Precaution, Environmental Science, and Preventive Public Policy

By Marchant, Gary | Environmental Health Perspectives, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Precaution, Environmental Science, and Preventive Public Policy


Marchant, Gary, Environmental Health Perspectives


Edited by Joel A. Tickner Washington, DC:Island Press, 2003. 406 pp. ISBN: 1-55963-331-X, $60 cloth; ISBN: 1-55963-332-8, $30 paper.

Except perhaps for SARS, few things have spread across the planet as quickly as the precautionary principle (PP). In just the past decade, the PP has been incorporated into an untold number of international environmental agreements, national, state, and local laws, and judicial decisions. Despite this phenomenal success, the PP remains inchoate and controversial.

One unresolved issue is how the PP relates to risk analysis. The European Commission published an influential communication in 2000 asserting that the PP applies only to risk management and not to the preceding risk assessment step, which is primarily a scientific undertaking. Precaution, Environmental Science, and Preventive Public Policy advocates a contrary position, arguing that the PP should apply throughout the risk analysis process, particularly to science and the assessment of risk.

This collection of 25 papers, resulting from a September 2001 conference, the International Summit on Science and the Precautionary Principle, makes no attempt to provide a balanced debate on the interaction of science and precaution. Rather, it is a manifesto for a more precautionary science that gives greater weight to preventing false negatives than do current practices, which the book argues are unduly preoccupied with preventing false positives. The authors approach this common theme from a variety of national perspectives, disciplines, contexts, and case studies. It is impossible to do justice to these diverse contributions in this brief review. Suffice it to say, as with any such heterogeneous collection, some of the chapters are stronger than others; but altogether, this volume offers a wealth of new arguments, experiences, and ideas that will give both proponents and critics of the PP much to consider.

The book seeks to attack directly the frequent criticism that the PP is anti-science and to show how the PP and science can work hand in hand to address environmental risks. It sets forth a framework for a more precautionary science, which incorporates a number of familiar and widely supported measures. These include greater emphasis on interdisciplinary efforts in evaluating hazards, better methods for analyzing the cumulative and interactive risks, more explicit discussion of uncertainties, and postmarket surveillance for unforeseen risks. …

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