Public Law & Legal Theory
The concept of “irreversibility” plays a large role in the theory and practice of environmental protection. Indeed, the concept is explicit in some statements of the Precautionary Principle. But the idea of irreversibility remains poorly defined. Because time is linear, any loss is, in a sense, irreversible. On one approach, drawn from environmental economics, irreversibility might be understood as a reference to the value associated with taking precautionary steps that maintain flexibility for an uncertain future (“option value”). On another approach, drawn from environmental ethics, irreversibility might be understood to refer to the qualitatively distinctive nature of certain environmental harms—a point that raises a claim about incommensurability. The two conceptions fit different problems. For example, the idea of option value best fits the problem of climate change; the idea of qualitatively distinctive harms best fits the problem of extinction of endangered species. These ideas can be applied to a wide assortment of environmental problems.
Cass R. Sunstein, "Two Concepts of Irreversible Environmental Harm" (University of Chicago Public Law & Legal Theory Working Paper No. 218, 2008).