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The Precautionary Principle

tulips The Precautionary Principle is a guiding framework for decision-making that anticipates how our actions will affect the environment and health of future generations. The Principle emphasizes public participation and stakeholder collaboration in long-term environmental health and ecological policies and programs.

Environmental Commons and the Mendocino Partnership for the Precautionary Principle are currently implementing the Precautionary Principle into Mendocino County, California decision-making.

Five Key Elements of the Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle represents a paradigm shift in decision-making. It allows for five key elements that can prevent irreversible damage to people and nature:

  1. Anticipatory Action: There is a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm. Government, business, and community groups, as well as the general public, share this responsibility.

  2. Right to Know: The community has a right to know complete and accurate information on potential human health and environmental impacts associated with the selection of products, services, operations, or plans. The burden to supply this information lies with the proponent, not with the general public.

  3. Alternatives Assessment: An obligation exists to examine a full range of alternatives and select the alternative with the least potential impact on human health and the environment, including the alternative of doing nothing.

  4. Full Cost Accounting: When evaluating potential alternatives, there is a duty to consider all the reasonably foreseeable costs, including raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, use, cleanup, eventual disposal, and health costs even if such costs are not reflected in the initial price. Short and long-term benefits and time thresholds should be considered when making decisions.

  5. Participatory Decision Process: Decisions applying the Precautionary Principle must be transparent, participatory, and informed by the best available science and other relevant information.

Implementing the Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle is a recognized international policy. A few communities in the United States are applying the Principle for use in government decision- making.

Mendocino County, CA

November 2008: Report on the development of a Precautionary Principle Procedure in Mendocino County.

Mendocino County Board of Supervisors discuss placement of Precautionary Principle into Governance Committee. From L-R: Supervisors Wagenet, Smith, Delbar, Colfax, and Wattenburger.
June 2006: Mendocino County Board of Supervisors adopts Precautionary Principle policy.

San Francisco, CA

July 2003: San Francisco adopts a Precautionary Principle ordinance.

Read More About the Precautionary Principle

Backgrounder: What is the Precautionary Principle?

The Precautionary Principle in Action: A Handbook

The Importance of the Precautionary Principle, by Michael Pollan

Debating the Precautionary Principle, by Nancy Myers

New Approaches To Safeguarding The Earth: An Environmental Version of the Hippocratic Oath, by Jared Blumenfeld

White Paper: The Precautionary Principle and the City and County of San Francisco, March 2003

Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative to Risk Assessment by Mary O'Brien (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000)

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