The Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.) (pg. A14), November 10, 2007
[Rachel's introduction: In this letter to the editor, Sharon Collinge offers a clear and compelling explanation of the precautionary principle and why it should guide the management of open space in the City of Boulder, Colorado. If more people wrote letters to the editor like this one, precaution could spread like the wind.]
By Sharon K. Collinge
Ed Mills' recent letter criticizes the use of the precautionary principle in management of Boulder's open space by stating that "this 'precaution' overrides science and data in favor of policies critical of all possible human impacts."
Put simply, the precautionary principle is an approach that seeks to avoid unintended consequences of particular actions. Rather than "overriding" science and data, this principle explicitly acknowledges the centrality of scientific data to decision-making. Most importantly, it suggests a guiding strategy for managers faced with the uncertainties and knowledge gaps that will always exist in our understanding of a situation.
We all use this principle every day in our own lives. For instance, many Boulderites purchase and consume organically grown foods because of the perceived risk to their health of consuming foods produced with the use of pesticides. Even though we don't know everything there is to know about links between pesticide use and our health, we take caution (buy organically grown food) to avoid unintended consequences (potential negative health effects).
We will manage Boulder's open space most effectively with a similar approach. Although we do not know everything there is to know about human impacts on native grasslands, forests, and streams, there is ample scientific evidence showing that increased human activities lead to environmental degradation. This warrants a cautious approach to the management of our local public lands.
To avoid unintended consequences, we must clearly state our intended consequences by asking: what do we want open space lands to look like in the future -- say 5, 10, 20, 50 years from now? What condition of the natural environment is acceptable? How do we ensure that our actions are sustainable? If we want the status of our open space to be the same as it is or even better 20 years from now, then we must avoid actions that fragment, degrade, and destroy the land and its species. That's exactly why the precautionary principle is vital in managing our valuable open space.
Copyright, 2007, The Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.