HORIZON > comes from question 14
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The precautionary principle, a phrase first used in English circa 1988, is the idea that if the consequences of an action are unknown, but are judged to have some potential for major or irreversible negative consequences, then it is better to avoid that action. The principle can alternately be applied in an active sense, through the concept of "preventative anticipation"  , or a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof of evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay will prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations. In practice the principle is most often applied in the context of the impact of human civilization or newtechnology on the environment, as the environment is a complex system where the consequences of some kinds of actions are often unpredictable.
The formal concept evolved out of the German socio-legal tradition that was created in the zenith of German Democratic Socialism in the 1930s, centering on the concept of good household management.  In German the concept is Vorsorgeprinzip , which roughly translates into English as principle of precaution . The concept includes risk prevention, cost effectiveness, ethical responsibilities towards maintaining the integrity of natural systems, and the fallibility of human understanding.
Origins and theory
The substance of the precautionary principle is not really new. The essence of the principle is captured in cautionary aphorisms such as 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,' 'Better safe than sorry,' and 'Look before you leap.'"  The precautionary principle may be interpreted as a generalisation of the ancient medical principle, associated with Hippocrates, of " first, do no harm ".  It may also be compared with the " beyond a reasonable doubt " standard of proof often used in criminal law, which may be seen as the application of the precautionary principle to the assumption of "innocent until proven guilty" (because society sees convicting the innocent as far worse than acquitting the guilty).
In economics , the precautionary principle has been analysed in terms of the effect on rational decision-making of the interaction of irreversibility and uncertainty. Authors such as Epstein (1980) and Arrow and Fischer (1974) show that irreversibility of possible future consequences creates a quasi- option effect which should induce a risk-neutral society to favor current decisions that allow for more flexibility in the future. Gollier et al (2000) conclude that "more scientific uncertainty as to the distribution of a future risk — that is, a larger variability of beliefs — should induce Society to take stronger prevention measures today."
The application of the precautionary principle is hampered by the wide range of interpretations placed on it. One study identified 14 different formulations of the principle in treaties and nontreaty declarations.  The range of interpretation may be characterised as running from the need to show that an action is "probably" safe, to showing that it is "definitely" safe. An analogy can be drawn with standards of proof used in law: from the "balance of probabilities" standard often used in civil law, to the " beyond a reasonable doubt " standard of proof often used in criminal law. The distinction with a "beyond all doubt" level of proof, as sometimes demanded by environmental activists in relation to environmental issues, is clear.
This variation in the burden of proof on whether to proceed with an action however interacts with varying perspectives on the validity and manner of trading off the action's costs and benefits, particularly when they fall on different groups. This introduces an ethical dimension - for example on the impact on future generations - which falls outside the domain of cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment and in the domain of politics.
In deciding how to apply the principle, analyses may use a cost-benefit analysis which factors in both the opportunity cost of not acting, and the option value of waiting for further information before acting. This implies that potentially harmful action can be taken before there is complete certainty about future consequences (which is in practice rarely attainable). One of the difficulties of the application of the principle in modern policy-making is that there is often an irreducible conflict between different interests, so that the debate cannot involve merely a neutral application of scientific risk assessment, but necessarily involves politics. This politics can affect the scientific judgements themselves, especially in the way that people wishing to achieve particular objectives may fund (or fail to fund) scientific research and the way the results are widely publicised or not.
International agreements and declarations
The World Charter for Nature, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1982, was the first international endorsement of the precautionary principle. The principle was implemented in an international treaty as early as the 1987 Montreal Protocol, and among other international treaties and declarations  is reflected in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (signed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) .
On 2 February 2000, the European Commission adopted a communication on the precautionary principle,  in which it defined this concept and explained how it intended to apply it. It is also defined in Article III-129(2) of the draft Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe :
Union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.
In this context, harmonisation measures answering environmental protection requirements shall include, where appropriate, a safeguard clause allowing Member States to take provisional steps, for non economic environmental reasons, subject to a procedure of inspection by the Union.
Saunders (2000) argues that in some instances, notably World Trade Organization policy, there is in effect an "anti-precautionary principle", under which the burden of proof is on society to quickly show that a new product is dangerous, rather than on the innovator to show that it is safe.
