Modifying Maize

Precaution in an Age of Uncertainty

James Rhatigan

In his seminal text Risk Society, German sociologist Ulrich Beck argued that uncertainty and risk were the key registers in which the modern liberal political order operated at the end of the 20th century. Uncertainty remains a hallmark of modern environmental politics. While many things about the global environmental crises we currently face are beyond doubt, uncertainty continues to define the contours of contemporary environmental debates. From struggles over the ecological and social impacts of salmon farming on the Canadian pacific coast to controversies over the effects of large scale geoengineering projects, environmental politics turns on questions of scientific un/certainty and risk management.

Over the last half century environmental scientists, ecologists, economists, and state bureaucrats have developed a slew of environmental assessment protocols, adaptive management strategies, and cost-benefit tools to both assess, value, and weigh the trade-offs associated with particular actions (or inactions) in the face of environmental uncertainty. Such risk management strategies have proliferated within liberal environmental institutions and, having been integrated into environmental regulation at both the national and international level, have profoundly shaped environmental politics and responses to current environmental crises.

I want to focus on another approach to environmental uncertainty: the precautionary principle. While there is no agreed upon or settled definition, in its simplest formulation the precautionary principle argues that if there is a potential for harm and there is uncertainty about the scale and cause of harm, it is best to act to avoid that harm.

Unlike other risk management strategies, the precautionary principle shifts attention from the calculation of risk to an acknowledgement of uncertainty. Crucially, ‘strong’ interpretations of the principle also shift the burden of proof over the risk of environmental harm to those who would advocate for a particular action, development, or technology. The principle does not provide a prescriptive approach to environmental risk management; rather, it acts to structure decision making in the face of uncertainty. As legal scholar Jocelyn Stacey notes, ‘By eliminating uncertainty as a legitimate basis for inaction, the precautionary principle promises to help overcome a lack of political will to protect the environment’ (2016: 6).

Critics argue that such an approach hinders economic development and technological innovation, that the principle is anti-science and a threat to ‘risk analysis’, and that it is too vague to be incorporated into environmental policy and law (Sunstein 2002-2003; Turner and Hartzell 2004). For advocates of the principle, however, a precautionary stance is the only rational one when faced with the overwhelming complexity and overlapping nature of current environmental crises (Sachs, 2011; Read and O’Riordan, 2017).

Over the last three decades the precautionary principle has emerged as a central tenet of liberal environmental thought and policy. But how should we understand the principle’s role within contemporary environmental politics? Where did it come from? How has it been used and to what effect? And what can the precautionary principle tell us about liberal environmentalism itself?


The precautionary principle is often understood in terms of well-worn and familiar adages: look before you leap, better safe than sorry, first do no harm (Burkett, 2016). These common-sense maxims capture something of the precautionary principle’s general approach. But in order to understand the principle’s role within contemporary liberal environmentalism --its potential and its limitations, I think it helps to approach it not as a timeless, ahistorical aphorism but as a product of the historical and institutional context in which it arose.

Contemporary liberal environmental understandings of the precautionary principle are most often traced back to the German legal concept of Vorsorge (von Moltke 1988; Boehmer-Christiansen 1994)

The literal English translation of Vorsorge is ‘precaution’ or ‘foresight’ (Boehmer-Christiansen 1994). And while in English this connotes something beyond normal caution, in German Vorsorge speaks to ideas of good husbandry, preparedness, and management (von Moltke 1988; Boehmer-Christiansen 1994).

The 1970s saw the introduction of Vorsorgeprinzip as one of the main organising principles of West German environmental policy. Initially Vorsorgeprinzip was directed toward persistent pollution problems. In particular it was aimed at the problem of Waldsterben, or ‘forest death’ caused by acid rain. Vorsorgeprinzip first entered West German environmental policy in the 1974 Clean Air Act (O’Riordan and Cameron 1994; Boehmer-Christiansen 1994). The Act enabled the federal government to set new emission standards and to require industrial plants needing emission licenses to operate to take preventative actions that would limit their harmful impacts on the environment.

Central to Vorsorgeprinzip was the idea that the state could avoid environmental harm through careful forward planning and preparedness. Research and technology were to play a major role in this forward planning.  Within West German environmental policy, Vorsorgeprinzip was used to encourage industry to develop cleaner techniques and technologies (von Moltke, 1988).

Rather than eliminating environmental risks through, for example, plant shutdowns or the banning of particular substances, in practice Vorsorgeprinzip involved risk detection through coordinated research and the gradual tightening of environmental standards in line with technological improvements. As a 1984 federal report on the principle put it:

‘The principle of precaution commands that the damages done to the natural world should be avoided in advance and in accordance with opportunity and possibility. Vorsorge further means the early detection of dangers to health and environment by comprehensive, synchronised research…  Precaution means to develop in all sectors of the economy, technological processes that significantly reduce environmental burdens, especially those brought about by the introduction of harmful substances’ (quoted in Boehmer-Christiansen 1994, 36).

