The Science and Environmental Health Network


Blog, Updates, and In the News

Crafting the New Story.png

Precautionary Principle – Number 184

Precaution's Reach: a New Report

May 2009


I. Precaution's Reach: a New Report by Katie Silberman

Welcome to the inaugural issue of the re-born Rachel's Precaution Reporter. The Science and Environmental Health Network is honored that Peter Montague has handed his baby to us, and we pledge to take good care.

In this issue of Rachel's Precaution Reporter, the Science and Environmental Health Network is pleased to release a new report, "Advancing The Precautionary Agenda," examining the role of the precautionary principle across sectors. In our decade-plus of advocating for precaution, we've seen how the idea has caught hold in the environmental health and justice movements (for whom it was often quite intuitive). But we wondered who else was using precaution, and how it fit into the goals, aspirations and operations of their industries and movements.

The report summarizes 17 interviews across 14 disciplines. It draws a picture of shared ideas, challenges, and hopes for integrating precaution in a broad-based fashion. We learn about common barriers to precautionary action, like the fact that our economic system rewards toward short-term gain over long-term planning. But at the same time, there is a thread of ethical humanity that crosses disciplines, such as labor leader William Klinefelter asserting that "precaution is a tonic to despair."

Organized into four broad categories, "Advancing The Precautionary Agenda" gives us entry points into creating a society that, as the report says, moves away from describing the future that's likely to happen, toward creating the future we want to happen. Interview responses are broken down into:

  1. Institutionalizing precaution: building formal bodies to house precautionary action, such as California's Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service;
  2. Measuring precaution: how can we create legitimate life-cycle analyses, for instance, if we can't properly measure a qualitative value like cultural tradition?
  3. Economic drivers of precaution: such as the fact that most scientific funding is funneled toward ideas that can be patented;
  4. Envisioning precaution: what do we need to imagine in order to make it come true?

Although many sectors are taking precautionary action and planning for the future, such action is called by many names, not necessarily "precautionary principle." Niman Ranch Pork Company, for instance, creates a market for pigs raised humanely on family-owned farms, and is now 500-farms strong and growing 10 percent annually. Such practices can be seen as especially precautionary in light of the recent swine flu epidemic, which may be linked to massive hog confinement operations. Even Sysco foods, a huge player in the industrial food economy in the US, is now using reduced-pesticide techniques on hundreds of thousands of acres of produce. As juvenile justice advocate Diana Frappier said, "if prevention were our priority, the positive effects would show up everywhere."

It is SEHN's hope that surveying precautionary actions across sectors, and connecting disparate actors with common aspirations, can lead to a synergy that advances all work. As the report concludes, "we need better ways of integrating existing knowledge that take into account cumulative, complex interactions." This is a continued expression of SEHN's exploration of the science of complexity: in a multi-faceted world full of uncertainty, how can we make decisions and act on them to protect our health, ecosystem, and future generations? "Advancing The Precautionary Agenda" makes clear that there are farsighted strategies in many sectors, working in concert to, as one respondent said, create "an emotional relationship to the future."

The findings of the report are helping SEHN set our precautionary agenda for the future. We make it publicly available with the wish that others may use it too: the report can be downloaded at


Related Resources

For more about SEHN's Science of Complexity, see our recent report Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging: with a Closer Look at Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases,available at

To hear a story about the precautionary principle from National Public Radio, featuring SEHN Science Director Ted Schettler, click here.

To read about precaution in action, see this article about the increase in pesticide-free towns in New Jersey.

For an example of taking precautionary action in the face of scientific uncertainty, see this article about a breast cancer cluster at the University of California San Diego that some suspect is inked to EMF exposure in one building.