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The one thing to green your decisions: The Precautionary Principle

What is the Precautionary Principle?

Life can be unpredictable and sometimes the decisions we make end up causing unintended consequences. This is especially the case when it comes to the natural environment and the implementation of new science, technologies, and activities. The unintended consequences of these activities can result in severe environmental harm.

That’s why it is important to take an anticipatory approach in order to mitigate and avoid environmental harm. With the multitude of environmental issues such as climate change, plastic pollution, and biodiversity loss that we are currently facing, it is in our best interest to start taking this approach!

The Precautionary Principle is based on the idea that it is “better to be safe than sorry.” Opposed to a reactive approach which is concerned with resolving negative effects after they have already occurred; (think plastics polluting the ocean) the Precautionary Principle is preventative.

The precautionary principle began to emerge as a part of international law in the 1980s, most notably in the World Charter for Nature (1982) which proclaims five “principles of conservation by which all human conduct affecting nature is to be guided and judged.”

The most widely-cited version of the Precautionary Principle can be found in principle 15 of the Rio Declaration of 1992: “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.”

However, this version of the Precautionary Principle is often thought of as weak, as it provides a loophole with the mention of “cost-effective measures” and does not require preventative measures to be taken in the face of uncertainty.

In contrast, a more rigorous version of the Principle was approved by environmental activists and scholars at the 1998 Wingspread Conference:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken, even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

For more information about the Precautionary Principle, check out this publication from the World Health Organisation: “The Precautionary Principle: protecting public health, the environment, and the future of our children”

How is the Precautionary Principle applied?

The Precautionary Principle is enshrined in legislation in the European Union and other countries around the world which have laws that refer to the Precautionary Principle. In the United States, some laws have a precautionary nature such as the National Environmental Policy Act and The Clean Water Act.

Can this argument be used in legal cases?

The Precautionary Principle may enter domestic litigation in two distinct ways: through the domestic application of international law, or through its application as a principle of domestic law. Some domestic legal systems view international and domestic law as elements of a unitary system of law, meaning that a particular rule of international law, such as the precautionary principle, can be applied directly to domestic courts. Additionally, international law may be used as an interpretive aid in domestic courts. This means that principles such as the Precautionary Principle may be taken into account when interpreting domestic law.

The Precautionary Principle may be explicitly adopted in domestic statues – meaning that a country or governing body has acknowledged its importance and voluntarily included it in their legislation. On the other hand, the Precautionary Principle may emerge in the common law of a domestic legal system. Common law is a body of unwritten laws based on legal precedents established by the courts. Therefore, the Precautionary Principle may become common law if it has been applied directly or indirectly in previous court cases.

Outside of legal applications, the Precautionary Principle can be (and most likely already is) applied in your everyday life whenever you subconsciously calculate risk or consciously make a decision. Think back to the saying “better safe than sorry.” Sometimes it is necessary to take that approach because the possible negative outcomes just aren’t worth the risk.

Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India

How exactly can the Precautionary Principle be used in a court case? The Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India is a very important case in India, as it resulted in the Precautionary Principle being accepted into the country’s environmental law. Thus, paving the way for future cases of similar nature.

In the state of Tamil Nadu, tanneries and other industries had been discharging their untreated effluent on agricultural fields and into the Palar river, which supplied water to nearby residents with drinking water. As a result, this pollution caused the water to be no longer drinkable, the Supreme Court of India used the Precautionary Principle and the polluter pays principle and ruled in favour of the citizens.

The tanneries were fined a sum of 10,000 Rupees and the families affected were able to access compensation.

M.C. Mehta v. Union of India

The M.C. Mehta v. Union of India case (also known as the Taj Trapezium case) is a great way to demonstrate how the Precautionary Principle can be used to mitigate environmental harm.

This case concerns the Taj Mahal, one of India’s greatest monuments, and air pollutants from nearby industries. When M.C. Mehta, a public interest lawyer and environmentalist, visited the Taj Mahal, he noticed that the marble had been stained yellow as a result of air pollutants released from nearby industries.

