Precautionary Principle

Mon Nov 16 13:03:00 EST 1992

Delwiche broaches one of the two major themes to have emerged from
the Earth Conference in Rio, and that is the Precautionary Principle.
Paraphrased, it suggests that modern policy should be guided by the
idea that if we have doubts about the outcomes of a policy, we should
not implement it. (Versus the traditional principle of having to prove
that a policy would be harmful before discontinuing it -the kind of
thinking that compromised the stratospheric ozone layer, and who knows
what else).

On the other hand, what does "harmful" mean? Is it synonymous with "change"?
Were the policies of the Green Revolution harmful in being powered by
increased chemical fertilizers that degraded ground water supplies in those
countries that could afford to buy them in the first place? Or would it
have been less harmful to permit famines to go on unabated? 

How about the availability of antibiotics or vaccinations? Is it harmful
to change population dynamics by artificially curbing mortality rates?

In other words, what are "reasonable precautions". I think this falls under
the heading of "Risk Assessment", a field currently in vogue. I think the
bright spot in precautionary thinking, is that for the first time in 
my lifetime, the biosphere is being given very explicit consideration at
the highest levels of decision making in the industrial world.

George Ellmore
Tufts University
Medford, MA  02155

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