demand absolute safety in our personal lives, or expect a question of hypocrisy? We must not consume any medications because such chemical compounds almost always carry the possibility of unintended side-effects. We must not permit any surgical procedures because there are always unintended health risks associated with such procedures. We must not consume store-bought groceries because there is always the unintended risks of bacterial-related illnesses, such as E.coli. We must not ride in automobiles or buses, on motorcycles, or even on bicycles because these modes of transportation all carry unintended risks. Indeed, automobile transport is commonly regarded as our most dangerous activity.

One might argue that in personal matters only our own welfare is at risk; hence we are free to make our own choices. Whereas, environmental-management actions often affect the welfare of others, sometimes many others. This is the nature of management by government. But are we not still free to make choices? We can choose to follow the use restrictions resulting from such actions, or not. We can chose to live in the area where such actions are taken, or not. Management can be inconvenient.

And so, we must be content with the Precautionary Principle applied at the common-sense level. It is then prudent to rely upon the best judgements of those trained and experienced in the issue-at-hand, just as we rely upon the judgements of physicians in addressing our medical issues. The discussion is really about probable benefits versus probable risks, rather than possible or unintended risks. And again, it seems prudent to rely upon the established experts, rather than speculation concerning what could or might happen.

Dr. Terry Toy is a professor emeritus and a Bemus Point resident.