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Science & Environmental Health Network - Precautionary Principle: Essays
The Precautionary Principle: Revisioning Iowa's Environmental Health
By Carolyn Raffensperger

Some of you know that I moved to Iowa in April. As I've become familiar with my new home I've been fascinated with the environmental art associated with the state. The famous cartoons of the Des Moines Register's Ding Darling and Dvorak's Opus 96 with the scarlet tanager's song from Spillville Iowa written into it.

I've particularly enjoyed a little sculpture on a corner in downtown Ames. It's a sculpture of a young boy with wings strapped to his arms.


Perhaps you know the legend of Icarus. He has the wings attached with wax, he flies too close to the sun, the wax melts and he falls into the sea. Dying. But there is more to the story and that part isn't reflected in the beautiful, simple sculpture.

Icarus' father, Daedalus, is the personification of skill in the mechanical arts. He can create and build anything. It was Daedalus who built the labyrinth for Minos, King of Crete. Daedalus loses the favor of the king and is imprisoned in the labyrinth itself. He is imprisoned in his own creation. Daedalus plots to escape. He can't escape by land or water since the King has complete control over them. But the King does not control the air. Daedalus makes wings for himself and his son. Father and Son have different agendas for this new technology: Daedalus wants to escape from King Minos but Icarus wants to be like the Gods. It is not clear whether Daedalus knew what his son was up to. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too low or too high. The fog could condense on his wings dragging him down if he flies too low. But the sun could melt the wax if he flies too high. It's obvious from the story that Daedalus loves this child. He kisses him goodbye. He gives all the right warnings. But he flies off leaving his son far behind. Icarus, as we all know from the story, flies too close to the sun melting the wax of his wings. He plunges to the sea. Daedalus can't hear Icarus' cries for help. He only sees the feathers fluttering on the sea after his son is dead.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is our story. We are imprisoned in our own devices. We think technology can fix everything but it is our children that will suffer. Daedalus and Icarus offer a cautionary - dare I say it - a precautionary tale.

Along with the art, I've been learning about the environmental problems here in Iowa.

Soon after I moved to Ames staff members of the Iowa Environmental Council came to see me. We talked about the environment in Iowa - the problems and successes. And the newspapers have been filled with endless stories about the problems - beaches closed, mussels dead, fish kills, the stench of factory hog farms.

In fact, its been striking to me how many problems are associated with the factory farms and with other aspects of this state's great treasure, its agriculture: pesticides such as atrazine, or the ever-present Roundup, bacterial contamination and other nonpoint source pollution of much of our fresh water, the erosion of topsoil, the loss of native prairie and forests, persistent bioaccumulative chemicals - all are gnawing away at the fragile web of life of which we are a part. That web is fraying. The wax holding our wings together is melting.

Iowans know this. Farmers know this. Scientists in universities know this. But what concerned citizens are usually confronted with when they lay out such problems is a demand for proof. Can we "prove" through science that factory farms and many other agricultural or industrial practices cause damage to human health, rivers, soil or wildlife? Probably not.

We can present credible evidence, detect associations, and make informed guesses - but these usually fall short of the kind of proof we have been taught to expect from science. That is, the kind of proof that relies more on numbers to quantify the damage - perhaps those generated by computer models in a university - and less on the real life experience of people observing and knowing their land and their own bodies. Should we wait for certainty before we take action to prevent harm?

So much of public health and environmental policy relies on what I call the "dead body" principle - wait until Icarus dies before we heed his cries for help. How many dead bodies of fish, burr oaks, or humans do we need before we call a halt to the madness? How many public beaches need to be closed before we take action? How many more children do we need in special education before we stop using chemicals that poison nervous systems? We do risk assessments and cost benefit analysis, and come up with a number, an estimate. Only one in a thousand might be maimed or one in a million might be killed. Maybe or maybe not. And on the basis of these numbers, and their uncertainty, we make the judgment that it is more important to protect what we are accustomed to protecting - the gross national product or the state budget.

We don't have to rely on the dead body principle. There's another wiser, more hopeful way to go about making decisions. It's the precautionary principle.

A common definition of the precautionary principle was formulated at the 1998 Wingspread Conference in this way: "when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

Numerous treaties have defined it slightly differently but all definitions of the principle include three elements: scientific uncertainty, the likelihood of harm, and precautionary action. The principle is designed to prevent damage to something we love even if science hasn't proven the exact mechanisms of cause and effect. It requires us to act, not just sit and wait for all the answers.

Many of the environmental health threats are caused by something that happened either a long way from where the damage was felt or a long time before we can see the damage. So science isn't very helpful in providing certainty.