The general growth of international environmental movements and events such as Earth Day and the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment had increased public awareness and influenced approaches to environmental regulation within West Germany. At the same time though, West Germany was experiencing something of a ‘reform euphoria’, as the government of the time sought to respond to growing unrest over the country’s economic and environmental crises.

West German environmental governance generally — and Vorsorgeprinzip in particular— was seen as a means of responding to both crises simultaneously (Boehmer-Christiansen 1994). As Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen has noted, the assumption underpinning environmental policies in West Germany during this period ‘was that technical progress, economic growth, and environmental protection could be achieved without “trade-off” but would advance together’ (Boehmer-Christiansen 1994, 44).

In this sense Vorsorgeprinzip was closely aligned with the arguments of ecological modernisation theory (EMT). Associated with thinkers such as Joseph Huber, Martin Jänicke, and Arthur Mol, EMT promoted the idea that, far from being at odds with each other, environmental protection and economic growth had to go hand in hand (Hajer 1997). For EMT thinkers, it was through the promotion of technological and industrial innovation as well as the fostering of new markets for environmentally benign goods and services that the goals of economic growth and environmental protection could be harmonised and a pathway to a ‘green capitalism’ could be achieved.

The establishment of ambitious environmental standards was seen as an opportunity for new industrial and technological development rather than a check on economic activity. It was in line with such arguments that during the recession of the early 1980s Vorsorgeprinzip was used to justify a sort of ‘Green Keynesianism’ as the German state sought to stimulate economic activity through, in the words of the federal environment ministry, the ‘positive development of markets for environmental protection, plant, equipment and services' (quoted in Boehmer-Christiansen 1994, 47).

In the late 1980s precautionary approaches to environmental governance spread to other European countries. As Andrew Jordan and Timothy O’Riordan put it, ‘Germany’s conversion to green thinking catalysed a transition in EU environmental policy from reactive policy making to proactive environmental management’ (1999, 21). However, the adoption of a precautionary approach and tighter environmental standards across the European Community at this time was not simply the result of a continent-wide ‘environmental Enlightenment’. Rather, as Jordan and O’Riordan note, Germany pushed for harmonised environmental standards in the single market to ensure that German industry would not be at a competitive disadvantage to other member states.

Beyond Vorsorgeprinzip

At the same time the precautionary principle began to make its way into the sphere of international environmental policy. In particular, German understandings of Vorsorgeprinzip were an important influence in a series of international treaties on the protection of the North Sea (Jordan and O’Riordan, 1999). The first of these, the 1984 Bremen Declaration on the Protection of the North Sea, called for the need to take ‘timely preventative measures’. Three years later, in the 1987 London Declaration on the Protection of the North Sea, this had evolved into an acknowledgement that a, ‘precautionary approach is necessary which may require action ... even before a causal link has been established by absolutely clear scientific evidence...’.

That same year, the Montreal Protocol also adopted precaution as one of its guiding principles, as signatories agreed to ‘protect the ozone layer by taking precautionary measures to control equitably total global emissions of substances that deplete it, with the ultimate objective of their elimination on the basis of developments in scientific knowledge, taking into account technical and economic considerations’. And in 1990 the precautionary principle was incorporated into what was to become another core concept of liberal environmentalism, sustainable development. As the Bergen Ministerial Declaration on Sustainable Development noted: ‘In order to achieve sustainable development, policies must be based on the precautionary principle…’.

But it was at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio that the precautionary principle received its most prominent endorsement. The Rio Earth Summit was a watershed moment in the history of liberal environmentalism. In many ways it set the agenda for environmental politics, organised around ideas of sustainable development, for the next few decades. The precautionary principle was part of this. Indeed, it was included as principle 15 of the Rio Declaration, which stated ‘in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities.

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation’. Elements of the principle were also incorporated into the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as in the Preamble to the Convention on Biological Diversity, both of which were opened for signatures at Rio.

In the wake of the Earth Summit, the Precautionary Principle emerged as a fundamental principle of sustainable development. The 1990s saw a veritable boom in the principle’s presence within environmental discourse.

Agreements such as the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (1992), the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution (1996), and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000) all included the precautionary principle as a general guide for action in the face of scientific uncertainty, while bodies such as the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development touted the principle as ‘a management tool to achieve sustainable development’ (Raffensperger and Tickner, 1999).

By the beginning of the new millennium, the precautionary principle was well established in a range of both international environmental agreements and national environmental policy (Percival 2005). At the same time interpretations of the meaning of precaution had proliferated. Reflecting on the meaning of the principle at the end of the 1990s, Jordan and O’Riordan suggested that it had ‘become the repository for a jumble of adventurous beliefs’ (1999, 16).

