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Exuberant optimism vs the precautionary principle

Keywords: Precautionary principle , Economic growth , Environmental protection , Ecological life support , Sustainability

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ABSTRACT: Management of Earth's resources will not attain sustainability unless tough questions are asked and the merits and disadvantages of conflicting paradigms are rigorously examined. Two major conflicting paradigms are: (1) economic growth will solve all problems, including environmental ones --- the free market has negated the dire environmental forecasts and relegated them to the status of myths; and (2) human society is dependent upon the planet's life support --- system it assumes that the present rate of biotic impoverishment (e.g., species extinction, loss of habitat) will so alter the biosphere that it will be less habitable for humans. Dominant, global practices are based on the first assumption, which, if invalid, will have dire consequences for human society. For example, anthropogenic greenhouse gases causing a modest rise of global temperatures could produce 20 million environmental refugees from Bangladesh alone as a consequence of a sea level rise that would inundate 17% of the country's habitable land. Implementing the second paradigm would require major, mostly unpalatable, changes in human behavior. Since, at present, humans occupy only 1 planet, the precautionary principle suggests acting more cautiously with regard to economic growth until its effects upon the planet's ecological life support system are better understood.

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