Appalled by the sight, he filed a petition before the Supreme Court. The Court applied the Precautionary Principle, stating that environmental degradation must be prevented, and the onus of proof is on the industries to prove that their operation (with the use of coal) was benign.

Of course, it is well established that coal causes air pollution, so the industries were ordered to change over to natural gas or relocate away from the Taj Mahal.

Can we apply the Precautionary Principle to our personal decision-making?

Absolutely! The Precautionary Principle isn’t something that can only be applied in a court of law. This concept is something we use in our everyday lives in order to help us make our daily decisions. We just need to consider where it should be applied to best protect our health and the environment.

When it comes to the household, there are many products (especially yard and cleaning products) that have the potential to harm the environment and human health. Just because they are sold in stores doesn’t mean they are without serious consequences.

Lawn and garden products such as pesticides and herbicides as well as household cleaners, and glues and solvents used in home renovations are known to cause air pollution, may irritate your eyes or skin, or even worse, can cause serious harm to adults, children, and developing fetuses. Some ingredients are linked to cancer, breathing problems such as asthma, neurological diseases, reproductive problems and miscarriages.

That’s why applying the Precautionary Principle at home is a really great idea, to reduce risk of these unwanted potential consequences, even if the risk is low. Whenever you are purchasing a household product or deciding whether to use a chemical product that you already own, consider applying the Precautionary Principle.

But how do I do this?

I suggest to start by simply reading the label of the product. Look at the ingredient list and the warnings. If you see worrying labels regarding the use of the product, including things like, “must be used in a well-ventilated space”, “must use personal protective equipment such as gloves and eye protection” or information on what to do if swallowed. These are really good indicators that the product carries risks to human health that is associated with its use.

When it comes to environmental risk, we need to really assess what the product is made from and where it will end up. Is this a synthetic material? Is it a short-lived or disposable product? Is it something that will get out into the environment either by entering the waterways, or by being burned or otherwise potentially cause contamination?

When it comes to these products that have the potential to cause significant harm, it is time to apply the Precautionary Principle. When we encounter these items we can

  • simply choose to avoid using them (like lawn and garden synthetic chemicals) or
  • we can seek safer alternatives, like low VOC paints and glues.

What about tangible guidance?

You can find my guide to creating your own green home cleaning supplies here. And, if you plan to renovate or do some upgrades around the house, I have a great Mini-course guiding you through the process to make sure that you get the most out of the renovation, without putting your health and the environment at risk. Check out my Green Home Renovation Mini-course here!

The Precautionary Principle can also be applied in business

Businesses often have much larger environmental impacts than households, as they not only consume more resources than households, but they also are responsible for the production of products or services, some of which may cause environmental harm.

Business Owners, Managers and Executives can apply the Precautionary Principle by using it as a basis for decision-making. This can help make decisions that will be beneficial in the long term, as opposed to short term profits that may have serious liabilities in the long-run.

For example, although an ingredient may be legal to use, business leaders should still consider whether there are any potential harms associated with that ingredient. If that is the case, they can apply the Precautionary Principle and proactively cease their use of that ingredient, reaping the benefits of avoided loss.

On the consumer side, you can also make yourself aware of the ingredients, production methods, and values that a business has. If you feel that there are uncertainties regarding the environmental impact of the business as a whole or its actions, applying the Precautionary Principle may result in you choosing to spend your money elsewhere.

Look into triple bottom line reporting and B Corporations if you are interested in supporting sustainable businesses!

Government decision-making and the Precautionary Principle

Decision-making at the government level should be transparent and include the Precautionary Principle in order to mitigate and prevent environmental and human harm.

For example, governments have the ability to determine whether a chemical is considered safe for environmental or household application. The Precautionary Principle is and should be applied to the screening of both new and “grandfathered” chemicals that have the potential to cause environmental or human or harm.

If you are uncertain about how and if the Precautionary Principle is being applied to chemical use and approval in your state or country, try reaching out to your elected officials. There are excellent processes that some governments are using that can be replicated elsewhere.

Just voicing your concerns is a first step to making sure that your government reflects your values and concerns for human health and the environment.

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