The Precautionary principle holds that if an action or policy has the potential of causing harm to public health or to the environment, then the burden of proof demonstrating that it is not harmful will fall on those individuals who wish to undertake the action. The principle is applicable in instances where there is no scientific evidence that suggests that the policy in question could be harmful.
There is no concrete universal definition of the Precautionary Principle as of now. However, most definitions of the theory agree that if there is a possibility that a human activity could be harmful to the environment and public health, then precautions need to be taken. Furthermore, the burden of proof lies with the proponents of the activity and not those who could be harmed by the occurrence of the activity. The Principle has become an integral tenet of environmentally sustainable development (Gollier, Bruno, & Treich, 2000).
The Precautionary Principle originated in Germany in the 1960s. The principle has continued to play an essential role in environmental regulation across the industrialized nations. It has been applied in a wide variety of fields internationally including but not limited to hazardous waste management, climate change, ozone depletion, nuclear power, and biodiversity. The premise is that the governments and corporations should observe social responsibility to protect the society from exposure to harm when scientific investigation reveals a plausible risk, even when these investigations are not conclusive (Eaton, 2010).
The principle is in direct conflict with the scientific analysis of risk. Scientific risk assessment proponents argue that there is no reason to ban an activity unless there is concrete scientific evidence that shows that the activity is harmful to the environment and public health. Obviously, industries will argue that they need more proof before banning a potentially lucrative activity. Industries and government officials are usually against the Precautionary Principle while the public, the ones who suffer from potentially harmful activities, are proponents of the Principle.
Eaton, T.A. (2010). Taking sides: Clashing views on environmental issues. Boston, MA: Mc-Graw Hill.
Gollier, C., Bruno, J., & Treich, N. (2000). Scientific progress and irreversibility: An economic interpretation of the ‘Precautionary Principle’. Journal of Public Economics 75(2):229-253.