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Precautionary Principle

Endeavouring to establish reasonable and justifiable ecosystem service values based on currently known benefits creates an interesting dilemma which must be addressed and for which there is indeed a resolution.

This dilemma is created by the understandable fact that many models attribute a greater value to certain ecosystem services that are available and utilised now than to currently unrecognised future ecosystem services about which today’s researchers are not yet fully aware. This can result in a significant underestimation of the value of certain natural ecosystems to our descendants in that some ecosystems may not provide any currently known goods or services but in the future may be discovered to produce valuable goods and services that lead to improvements in economic sectors such as manufacturing, aviation, pharmaceuticals, medical treatments and agriculture which, in turn, contribute to human health and socio-economic advancement.

To avoid the loss of any potentially valuable ecosystems, implementation of the precautionary principle in the conservation management and sustainable use of all natural ecosystems provides a resolution to the dilemma. This principle embodies the concept of taking decisions or action in the present to avoid the likelihood of significant wildlife species and/or habitats damage even though the scientific evidence of potential environmental or wildlife harm is inconclusive or uncertain. The important key to the principle is that an assessment of the mere likelihood, rather than certainty, of harm is sufficient to reject or postpone an activity or plan until and unless the likelihood of significant harm is eliminated.

When faced with potential risks to our health or the environment from projects or actions proposed by the private or public sector, any uncertainty about the nature and degree of such risks derived from an assessment of the expected outcome of such projects or actions should be addressed. Such uncertainty usually underpins the arguments of those exploiting resources who demand evidence that exploitation causes harm before accepting limitations, and those opposing resource exploitation seek to limit exploitation in the absence of clear indications of resource sustainability.

The precautionary principle is manifested in actions or behaviour that aim to avoid serious or irreversible potential harm to our health and/or natural resources, despite the lack of scientific certainty as to the likelihood, magnitude or causation of any such potential harm. The principle is an approach to decision-making in risk management which justifies preventive measures or policies in the conservation of natural resources despite scientific uncertainty about whether any detrimental effects will actually occur.

One important justification for employing the precautionary principle is based on the continuing discoveries of scientific researchers about the extraordinary features and characteristics of aquatic and terrestrial species that often result in the human adaptation of these features to improve our health care as well as the efficiency of our goods and services. An example is the recent discovery published on 18 February 2015 in the Royal Society journal Interface [doi:10.1098/rsif.2014.1326] about the limpet (Gastropoda), a small, aquatic snail-like animal with a conical shell commonly found along rocky shores. Using atomic force microscopy, University of Portsmouth (UK) researchers discovered that limpet teeth, which contain a hard material known as goethite, appear to be the strongest natural material known to man.

Professor Asa Barber, who led the research, said: “Nature is a wonderful source of inspiration for structures that have excellent mechanical properties. Until now we thought that spider silk was the strongest biological material because of its super-strength and potential applications in everything from bullet-proof vests to computer electronics, but now we have discovered that limpet teeth exhibit a strength that is potentially higher. This discovery means that the fibrous structures found in limpet teeth could be mimicked and used in high-performance engineering applications such as Formula 1 racing cars, the hulls of boats and aircraft structures.”

He further noted that “ Finding out about effective designs in nature and then making structures based on these designs is known as ‘bio-inspiration’. Biology is a great source of inspiration when designing new structures, but with so many biological structures to consider, it can take time to discover which may be useful.”

Therefore, for our own benefit as well as the benefit of other species dependent upon productive ecosystems around the world, increasing global use of the precautionary principle in natural resource management would ensure that our generation and subsequent generations have opportunities to explore and benefit from the untapped wonders of the natural world.