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Technology: Who Chooses? a precaution primer

By Nancy Myers and Carolyn Raffensperger In Germany more than 20 years ago, private landowners noticed that their treasured forests were dying. They appealed to the government to do something about the tragedy. Germany then began an all-out effort to cut down power plant emissions to reduce acid rain in an effort to save the Black Forest. Later, that urge to protect and prevent was translated into a formal principle of German law, the lovely Vorsorgeprinzip, literally, the "forecaring principle." In the years that followed, the German idea became enshrined in international law as the precautionary principle.

Vorsorge incorporates the notion of preparing for a difficult future, the way one might buy extra food and candles before a blizzard. We in America have trouble with the concept of a difficult future. Technology and a new president are supposed to solve everything.

"Onward and upward." But warning signs now tell us something different. The increases in breast cancer, learning disabilities, and other health problems associated with environmental degradation; the loss of plants and animals we love; and the increasing number of environmental catastrophes all suggest that something is awry. We've had three decades of environmental laws, and we've learned to recycle. But it hasn't been enough.

The precautionary principle, or the idea of "forecaring," gives us a way to change our behavior, personally and collectively. It reminds us to acknowledge our mistakes, admit our ignorance, and act with foresight and caution to prevent damage. It also removes the barriers to that kind of precautionary action.

One widely cited formulation of the precautionary principle is the 1998 Wingspread Statement: "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."

In colloquial language, it's the common sense idea behind adages like "Look before you leap." "Better safe than sorry." "A stitch in time saves nine." In its more sophisticated formulations, key elements include taking precautions in the face of scientific uncertainty; exploring alternatives to possibly harmful actions; placing the burden of proof on proponents of an activity rather than on victims or potential victims of the activity; and using democratic processes to carry out and enforce the principle—including the public right to informed consent. The precautionary principle calls for the humble recognition that the world is full of scientific uncertainties. The Earth is made of complex, interrelated systems, vulnerable to harm from human activities, and resistant to comprehensive understanding. Precaution is an expression of values that gives priority to these vulnerable systems, including those of our own human bodies.

The precautionary principle particularly singles out scientific uncertainty, because it is often raised as a barrier to protective action. It usually comes up in arguments to preserve economic interests or our own habits: "Let's wait until we know for sure how much human activity is influencing the climate before we make any changes." "Let's find out exactly what levels of arsenic in drinking water are unsafe before we set stricter standards." "Scientists don't agree on the dangers."

The precautionary principle counters that mentality with what Wendell Berry has called an "ecological morality," which is based on the idea that all of life is interdependent. The principle is an ethic of survival—not just some Miss Manners niceties—to protect the web of life. Rather than asking how much toxic damage is acceptable in a baby or an ecosystem, a precautionary approach asks how much can be avoided.

We go to great lengths to save an ill child or a beached whale. The precautionary principle calls for us to act before such tragedies occur and, if necessary, to err on the side of caution because such errors are less costly in the long run.

Precaution in Action It is easy to see why we need the precautionary principle. It is harder to say exactly how it should be applied because there is no simple formula.

At the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN), we have been working to understand how the precautionary principle can help advocates for public health and environmental integrity in their campaigns. Here's what we've learned so far:

Lesson one: Apply it early and often. By the time a company has spent millions of dollars developing a chemical or technology, it is hard to apply the precautionary principle. What agency will say "no" in the face of all that money pressure? Instead, we discovered that it is much more useful to apply the principle before a technology, such as genetic engineering of crops, is a done deal.

Lesson two: Know what you want. The principle works best when positive goals are set. If your community decides that children's bodies should be free of toxic chemicals, or that it wants to preserve migratory butter-fly routes, the steps to that goal become clearer. The state of Montana has established its citizens' desire for a clean and healthy environment as a constitutional right. As a consequence, citizen groups have been successful in court in preventing the mining industry from being exempted from this general duty. In 1992, an International Joint Commission adopted the precautionary principle to set the goal of stopping all persistent organic pollutants from being discharged into the Great Lakes.

Lesson three: Ask bigger questions. Business as usual is going to get us business as usual. Mary O'Brien's work on assessing alternatives to damaging activities invites a robust creativity. (See Making Better Environmental Decisions, MIT Press, 2000). What alternatives do we have? How do those alternatives help meet our goals? If faced with a Hobson's choice—say a community is asked to choose between a new waste dump and an incinerator—step back and ask a bigger question: How can we cut down the amount of waste we produce? Reframing the question is often the most important step in applying the precautionary principle. It can turn adversaries into cooperative, problem-solving teams.