Two examples from the recent scientific literature. The incinerator in Ames burns plastics and emits dioxin through its smoke stack as a consequence. Because of the way air currents move around the planet, that dioxin is carried up to the Arctic Circle and damages Inuit people and polar bears. The toxic emission happens a long way from where the damage is felt.

Another example. Farmers use insecticides on their fields in Iowa and get Parkinson's decades later or their children are born with learning disabilities.

How can you prove that the serious harm to the Inuit, the farmer, or the farmer's children, is caused by actions we took here in Iowa? It's pretty hard to do. You can set up the thought experiment and see if you can design the science that would demonstrate it. But there will be a lot of uncertainty along the way, and some of it may never be fully resolved.

The precautionary principle says when we have some information about harm, even though the science is uncertain we should act.

Until last year, the precautionary principle was primarily a statement of belief or a guideline - we should act with precaution. It could only be found in the preambles of treaties or literally as a belief of the U.S. President's Council on Sustainable Development. Two things have changed.

First, two treaties incorporated the principle into the body of the agreement making the principle a matter of hard international law. Both the treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Biosafety Protocol use the principle to make key regulatory decisions.

Second, those working on the precautionary principle had been trying to craft a regulatory framework for implementing the precautionary principle. In the course of that work we discovered that the precautionary principle isn't just a belief, nor is it just a regulatory device. It functions best as an overarching principle reflecting values, guiding research, and practiced in the regulatory and judicial arenas.

As an overarching principle, it serves as more than a vague notion of preventing harm, and as more than an add-on at the regulatory stage.

So how do we implement precaution?

The Wingspread participants identified four mechanisms for implementing the principle.

First, people have a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm. This is really a restatement of the precautionary principle.

Second, the burden of proof for a new technology, process, activity, or chemical lies with the proponents, not with the public. The burden of proof comes from the judicial system and doesn't work very well in the regulatory arena. However, another way to frame this is that the polluter must pay for damage. And yet another is that people must internalize all environmental costs of their activities. A way to reinforce the polluter paying is to require the proponent of an activity to post a performance bond or get insurance to back up claims of safety.

This links two ideas.

First, the goal under the precautionary principle is to prevent damage. So the notion that the burden of proof rests with the proponents announces up front that society will hold someone accountable. It provides a real impetus for proponents to think carefully about proposed activities before they undertake something hazardous. Is this activity necessary? Are there other ways to accomplish the same ends? But if prevention fails, there is some backup. The public isn't forced to absorb the costs of damage.

The second idea linked to the burden of proof and particularly that the polluter must pay is that of restoration. Its not just that a bad actor has to put some money into a general operating fund, but that there is enough dedicated money to restore the environment and public health.

Of course we are all culpable and we are all responsible for damaging activities. I drove to this meeting. At the same time there are some technologies or activities where the proponent has more information - or should have more information - about the potential harms, as well as the uncertainties, and so has a greater obligation to prevent damage.

The third mechanism Wingspread participants identified as a method for implementing the precautionary principle is this: before starting a new activity - whether it's using a new chemical or a new technology - people have an obligation to examine "a full range of alternatives." The idea of examining all the options comes from the National Environmental Policy Act. This is something we know how to do. It invites a lot more creativity than running a risk assessment on a single chemical or hog manure lagoon. What alternatives do we have to the hog lagoons? Or, for that matter, what alternatives do we have to the factory hog farm?

Fourth, decisions applying the precautionary principle must be "open, informed, and democratic" and "must include affected parties." The reason that the precautionary principle requires democratic participation is that when decisions cannot be resolved with science those decisions are, by their very nature, ethical and political. And, too, by involving affected parties we are more likely to get far better science and a better array of options.

Just one example. When the Hantavirus peaked in the desert Southwest several years ago, the Center for Disease Control spoke with Navaho elders and medicine men to find out what was going on. The Navaho experts described unusual weather that had led to a bumper crop of pinon nuts and to a population explosion of rodents. On the basis of this evidence, CDC was able to track down the virus and the animal vector, thus preventing more illness and death. All of the epidemiologists in the world didn't know what the Navaho elders knew.

Since Wingspread we've identified two other methods for implementing the precautionary principle. The first is a lesson learned from Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. The Swedish people jointly set goals and a vision for their country. For instance, the precautionary principle guided policy when the Swedish people decided that their goal was that no child would be born with toxic chemicals in its body. The goal itself is precautionary. But the mechanisms for achieving the goal must also comply with precaution.

