Burden of Proof: The Precautionary Principle

Multinational Monitor, March-April 2009 | Go to article overview

Burden of Proof: The Precautionary Principle


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Using the precautionary principle, decision-makers can ask whether products or projects are being done in the least-harmful way possibl. They might ask proponents to reveal who's going to get the benefits and who's going to be saddled with the harm.

An Interview with Peter Montague

Peter Montague is director of the Environmental Research Foundation in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He was the longtime editor of Rachel's Environment and Health News, an incisive weekly newsletter which recently ceased publication after its 1000th issue. He has co-authored two books on toxic heavy metals in the natural environment and is presently writing a book about the precautionary principle.

Multinational Monitor: What is the precautionary principle?

Peter Montague: The precautionary principle is a way of making decisions about things we care about, especially when we're not sure we have all the information we think we need. It's a way of making decisions in the face of uncertainty. The overarching goal of precaution is to minimize harm to present and future generations and to the ecosystems on which all life depends.

There are really three things that distinguish the precautionary approach from more traditional decision-making.

First, precaution assumes that the proponents of a product or project should provide evidence that (a) they have looked at all reasonable alternatives and are going about their business in the least harmful way possible; and (b) their activities are not likely to degrade human health or the natural environment.

Second, precautionary decision-making engages the people who will be affected by a decision--really engages them. At least that's what's supposed to happen. Instead of the five-minute democracy so typical at public hearings in the U.S., where citizens are given five minutes to comment, precaution urges an extensive process of engaging citizens in decisions.

Finally, because precaution is used when we are uncertain about the consequences of our actions, precaution urges us to monitor the consequences of our decisions and be prepared to alter course if things are turning out badly. Therefore, precaution favors decisions that can be reversed, avoiding irretrievable commitments.

MM: Doesn't the precautionary principle put an impossible burden on companies to show something is not unsafe?

Montague: Not really. When a drug company wants to market a new drug, we ask them to provide reasonable evidence of no harm and we ask them to show that their new product will do some good (they must show "efficacy"). The assumption is that a new drug will be harmful or useless (or both) and it's up to the company to prove otherwise. The burden of proof is on the company promoting the new drug, not on the public (or their government) to provide persuasive information.

The precautionary principle applies these same ideas more generally. Using the precautionary principle, decision makers can ask whether products or projects are being done in the least-harmful way possible, and they might ask the proponents to reveal who's going to get the benefits and who's going to be saddled with the harm. A side benefit of this approach is that we can assess the fairness of a proposed activity. Conceivably, precaution could lead to a really fundamental question, such as, "Do we need this at all? Does it provide any real benefits to anyone?"

Of course, even the best scientific efforts to anticipate problems with a product or project can fail to foresee problems--even serious problems. Think of the ozone layer being depleted by refrigeration chemicals. Unpleasant surprises are a regular feature of modern industrial life, so, after we make a decision, we must monitor carefully and be prepared to alter course when necessary.

MM: How does the precautionary principle compare to the cost-benefit analysis approach to risk?

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