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A Better Precautionary Principle, But It's Beside The Point

I've had some harsh words to say about the Precautionary Principle in the past. But I realized today that this was based on a particular interpretation of what the PP means. Typically, the PP is presented as a statement of conservatism or risk aversion, mandating that the burden of proof be on those who want to change things (e.g. by introducing a new chemical that might be carcinogenic). But a paper I just read by Jurskis, Bridges, and de Mar (warning: pdf and academic language) offers an appealing alternative formulation:

The precautionary principle has often been misinterpreted as a caution against taking action where there is risk, however it actually cautions against delaying action to prevent environmental degradation because there is uncertainty.

In other words, the PP advocates a particular hierarchy of values, rather than an attitude toward change. Under the PP, environmental values are given priority over other values in situations where there is doubt. This can be understood as either being an ethical principle of its own, or coming from an ontological view that preservation of nature underlies preservation of other values, e.g. that the economy will collapse if promoting it undermines ecosystems. This formulation of the PP makes it an environmental principle without either unjustifiably limiting its application to environmental risks or depending on questionable assumptions about the environmental effects of technological progress.

Interestingly, though, this alternative PP does not actually help Jurskis et al's argument. Their paper is a strong promotion of the "frequent, low intensity fires are the answer" philosophy, in reaction to the tendency of Australian fire ecologists in recent decades to emphasize the ecological dangers of such fires and the potential benefits of high-intensity fires or fire exclusion. Jurskis et al claim that the PP mandates that we return to low-intensity burning to preserve the environment.

However, the argument made by anti-burning fire ecologists (notably Rob Whelan and Ross Bradstock) is not that we should hold off on environment-preserving actions until more is known -- the counter-argument implicit in the invocation of the precautionary principle. Rather, they argue that not burning is itself the precautionary course of action, and that we shouldn't wait around for ironclad proof before we stop firing the bush all the time.

The precautionary principle as stated by Jurskis et al is only relevant when the potentially more environment-protecting course of action is clear, but its effectiveness or necessity is uncertain. Thus it applies easily to classic cases like climate change mitigation or caution in introducing new chemicals. However, it is beside the point when the issue being debated is which of two courses of action is the environment-preserving one. Neither Jurskis et al nor Whelan and Bradstock are interested in "delaying action to prevent environmental degradation," but there is no agreement about which actions -- increasing burning or decreasing burning -- we should avoid delaying.


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