What if we set goals for the kind of agriculture we wanted in Iowa? What would those goals look like? Then the question is, how do we meet our goals from where we are at?

The other idea we've been working on post - Wingspread is what happens when you've already got a mess. It's too late to prevent damage, which is the driving idea of the precautionary principle. At that point it is essential to practice restoration. There's lots to restore in Iowa, from toxic chemicals in mothers' breast milk, our tall grass prairies, to our damaged rivers. The precautionary principle and restoration go hand in hand.

As I mentioned earlier, any decisions made in the face of scientific uncertainty are inherently political and ethical. That has always been the case. The question is, which ethics should guide us? Too often, we have sacrificed the environment and public health on the altar of economic gain. Science has been narrowed and subverted to support the economic ethic. Other values have been cast aside.

Last November a group met under the auspices of the Science and Environmental Health Network. They were interested in exploring the values that are the foundation of the precautionary principle. They knew that we had to grapple with a topic that is far less familiar to environmental activists than the science of any issue.

That group decided something pretty interesting. They came to the conclusion that values or ethics aren't just nice things we need to get along with each other but that they are essential for survival. They drafted a statement, which I've included as an appendix for those of you who want to read it in full. But the group listed the kinds of values on which are survival depends:

  • gratitude, because our lives depend on air, water, soil, plants, humans, and other animals;
  • empathy, because we are connected with all of creation;
  • sympathy, because we all experience suffering and death, both necessarily in the course of life and unnecessarily when these values are not practiced;
  • compassion, because it moves us to attend to suffering and injustice; and
  • humility, because we cannot know all of the consequences of our actions.
We belong to the community of the Earth. It is the source of our own life, and our actions affect its well-being. Therefore, we practice:
  • respect, because it is fundamental to good relationships;
  • restraint, because the Earth is finite, and we must honor its limits;
  • simplicity, because we are only one species sharing Earth with many others;
And, perhaps my favorite -
  • humor, because life is good, and humor disrobes tyranny and absurdity.
The statement ends with this lovely sentence: "It is through love for the particular - a child, a neighborhood, a family of otters, a meandering river - that we find our way to a sustaining relationship with the Earth and our communities."

So I offer a question in response to that statement - how might we find our way to a sustaining relationship with the earth here in Iowa? If the Iowa Environmental Council decided to adopt the precautionary principle there might be some interesting places to start. Let me name four: the religious community, the university system, the regulatory agencies, and unique venues like the State Fair.

I understand that churches are active in the Iowa Environmental Council. This is wonderful. The church is the perfect place to tell the truth, think of long-term consequences and responsibilities, recognize the value of history, and to say there is more to making a decision than sound science. It might be interesting to hold a faith-based conference on science and ethics.

President Bush initiated a discussion on ethics because of stem cells. But who is taking the lead on environmental ethics and science? One model might be the evangelical Christians who stood up for the Endangered Species Act. My sense is that the ordinary person has an intuition that they are getting snowed when an industry trade association tells them to wait for the science while the world is getting worse. Those - actually us - ordinary people need the help of the churches to work through ethics so that we can make ethically grounded choices for public health and the environment.

It occurred to me that the State Fair might be an interesting place to hold a town meeting on the precautionary principle and create a vision for Iowa's environment because of all the strange and wonderful things that go on there - hymn sings, corn dogs, and butter sculptures. This is where Iowa comes together. Why not invite DNR and the Department of Health to participate in a visioning session, with ongoing discussion about how to meet the vision? A true blue ribbon panel.

One of the hallmarks of the precautionary principle is that it gives us the wherewithal to prevent damage. A key role for administrative agencies - especially departments of health or natural resources - is to recognize patterns, especially emerging trends and find ways to take precautionary action. A mechanism for identifying emerging trends and creating an early warning system is to adopt the medical model of the alert practitioner.

Physicians are required by law to report adverse drug reactions. This is the way that phen-fen, a diet drug, was fingered as damaging heart valves. Iowa administrative agencies might create a system where health practitioners, conservationists, educators, and veterinarians, among others, might report observations about emerging environmental health trends. This could function like the Center for Disease Control's system for identifying disease patterns. The agencies could then make recommendations and take appropriate action. Some recommendations might include changes in insurance and health screening or modifications to agricultural practices.

And finally, the university. Iowa is rich with higher education. It is part of the renown of this heartland state. Even Bostonians know of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Even North Dakotans know about the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Universities are facing some of their biggest challenges because of a research agenda driven by economic competitiveness and the dwindling public resources to fund the public's agenda. The university knows it's in trouble. I would submit that this provides us with a unique opportunity to set an agenda, hold scientists accountable for ethical research, and adopt a precautionary science.

