Such specific status of the precautionary principle makes it a very interesting and highly relevant field of analytical inquiry.
The formal concept of 'precautionary principle' originated in Germany in the 1930s. Initially, this concept applied to socio-legal practices such as household management: German word 'Vorsorgeprinzip' translated into English as 'precaution principle' (O'Riordan & Cameron 1994, p. 10). By the 1970s the concept of 'Vorsorgeprinzip' developed into an essential principle of German environmental law and was used to justify the actions meant to address such problems as global warming, sea and air pollution, and others. At the centre of early conceptions of precautionary principle was the idea that society should take efforts to prevent environmental damage by careful forward planning, blocking the flow of human activities potentially hazardous for environment or "long term planning to avoid damage to the environment, early detection of dangers to health and the environment through comprehensive research, and acting in advance of conclusive scientific evidence of harm" (LaFranchi 2005, p. 681).
Since the 1970s the precautionary principle has proliferated in international and domestic conventions, treaties, and political statements dealing with environmental issues in which the science is uncertain. Thus, the precautionary principle was introduced in 1984 at the First International Conference on Protection of the North Sea; it was also integrated into the Bergen declaration on sustainable development, the Maastricht Treaty on the European Union, the Barcelona Convention, and the Global Climate Change Convention. Sweden and Denmark were the first states after Germany to seriously implement the precautionary principle in their environmental and public health policy (Hanson 2003). Since the late 1980s, the precautionary principle in some or other form has become unalienable aspect of domestic statutes and policies in Australia too.
Current Approaches and Definitions
Despite relatively long history of use, no universally accepted definition of the precautionary principle has been proposed up to date. Perhaps the most widely quoted definition of the precautionary principle is the one formulated at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development: "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation" (Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992, Principle 15). Although this definition is used more commonly than others it is not universally accepted: there are many alternative definitions.
The precautionary principle can also be defined as "... a willingness to take action in advance of