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It Might Have Been: Risk, Precaution, and Opportunity Costs, 22 J. Land Use & Envtl. L. 1 (2006)


This Article, which is part of a larger project on the competing merits of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) and the precautionary principle (PP) examines one specific plank of the case against the PP: the claim that the principle’s ignorance of the opportunity costs of precaution leads to indeterminate or impoverishing policy advice. Because PP defenders emphasize the limits of human knowledge and the frequency of unpleasant surprises from technology and industrial development, they prefer an ex ante stance of precaution whenever a proposed activity meets some threshold possibility of causing severe harm to human health or the environment. Importantly, they prefer this stance even in the face of potential benefits—such as those promised by the use of nanoparticles in groundwater remediation or skin protection—that may themselves be ameliorative of environmental, health, and safety dangers. Although their reasoning has never been perfectly clear, advocates of the PP regard such foregone benefits as conceptually distinct from, and somehow less central than, the more affirmative consequences that may result from allowing potentially harmful activities to proceed.

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