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Avoiding Environmental Catastrophes: Varieties of Principled Precaution

Alan R Johnson, Clemson University

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-04827-170309

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Abstract

The precautionary principle is often proposed as a guide to action in environmental management or risk assessment, and has been incorporated in various legal and regulatory contexts. For many, it reflects the common sense notion of being safe rather than sorry, but it has attracted numerous critics. At times, proponents and critics talk at cross purposes, due to the multiplicity of ways the precautionary principle has been formulated. The approach taken here is to examine four general varieties of precaution, relating each to arguments made in various contexts by others. First, I examine the parallel between the precautionary principle and an argument referred to as Pascalís wager. Critics are right to dismiss versions of the precautionary principle that follow the logic of Pascalís wager, because that argument requires assumption of an infinite catastrophe, which is seldom the case in environmental decisions. Second, I explore precaution viewed as an instance of the phenomenon of ambiguity aversion as described by Daniel Ellsberg. Third, I evaluate precautionary perspectives on our duties to future generations, drawing inspiration from the views of Gifford Pinchot. Fourth, I consider the precautionary principle as an instance of Aldo Leopoldís notion of intelligent tinkering. Although controversy persists, I find that a legitimate theoretical foundation exists to implement Ellsbergian, Pinchotian and Leopoldean varieties of precaution in environmental decision making. Additionally, I remark on the role of adaptive management and maintaining resilience in ecological and social systems as an approach to implementing the precautionary principle.

Key words

adaptive management, Aldo Leopold, ambiguity, Blaise Pascal, Daniel Ellsberg, decision theory, future generations, Gifford Pinchot, intelligent tinkering, precautionary principle, resilience, risk, uncertainty
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087