Course Notes – IL: The Precautionary Principle

A couple of my students have engaged in a discussion on our course blog regarding the precautionary principle.

One student noted some of the potential advantages to principle:

In the U.S. (considering the increase in political chatter about domestic oil drilling) perhaps some of the uncertainties about byproducts from drilling fluids, fracking fluids, and accident/spill oil and their health effect on local populations and food stocks could be used to mitigate some of the “Drill baby, drill!” legislation being put forth by policymakers who are in the pocket of big oil?

Another student notes a potential disadvantaget:

At what point is there enough research to predict or think that something may pose a risk or may harm the environment?

Indeed, there are broad range of usages of the concept, something Manson does a decent job sorting out in his article “Formulating the precautionary principle”.

I shared in class the findings of Wiener and Rogers, who compare the use of the principle in the US and Europe. They find that part of the reason for our differences is our different legal systems, including the degree of protections for corporations from lawsuits, access to the courts for potential litigants, and relationships between regulatory bodies and corporations. Ultimately, the precautionary principle is about risk management, and it seems reasonable to assume that different political and legal systems have evolved different means to assess and address risks. For a defense of the precautionary principle see Sandin et al. in the Journal of Risk Research. For some of the challenges see, for instance: Bristow 2003, Peterson 2007. These all probably are not the best sources but are decent places to start.

My own take is that it is easy to take the precautionary principle to an unreasonable absolutist place. There are also problems in terms of the selective application of the principle. Consider the issue of food risks. We may be quick to apply the principle to the introduction of new foods such as those which are “genetically modified”. But there are many foods that we currently consume that have both known and unknown risks. Even coffee, which I drink gallons of every week, has plenty of scientific evidence against (and for!) it.