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Implementing the Precautionary Principle: incorporating science, technology, fairness, and accountability in environmental, health, and safety decisions.

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  • Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA. nashford@mit.edu

Abstract

The Precautionary Principle is in sharp political focus today because: 1) the nature of scientific uncertainty is changing, and 2) there is increasing pressure to base governmental action on more "rational" schemes, such as cost-benefit analysis and quantitative risk assessment, the former being an embodiment of "rational choice theory" promoted by the Chicago School of Law and Economics. The Precautionary Principle has been criticized as being both too vague and too arbitrary to form a basis for rational decision making. The assumption underlying this criticism is that any scheme not based on cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment is both irrational and without secure foundation in either science or economics. This paper contests that view and makes explicit the rational tenets of the Precautionary Principle within an analytical framework as rigorous as uncertainties permit, and one that mirrors democratic values embodied in regulatory, compensatory, and common law. Unlike other formulations that reject risk assessment, this paper argues that risk assessment can be used within the formalism of tradeoff analysis--a more appropriate alternative to traditional cost-benefit analysis and one that satisfies the need for well-grounded public policy decision making. This paper will argue that the precautionary approach is the most appropriate basis for policy, even when large uncertainties do not exist, especially where the fairness of the distributions of costs and benefits of hazardous activities and products are a concern. Furthermore, it will offer an approach to making decisions within an analytic framework, based on equity and justice, to replace the economic paradigm of utilitarian cost-benefit analysis.

PMID:
15212207
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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