Debate about what precaution meant, in both theory and practice, frequently turned on the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ interpretations. ‘Weak’ versions of the principle were seen to offer more flexibility regarding how and when the principle was to be applied, qualifying the call for precautionary actions with phrases such as ‘cost effective’. The version of the principle endorsed in the Rio Declaration is often cited as a ‘weak’ one. On the other hand, ‘strong’ versions of the principle, perhaps best exemplified in the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle (1998), were seen as establishing a more rigid structure through which to integrate the principle into decision making processes (Raffensperger and Tickner, 1999).

Post-political Precaution

Critics point to such variation in interpretations of the principle as a signal that ‘precaution’ is an inherently ambiguous concept, and therefore should not be a basis for decision making (Turner and Hartzell, 2004). For legal scholar Jaqueline Peel, however, diversity in the formulation of the principle ‘does not undermine the overall coherence of the precautionary concept…’ but rather ‘serves to reinforce…the context-dependent nature of precautionary decision making.’ (Peel, 2005: 18).

I tend to agree with Peel’s assessment. However, as I see it, such definitional ambiguity also reflects contradictions that lie at the heart of the liberal environmental project: the need to balance environmental protection with the maintenance and growth of liberal capitalism.

As Steven Bernstein argues, ‘perhaps nowhere is this contradiction greatest than in the precautionary principle’ (2002, 12). For Bernstein, these contradictions are clearly manifested in the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). As Bernstein notes, the protocol is an endorsement of the precautionary principle. At the same time, the CBD recognises WTO liberal trade rules and its Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, which sets out the basic rules of food safety and animal and plant health in trade. This agreement requires, as Bernstein points out, “sufficient scientific evidence” to restrict trade for health reasons (Bernstein 2002). The precautionary principle bumps up against the imperatives of neoliberal economic trade policy.

Under these circumstances, applications of the principle have to balance needs for environmental protection with the need to keep the fundamental norms and institutions of global capitalism operating smoothly. The ambiguity and variety of interpretations of the principle within domestic and international policies, reflects uncertainties as to how best to achieve this balancing act.

In its various current forms, then, the principle can be viewed as what M’Gonigle and Takeda call ‘a law of mitigated production’; it is a legal tool which seeks to ‘improve existing structures and processes of production but without fundamentally challenging the contexts in which they operate’ (2013, 1067). It is in this regard, that the principle can be considered what geographer Eric Swyngedouw calls ‘post-political’ environmentalism.

For Swyngedouw, the ‘post-political’ signifies an approach that takes for granted that the existing juridical frameworks of the liberal state and global neoliberal capitalism provide the sole framework for responses to environmental crises. To describe current formulations of the precautionary principle as ‘post-political’ is not to say that policy debates over particular technologies, environmental risks, and management strategies are not characterised by conflict and disagreement. Of course they are. Rather, it is to point out that dominant understandings of the precautionary principle, as they are articulated in both domestic environmental policies and international agreements, tends to reduce such debates to techno-legal assessments of risk, proportionality, and economic trade-offs.

They evacuate discussion of environmental risks of their political content and foreclose consideration of questions of power and the broader social, political, and economic contexts within which risks unfold. Like other aspects of liberal environmentalism and liberalism more generally, the precautionary principle is, in its dominant formulations, an ‘approach premised on a smooth space of politics’ (Dempsey 2017).

The Revolutionary Potential of Precaution?

All of this is not to argue against the precautionary principle or to suggest that that it might be irrelevant for a radical and transformative ecological politics. Indeed, as a range of recent environmental actions –such as La Via Campensia’s organising against corporate agriculture and GMO crop development, recent struggles over the ecological and social impacts of salmon farming on the Canadian pacific coast, and recent campaigns against geoengineering experimentation – show, precaution remains a powerful stance from which to mobilise for a more just ecological future.

However, as these struggles reveal and as a range scholars have recently and forcefully argued, there is a desperate need for a new type of ecological politics, one that can move beyond the compromises and contradictions of liberal environmentalism to forge new internationalist alliances between workers’ movements, indigenous and decolonising movements, and scientists (Patel and Moore 2017; Mann and Wainwright 2018; Huber 2019; Aronoff, Battistoni, Aldana Cohen, and Riofrancos 2019). With the failure of liberal environmentalist approaches to address the overlapping ecological crises we currently face becoming all the more apparent, and with a potent mix of right-wing nationalism and climate anxiety fomenting new forms of eco-fascism around the world, there has never been a more pressing need for a such a movement.

A radical and expanded understanding of the precautionary principle can and should inform this new ecological politics. This will require a shift away from dominant technocratic approaches and a grounding of new understandings of precaution within a critical theory of technological, political economic, and ecological change (Burkett 2016).

While obviously no one policy or principle can serve as a panacea for all our environmental ills, a radical and reinvigorated precautionary principle might help orient us toward a more self-reflexive and critical environmental politics, one which approaches the uncertainties associated with environmental risks and uncertainties with a full appreciation of the historical and political economic forces that shape their development and uneven distribution.


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