The Precautionary Principle

Innocent young girl about age 6

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

– from the 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle

The concept for the Precautionary Principle was around for centuries before the term was coined.  The principle is captured in a number of 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 also be interpreted as the evolution of the [Hippocratic Oath] of “first, do no harm” applied to institutions and institutional decision-making processes rather than individuals.


Instead of asking the basic risk-assessment question “How much harm is allowable?”, the precautionary approach asks “How little harm is possible?”

Faced with reasonable suspicion of harm, the precautionary approach urges a full evaluation of available alternatives for the purpose of preventing or minimizing harm.

— (Peter Montague, The Precautionary Principle in the Real World)

The scientists, doctors and others who participated in the Wingspread conference agreed that “the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof”. They concluded that current environmental policies do not do enough to prevent environmental disasters instead of controlling damage after an incident.

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