The Precautionary Principle:

Where the possibility exists of serious or irreversible harm, lack of scientific certainty should not preclude cautious action by decision-makers to prevent such harm. Management needs to anticipate the possibility of ecological damage, rather than react to it as it occurs.

Jon Nevill                                                                                                                2004

There are many definitions of the precautionary principle.  They all have two key elements.  The first is an expression of a need by decision-makers to anticipate harm before it occurs. Within this element lies an implicit reversal of the onus of proof: under the precautionary approach it is the responsibility of an activity proponent to establish that the proposed activity will not result in significant harm. The second key element is the establishment of an obligation, if the level of harm may be high, for cautious action to prevent such harm even in the absence of scientific certainty. 

The precautionary principle rests on history and ethics rather than logic or science.  It incorporates the concept that a person or agency should take responsibility for unintentional damage which may (directly or indirectly) result from actions taken by this person or agency. It is also a principle based on experience.  According to Ludwig et al. 1993: “Although there is considerable variation in detail, there is remarkable consistency in the history of resource exploitation: resources are inevitably overexploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction.”  Even though the medium and long-term costs far outweigh short-term benefits, resource over-exploitation continues today. The need for caution is a clear message from recent history (Harremoës et al. 2002).

The earliest reference I can find to the precautionary principle in international documents is the World Charter for Nature 1982, a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, endorsed by the Australian Government.

On line documents:

A detailed discussion of the Precautionary Principle and its recent application in Australia can be found in a paper by The Hon. Justice Paul Stein AM, delivered to the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales Annual Conference, 14-15 October 1999: Are Decision-makers Too Cautious With The Precautionary Principle? 

Uncertainty and precaution in environmental management (Copenhagen site: 
- a conference held in June 2004)

NOAA fisheries workshop, references on the precautionary approach

International summit on science and the precautionary principle (Massachusetts 2001)

And in the area of biotechnology: The precautionary principle in biotechnology

Conference on the precautionary principle


Other references: in chronological order.  
Note that additional references, arranged according to author, can be found at the close of a paper on the application of the precautionary principle to Australian ocean management. These references are set out in three groups: (a) the PP in Australian ocean management, (b) the PP in ocean management generally, and (c) general references on the PP.

Young, M (1993) For our children: some practical implications of inter-generational equity and the precautionary principle.  Occasional Publication #6, 57 pp. Resource Assessment Commission, Australia; Canberra.

Donald Ludwig, Ray Hilborn, and Carl Walters (1993) Uncertainty, resource exploitation, and conservation: lessons from history.  Science 260(2):17, April 2, 1993.

FAO (1993) The precautionary approach to fisheries with reference to straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks. FAO Fisheries Circular 871.

O’Riordan T. and J. Cameron (eds.)(1994) Interpreting the precautionary principle, Earthscan Publications .

Dayton PK, Thrush SF, Agardy MT, Hofman RJ. (1995) Environmental effects of marine fishing. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 5: 205–232.

Eichbaum WM, Crosby MP, Agardy MT, Laskin SA. (1996) The role of marine and coastal protected areas in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Oceanography 9(1): 60–70.

Smith, AK and Pollard, DA (1996) The best available information - some case studies from NSW,  Australia, of conservation-related management responses which impact on recreational fishersMarine Policy  vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 261-267, 1996.   Abstract  

Deville, A, and Harding, R, (1997) Applying the precautionary principle, Federation Press. Sydney. 

Lauck, TC, Clark W, Mangel, M and Munro GR (1998) Implementing the precautionary principle in fisheries management through marine reserves.  Ecological Applications 8:S72-S78.

Wingspread (1998) Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, Wingspread Conference Centre  

Caddy, J.F. (1998) A short review of precautionary reference points and some proposals for their use in data-poor situations. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper 379: 30.

Harding, R. and Fisher, E.C. (1999) Perspectives on the precautionary principle, Federation Press. Sydney.  

Fisher, E.C. (1999) The precautionary principle as a legal standard for public decision-making: The role of judicial and merits review in ensuring reasoned deliberation. in Perspectives on the Precautionary Principle. Harding, R., and E. Fisher. Sydney, Federation Press: 83-98.

Raffensperger, C. and deFur, P. L. (1999) Implementing the precautionary principle: rigorous science and solid ethics.  Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 5(5):933-941.

Bohnsack JA. (1999)  Incorporating no-take marine reserves into precautionary management and stock assessment. In Providing Scientific Advice to Implement the Precautionary Approach under the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Restrepo VR (ed.). NOAA Tech. Memo NMFS-F/SPO-40; 8–16.

Murray, SN, Ambrose, RF, Bohnsack, JA, Botsford, LW, Carr, MH, Davis, GE, Dayton, PK, Gotshall, D, Gunderson, DR, Hixon, MA, Lubchenco, J, Mangel, M, MacCall, A, McArdle, D, Ogden, JC, Roughgarden, J, Starr, RM, Tegner, MJ & Yoklavich, MM 1999, No-take reserve networks: sustaining fishery populations and marine ecosystems. Fisheries, vol. 24, no. 11, pp. 11-25.

Foster KR, Vecchia P, Repacholi MH. (2000) Science and the Precautionary Principle. Science 288: 979–981.

Agardy T. (2000) Effects of fisheries on marine ecosystems: a conservationist’s perspective. ICES Journal of Marine Science 57: 761–765.

Crosby MP, Bohne R, Geenen K. (2000) Alternative access management strategies for marine and coastal protected areas: a reference manual for their development and assessment. US Man and the Biosphere Program. Washington DC, 164pp.

Coffey, Felicity (2001) Assessment of Water Resource Plans under the Water Act 2000 (Queensland) with consideration of ecological outcomes and environmental flow objectives in the context of the precautionary principle and sustainable management Environment and Planning Law Journal, Vol. 18.  

Essington, T.E. (2001) The precautionary approach in fisheries management: the devil is in the detail. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16(3): 121-122.

Jackson, JBC, Kirby, MX & Berger, WH (2001) Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science, 293: 629-38.

deFur, PL and Kaszuba M. (2002) Implementing the precautionary principle.   Science for the Total Environment 288:155-165.

Van Den Belt, H and Gremmen, B (2002) Between the precautionary principle and “sound science”: distributing the burdens of proof.  Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics  15:103-122.  

Harremoës, P., D. Gee, M. MacGarvin, A. Stirling, J. Keys, B. Wynne, and S. Guedes Vas, Eds. 2002. The precautionary principle in the 20th century: Late lessons from early warnings. Earthscan, London, 268 pp.