An oft-cited early modern application of the principle was John Snow's 1854 removal of the handle of a water pump in Broad Street, London, in order to prevent a cholera outbreak from the infected well. (At the time, the science on the spread of cholera through contaminated water was not yet conclusive.) The German Duke of Wuerttemberg and Teck had as early as 1778 banned the use of lead pipes for drinking water, 200 years before the solidly scientifically grounded WHO guidelines on the the toxicity of lead. ) The application of the principle can be seen in the public policy of requiring pharmaceutical companies to carry out clinical trials to show that new drugs are safe, as well as effective.
Proponents argue that in such situations, rational decision-making requires caution, in a generalisation of a maxim (falsely attributed to the Hippocratic oath, as pointed out by Phoenix and Treder) , of "first, do no harm". Critics may argue that such a principle, while correctly applied by a doctor who may have a significant effect an individual patient's life or death, should not be applied to broader policy making that can limit freedom and personal choice.
Critics of the principle argue that it is impractical, since every implementation of a technology carries some risk of negative consequences. Proponents counter that the principle is not an absolute rule, it is a conceptual tool to clarify arguments, and especially an issue of where the burden of proof lies. Someone in a debate regarding a proposal can say, I oppose this proposal on the grounds of the precautionary principle , without necessarily invoking the precautionary principle for other proposals. However, such selectivity in its use is in itself criticised, because it leaves open the possibility that it will only be used in the context of technologies that advocates of the principle typically oppose - such as nuclear fission or genetically modified organisms.
Another standard criticism of the precautionary principle is that it is only applied to new technologies, not the existing technologies that the new technology might supersede. Proponents of the principle argue that this is a misapplication of the principle - existing as well as new technologies should be applied. It is, in fact, an argument for the status quo in the absence of sufficient information to guarantee that change will be for the better ("better the devil you know").
The precautionary principle, as stated, does not take into accounts the potential positive benefits of a technology, which may be substantial. Thus, it assumes a zero lost opportunity cost, or that there is no cost associated with doing nothing . Studies to prove safety can cost a lot of money, and if it is assumed (or can be shown) that even the most overwhelming proof of safety would be fruitless since it could be dismissed by a sufficient number of determined objectors, these studies would be viewed as a waste of money and not performed - even if the studies really would have shown that the proposal was unsafe. This leads to a further criticism: using the precautionary principle, as opposed to risk assessment or similar approaches, actually impairs safety in practice, even if one ignores any opportunity costs.
Its use is often interpreted as protectionism (such as the case of beef fed with hormones , dealt by the World Trade Organisation), or as Neo-luddism in the case of opposition to genetic engineering, nanotechnology, stem cell research and related therapy, or even development of wilderness areas.
Vaccination programs have faced opposition from those who worry about possible damage they can inflict. Were the precautionary principle to be applied, these programs would never be run. Millions of people would suffer and die from the diseases these programs would have prevented, much more than the few who do get sick from vaccines. Institutions in charge of these programs try to balance the potential for risk and for reward when deciding whether to run a program, rather than requiring absolute proof of consequences or of no consequences.
Christian Gollier, Bruno Jullien and Nicolas Treich (2000), "Scientific Progress and Irreversibility: An Economic Interpretation of the ‘Precautionary Principle'", Journal of Public Economics' 75(2)
Arrow, K.J. and Fischer, A.C. (1974), "Environmental preservation, uncertainty and irreversibility", Quarterly Journal of Economics 88
O'Riordan, T. and Cameron, J. (1995), Interpreting the Precautionary Principle , Earthscan Publications, London.
Epstein, L.S. (1980), "Decision-making and the temporal resolution of uncertainty", International Economic Review 21
Saunders, P.T. (2000), " Use and Abuse of the Precautionary Principle ". Institute of Science in Society Submission to US Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy (ACIEP) Biotech. Working Group, 13 July.
Appell, David, Scientific American, "The New Uncertainty Principle", Jan 2001
The Times , 15 January 2005, "What is . . . the Precautionary Principle?"
Mismanaging risk - Adam Smith Institute Blog
European Environment Agency (2001), Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896–2000
Applying the Precautionary Principle to Nanotechnology, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology 2004
1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle
Science and Environmental Health Network, The Precautionary Principle in Action - a Handbook
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