Lesson four: Many heads are better than one. In an uncertain world, scientists, corporations, and politicians should not be the only ones to set up the choices or make the decisions. It is important to gather goals and innovative solutions from throughout society. The Health Care Without Harm campaign has brought together environmentalists, medical professionals, researchers, and industry to find substitutes for medical plastics containing phthalates, which have the potential to harm infants in neonatal care and possibly other patients as well. In the meantime, the campaign calls for precautionary action by asking the medical community to go beyond current regulatory requirements and take ethical responsibility for preventing harm.

Lesson five: Lives, not products, come first. It surprises many people to learn that most chemicals and other products are considered safe until proven otherwise. In courts of law, products (and corporations) are often given the benefit of the doubt over those who claim to have been harmed by them. But this isn't always true. Hudson, Quebec, banned the use of chemical herbicides and insecticides on lawns a decade ago, and the town was subsequently sued by landscaping companies ChemLawn and Spraytech. In June 2001, the Canadian Supreme Court upheld the town's right to ban pesticides, based on the precautionary principle. ("We're thinking about adopting the dandelion as the municipal flower," Hudson Mayor Stephen Sharr told the CBC.)

Lesson six:Make proponents bear the burden of proof. If project proponents cannot demonstrate to the satisfaction of the public that their actions will not cause harm, they may be legitimately stopped. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome that government and industry find so frustrating is often a common-sense exercise of the precautionary principle on the part of citizens. Given the choice of being exposed or not exposed to something that shows some possibility of being harmful, and weighing the benefits to themselves and their descendants, people will generally choose not to accept the danger if they believe it provides little benefit and there are better alternatives, or that alternatives have not been sought vigorously enough.

Lesson seven: Just do it. Precautionary action comes in many shapes and sizes. Bans or phaseouts may be appropriate, but pre-market testing can also be precautionary. Monitoring of all kinds fits into a precautionary scheme: products already on the market, human effects on ecosystems, the condition of human bodies.

Any action that helps to prevent harm and to protect humans and the environment in the face of scientific uncertainty qualifies as a precautionary action. Even actions after the fact can be in the spirit of the principle. The Agent Orange Act of 1991 instructed scientists and policy makers to give veterans the benefit of the doubt in the absence of full scientific proof that they had been exposed to herbicides or harmed by them. A scientific review committee of the US Institute of Medicine worked out a standard for evaluating harmful effects of a substance based on the weight of the evidence—"more likely than not"—rather than conclusive proof.

Lesson eight: Wise up. Choosing the right precautionary action requires wisdom. The regulatory systems we have are based on rules that often leave little room for good sense or even good evidence. Rules have their place, but in making decisions that affect our health and future, we need all the wisdom we can muster. That means not only looking at scientific evidence but also practicing flexibility, foresight, fairness, responsibility, and honesty.

The Federal Aviation Administration took precautionary action when it banned use of cell phones and electronic devices at takeoff and landing, based on a single study that suggested these devices might interfere with a plane's electronic systems. Scientists have not been able to duplicate that study. Nevertheless, because the costs of continuing the ban are practically nil, and because the potential adverse consequences are so great, it seems sensible to continue the ban unless it is proven unnecessary.

Lesson nine: A little precaution is better than none. The precautionary principle is not an absolute. Nothing guarantees a risk-free world. But we must get better at predicting harmful side effects and acting on the first signs of harm. We have very far to go, and many changes and decisions will be difficult. Any progress in exercising precaution is worth applauding—and then pushing further. The Methodist Church adopted the precautionary principle in 2000 as a way of expressing their commitment to be stewards of God's creation. The Republican Party of Indiana adopted the principle as one of its planks in 1998.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has adopted a pesticide reduction plan based on the precautionary principle. The principle can be adopted and used to good effect by any organization at any level of jurisdiction—even by families.

Lesson ten: Clean up your messes. The precautionary principle is about preventing damage. But we all know of contaminated sites or bodies, a clear-cut forest, or a channelized stream. Their degraded condition poses risks of both ongoing and future damage. For this reason, restoration is one of the faces of forecaring, or precaution. Citizens of Metropolitan Chicago are preserving and restoring what remains of the region's oak-savannah prairies. They call their movement "Chicago Wilderness"—an optimistic assertion that it is worth caring for nature even in the most human-dominated landscapes.

These lessons are not easy. Applying the precautionary principle is one of the most challenging tasks facing citizens of the early 21st century. It is not impossible, however, and it is beginning to happen.

Re-printed from Yes! Magazine Fall 2001 

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