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The True Cost Clearinghouse Opens Its Doors

By Nancy Myers

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #899, March 22, 2007

Economics has been used as the number one argument against the precautionary principle, against environmental regulation, and against protective policies of all kinds. Since the early days of the precaution movement, advocates have been looking for economic arguments for the precautionary principle.

Making that kind of argument hasn't been easy in the past because the studies simply had not been done. That is changing. An increasing number of recent studies have examined the hidden costs of the industrial growth society and the unsung benefits of a transition to sustainability. Those studies are reaching critical mass and they make explicit what many of us have suspected all along: precautionary action does pay, by economic as well as other measures.

The Science and Environmental Health Network has begun to assemble these studies in the True Cost Clearinghouse.

In the True Cost Clearinghouse you will find landmark studies like the 2006 World Health Organization report attributing nearly a quarter of global death and disease to the environment; the Landrigan et al. study on the cost of environmental pollutants and disease in American children; the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment; and the 2005 Pimental and Patzek analysis showing biofuel production requires more fossil energy than it produces.

The Clearinghouse also includes many smaller studies, informal analyses, and news articles on topics ranging from the costs of ADHD in adults to the economic value of happiness brought by cleaner air.

All of these studies, reports, and articles include but do not focus exclusively on monetary costs and benefits. The emphasis is on heretofore hidden social, health, environmental, and economic costs of economic activities--the debit side of the ledger, which has always received less attention than the credit side.

The Clearinghouse is searchable and arranged in an easy-to-browse list. Many full reports are accompanied by related news articles, press releases, and executive summaries.

We hope gathering these studies in one place will serve the following functions:

Correct some of the huge distortions of current cost-benefit analyses. These new studies give weight and reality to the costs and benefits that fall to the public and to the commons, as opposed to industry and developers. They put numbers where there have been none before, or where they have been ignored. We don't want to get trapped in trying to prove everything by the numbers and assigning a price to things that are beyond monetary value, like health and life. But avoiding economic analysis can lead to the assumption that all economic arguments favor industry and economic enterprise as we know it. And they do not.

Get the attention of those who listen to economic arguments. That includes not only policymakers but also large segments of the public who are resistant to changes to the status quo. Studies that put numbers to the cost of harm and the benefits of precaution can give policymakers a rationale for rejecting arguments that privilege "the economy" over health and wholeness. They can help communities get a handle on the real choices they face in economic development.

Begin to break the stranglehold of money as the sole measure of what we value as a society and how we make our decisions. The precautionary principle directs us to go ahead and take necessary protective action based on the best available information, not to wait for science's standards of proof. That doesn't mean ignoring science; it means incorporating science into our decisions but not backing off and letting science decide. Nor does it mean ignoring economics; it means incorporating what we value into our decisions, and monetary value is only a part of this. We cannot let monetary values alone make the decisions.

Encourage more studies like these in the next several years. Paradoxically, we may have to use money and numbers to help us get beyond making our decisions by money and numbers alone. Over the next few years we have a chance to change the terms of the debate about money and numbers by pushing them as far as we can toward reality. In this process we can make explicit what we value, what can be monetized, and what cannot. We have a chance to shift the debate through numbers to value, ethics, and responsibility.

Precaution will pay in economic terms. We must shift our societal perspective to the longer-term bottom line in order to grow our own social, ecological, and economic wealth. This is just common sense. Many, though not all, precautionary actions require upfront spending but pay off in a relatively short time. If money invested in children's preschool pays off in reduced teenage crime, this can hardly be called sacrifice. Families make these decisions all the time. We need to do it as a society.

We invite you to browse and search the Clearinghouse and suggest more studies to include. Send them to Nancy Myers, nancy@sehn.org.

True Cost Clearinghouse Index


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