The Precautionary Principle: A Critical Appraisal of Environmental Risk Assessment

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About the Book

The “precautionary principle” —the environmental version of the admonition first, do no harm—is now enshrined in numerous international environmental agreements including treaties addressing global warming, biological diversity, and various pollutants. Some environmentalists have invoked this principle to justify policies to control, if not ban, any technology that cannot be proven to cause no harm. In this innovative book, Goklany shows that the current use of the precautionary principle to justify such policies is flawed and could be counterproductive because it ignores the possible calamities those very policies might simultaneously create or prolong.

The precautionary principle, unfortunately, does not provide any method of resolving such dilemmas, which are commonplace in the field of environmental policy. To address that problem, Goklany develops a framework consistent with the precautionary principle to resolve such dilemmas. That framework ranks potential threats to the environment on the basis of their nature, magnitude, immediacy, uncertainty, persistence, and the extent to which they can be alleviated.

Applying that framework to three contentious environmental policy issues facing humanity and the globe—DDT, bioengineered crops, and global warming —Goklany shows that some popular policy prescriptions, despite good intentions, are in fact likely to do more harm than good.

About the Author

Indur M. Goklany has worked with federal and state government and the private sector on global warming, biotechnology, biodiversity, and other environmental issues for more than 25 years. He has represented the United States at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and in the negotiations that established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. He was chief of the Technical Assessment Division of the National Commission on Air Quality and a consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation.

What Others Have Said

“Any policy analyst worth his salt would investigate the costs and benefits of a policy before judging whether or not the policy has passed or failed a rationality test. But an ever‐​increasing array of policies, domestic and global, invoke guiding principles that are ill‐​defined, vacuous, or unworkable. Such is the precautionary principle. Indur Goklany dissects the good from the bad and attempts a reconstruction. Agree or disagree with his judgments, this is a provocative and challenging read. Highly recommended.”
—David Pearce, OBE, Professor of Environmental Economics, University College, London

“The debate over the precautionary principle will benefit greatly from Dr. Goklany’s superb and original contribution. His framework for evaluating multiple factors for and against regulatory actions is eminently reasonable. A ‘must read’ for all policymakers, regulators, and environmentalists who invoke the precautionary principle to ban, eliminate, or restrain activities and technologies that benefit mankind.”
—Donald R. Roberts, Professor of Tropical Public Health, Uniformed Services University, DoD

“A masterpiece that is tremendously valuable in understanding a rather nebulous principle that has become a tool for risk‐​averse neo‐​Luddites who want to stop or slow down technological progress. Indur Goklany helps us through the decision‐​making process by providing a framework for careful analysis of the threats posed by various technologies while keeping the larger perspective of the gains they can offer.”
—Prof. C. S. Prakash, Tuskegee University