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Invoking the precautionary principle.

The article on the precautionary principle, risk perception, and assessment by Wiedemann and Schutz (2005) deserves praise and careful consideration because of the growing awareness that certain human activities could potentially seriously harm human and environmental health.

The precautionary principle (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 1992) holds forth that a point can presumably be reached when human well-being and environmental health are put at risk by a large-scale human activity or man-made system over which humans have control. At such a point the problem could be identified, a course charted, and precautionary actions taken to ameliorate or prevent a potential threat to human and environmental health on behalf of current and future generations.

Despite the incontrovertible element of uncertainty and other limitations of scientific methods, it is implicitly assumed that science plays the vital role of providing humanity with the best knowledge of how the world works and of the placement of humankind in the natural order of living things. To the extent scientific methods are incorporated and used to inform both the proclamation of a problem and the implementation of its remedy, the precautionary principle affords humanity a mechanism to focus attention and to examine data on potential impacts of human activities and systems upon the natural world. With such attentiveness and knowledge, humans become able to make choices and to engage in the regulation of behaviors that are advantageous rather than detrimental to human and environmental health. As a mechanism of science, the precautionary principle becomes a useful tool in raising awareness and determining aspects of human culture that are and are not sustainable.

Absolute global human population numbers (Hopfenberg 2003; Hopfenberg and Pimentel 2001), increasing human consumption worldwide (Imhoff et al. 2004), and the seemingly limitless expansion of the world's predominant human economy (Czech and Daly 2004; Meritt 2001) point to the existence of a rapidly spreading culture that could be characterized by its proclivity for unlimited growth--growth that increasingly outruns humanity's capabilities to anticipate and address the potential for devastating consequences of growth. Given the current scale and rate of this growth relative to the small, finite, noticeably fragile planet we inhabit, it could be that this cultural predisposition for increasing growth is patently unsustainable and, moreover, could give rise to the potential for recognizable, worst-case scenarios. Global warming; diminishing nonrenewable energy resources; destruction of the ozone layer; biodiversity loss; acid rain; deforestation; solid waste disposal; pollution of the air, water, and land; and desertification are regularly referenced in this context.

Not unexpectedly, the evolution of science gives rise to new approaches for examining large-scale human activities such as human propagation and human consumption and man-made constructions such as the prevailing economic system. Although relatively new, "top-down" research focuses on data acquisition and analysis regarding certain human behaviors and global human systems. This development complements the "bottom-up" research with which scientists are so familiar (Cairns 2003). As the adage goes, scientists have had difficulty "seeing the forest for the trees" because traditional scientific methods focus primarily on parts of a large system, not on the large system itself.

Another dimension of this change in focus is the development of "joining edge" research, in which leading ideas and best practices from multiple disciplines are brought together in a collaborative effort to examine large, complex systems. This approach complements the more familiar pursuit of progressively narrowing "cutting-edge" research of components of a whole system (Cairns 2003; Kriebel et al. 2001).

Perhaps, scientific data to advance human understanding about why global-scale human activities and systems are sustainable or unsustainable could be vital to protecting humanity from endangerment, biodiversity from extinction, and Earth from irreversible degradation, even in these early years of the 21st century.

The author declares he has no competing financial interests.

Steven Earl Salmony

Disability Determination Services

Raleigh, North Carolina



Cairns J Jr. 2003. Interrelationships between the precautionary principle, prediction strategies, and sustainable use of the planet. Environ Health Perspect 111:877-880. Available: [accessed 31 January 2005].

Czech B, Daly HE. 2004. In my opinion: the steady state economy-what it is, entails and connotes. Wildl Soc Bull 32(2):598-605. Available: SSE.pdf [accessed 29 June 2005].

Hopfenberg R. 2003. Human carrying capacity is determined by food availability. Popul Environ 25(2):109-177.

Hopfenberg R, Pimentel D. 2001. Human population numbers as a function of food supply. Environ Dev Sustain 3:1-15.

Imhoff M, Laheuari B, Ricketts T, Loucks C, Harriss R, Lawrence WT. 2004. Global patterns in human consumption of net primary production [Letter]. Nature 429: 870-873,

Kriebel D, Tickner J, Epstein P, Lemons J, Levins R, Loechler EL, et al. 2001. The precautionary principle in environmental science. Environ Health Perspect 109:871-876. Available: kriebel-full.html [accessed 31 January 2005]

Meritt MS. 2001. The unsustainability and origins of socioeconomic increase [Master's thesis]. New York: The City University of New York. Available: http://www.potluck. corn/offerings/increase.pdf [accessed 11 February 2005].

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. 1992. Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Available: aconf15126-1annex1.htm [accessed 14 February 2005].

Wiedemann PM, Schutz H, 2005. The precautionary principle and risk perception: experimental studies in the EMF area. Environ Health Perspect 113:402-405; doi:10.1289/ehp.7538 [Online 10 January 2005].
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Title Annotation:Perspectives: Correspondence
Author:Salmony, Steven Earl
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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