Precautionary Principle & Biodiversity Thoughts

By Brendan Moyle 02/11/2010

A lot of conservation decisions are difficult as a consequence of poor knowledge.  Often we don’t actually know a lot about the population size of endangered wildlife, crucial gaps will persist about their biology (breeding, diet, distribution etc) and the responses of people to changes in the management can be very hard to predict.  These knowledge problems can persist for quite some time. It took decades for instance, to that the kakapo lekked (it’s the only parrot species that does), or that crocodiles nested according to female dominance.

NZ Kakapo- it’s unusual nocturnal breeding habits took decades to confirm Richard Henry’s observations.

One solution to this uncertainty is the Precautionary Principle (PP). This got formally introduced into biodiversity conservation with it’s adoption in the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity). It is however, probably one of the most misused concepts in conservation. Often it’s just invoked to deter any change in policy.

The hardest thing about applying the PP to biodiversity is that almost any policy adopted can lead to extinction. Wait to do more research, and the population could fall to critically low levels in the interim. Switching between sustainable use and blanket protection can just cause a switch in extinction paths.  Too often the presumption is that the current strategy is the safest, and any change can cause generate a leap in risks. In fact, the status quo should also be considered.

The second issue is that the PP isn’t about selecting strategies that are most likely to succeed.  The point is that it’s being used when information gaps make it very difficult to predict what’s going to happen under different policies. Determining what is most likely to succeed has been kind of ruled out by the problem. The second, is this overlooks the nature of the PP. It’s a timid approach- where the timidness is justified by the risks of irreversible environmental harms. And the question isn’t whether will a policy will succeed. The question is whether it’s going to fail in such a way, that an irreversible environmental harm occurs.The PP isn’t about picking winners. It’s about avoiding losers.

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