Earlier I said that the precautionary principle is most useful as an overarching idea. We are far less likely to say "no" to a chemical or a technology at the regulatory phase of development if we've incorporated the precautionary principle into the kind of research we do - and well before regulation.

In 1998, Jane Lubchenco published her inaugural speech for the AAAS in Science magazine. In it she called for a "New Social Contract" for scientists. Lubchenco made an articulate case for an entirely new agreement between society and science. In the past the contract was for science to provide for the national defense and eradicate infectious disease. More recently the contract has been for research and development to enhance the United States' global economic competitiveness. Lubchenco makes the case that, on this human dominated planet the contract is now fundamentally different. "Shortfalls in ecosystem goods and services are increasingly common, and are linked to growing public demand as well as diminishing supply. Humanity now exploits about half of earth's plant production and renewable, available freshwater. Most marine fisheries are fully exploited or overexploited. People are eliminating plant and animal species, the basic components of our life support system, at an extraordinary rate far greater than at any previous time in the history of humankind."

Doesn't this also sound like Iowa? Isn't it time we revised our contract with our research institutions and asked them to address the most pressing problems that private corporations cannot or will not solve? I would suggest that the Iowa Environmental Council might convene some meetings about what the Iowa research agenda might look like and present a research agenda to the legislature and to the universities. I suspect that this agenda would look different than the agricultural commodity groups' research agenda.

Inherent in the new social contract and the precautionary research agenda is the ethical dimension of research. Many of the scientific professional societies recognize ethical obligations. For instance, the last clause of the ethics statement for the American Chemical Society says, "Chemists should understand and anticipate the environmental consequences of their work. Chemists have responsibility to avoid pollution and to protect the environment." This sounds like the precautionary principle to me!

Wendell Berry challenges the university to a more specific ethical yardstick - the standard of the community's health. What would happen to Iowa universities if each committed itself to the health of the community? How would scientists both see their research questions and their ethical obligations? Can the Iowa Environmental Council participate in getting Iowa Universities to make this kind of commitment? If I were a betting woman, I'd put money on the probability that Iowa universities would not be in nearly as much fiscal trouble or held in low esteem by the public if they made their primary research agenda the health of the community.

In conclusion, I would like to give the last word on the precautionary principle to my friend Wendell Berry. I have imagined him as having a dialogue with Daedalus, Icarus, and maybe even us as we sit in this room together.

The poem is perhaps more in the spirit of Iowa than my talk has been. I have presumed to tell Iowans how they might think and act. I understand this is not good manners from a newcomer. Yet I offer these ideas as fuel for our own best thinking and action as a community. Iowa has a rich tradition of drawing on the wisdom of real people, and that wisdom is desperately needed in this state, as well as the nation and the world at large.

Here is Wendell Berry's fine poem, which speaks about money, science, community, home - all the things embraced by the precautionary principle.

The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and science,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
He goes shadowy into the local woods,
and brightly into the local meadows and croplands.
He goes to the care of neighbors,
he goes into the care of neighbors.
He goes to the potluck supper, a dish from each house
for the hunger of every house.
He goes into the quiet of early mornings
of days when he is not going anywhere.

Calling his neighbors together into the sanctity of their lives
separate and together
in the one life of their commonwealth and home,
in their own nation small enough for a story
or song to travel across in an hour, he cries:

Come all ye conservatives and liberals
who want to conserve the good things and be free,
come away from the merchants of big answers,
whose hands are metalled with power;
from the union of anywhere and everywhere
by the purchase of everything from everybody at the lowest price
and the sale of anything to anybody at the highest price;
from the union of work and debt, work and despair;
from the wage-slavery of the helplessly well-employed.
From the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation,
secede into care for one anotherv and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth.

Come into the life of the body, the one body
granted to you in all the history of time.
Come into the body's economy, its daily work,
and its replenishment at mealtimes and at night.
Come into the body's thanksgiving, when it knows
and acknowledges itself a living soul.
Come into the dance of the community, joined
in a circle, hand in hand, the dance of the eternal
love of women and men for one another
and of neighbors and friends for one another.

Always disappearing, always returning,
calling his neighbors to return, to think again
of the care of flocks and herds, of gardens
and fields, of woodlots and forests and the uncut groves,
calling them separately and together, calling and calling,
he goes forever toward the long restful evening
and the croak of the night heron over the river at dark.

The Blue Mountain Lake Statement Of Essential Values

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