Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?

Something does not feel right when a group of ecologists gather on a concrete campus in the middle of a city, especially when we’re talking about the subject we’re talking about is restoration of rivers and lakes to their near-pristine condition (see Constable, Turner, Gainsborough post).   Aston University gives us a little inspiration by providing a muddy ornamental pond, just large enough to justify naming their conference suite “the Lakeside Centre”.


One other reflection from the meeting is how little reference official literature now makes to the Precautionary Principle.   This states that where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.  It is enshrined in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (follow link) but somewhere on the road between theory and practice high ideals collide with reality.  In some cases the Precautionary Principle even seems to be inverted.   The irony is that it is precisely those areas where scientific data do not permit a complete evaluation of risk that regulators are likely to prevaricate.  Environmental regulation involves “carrots” and “sticks”, with criminal prosecution as a last resort.   And the foundation of criminal law is the principle of “beyond reasonable doubt”, which does not sit comfortably with the Precautionary Principle.   Moreover, most regulation places if not a cost on a business then, at the very least, a limit on profitability.   The correlations ecologists find in their noisy datasets don’t necessarily translate into causation and, maybe, it is wrong to put these constraints on businesses without stronger certainty than most readings of the Precautionary Principle imply?

Another jargon phrase much loved by modern governments is “evidence-led policy” – again, a principle that is impossible to argue against yet, at the same time, contradictory, in some respects, to the Precautionary Principle.   Somewhere between having enough of a hunch to invoke the Precautionary Principle and enough certainty to satisfy a ministerial edict on evidence-led policy, most public servants (or, more likely, committees of public servants) will get cold feet.

Perhaps they are right?   I’ll finish back at the Lakeside Centre at Aston University where I am thinking through the implications of tighter standards for rivers, in particular.   Environmental regulation does not exist in isolation: they translate into the “sewerage charges” you’ll find on your next water bill.   The tight standards required for the Water Framework Directive means that these costs will creep upwards over the next few years.   The least we can do is make sure that you’ll see some benefits as a result.

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