Bioneers, October 15, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: So, what is this precautionary principle? The word itself was translated from a German word, which literally means fore-caring. It's the foresight principle. It's the fore-action principle. It's the grandmother principle. It's the principle that says, "We are going to look out for future generations and to future generations for their well-being and their sanity."]

By Carolyn Raffensperger

2005 Bioneers Plenary Speech

I got into the environmental movement because I wanted to say no to putting radioactive waste in the Four Corners area of the Southwestern desert. I was in my 20's, and the question was, "What part of 'no' did I understand?" Not a whole lot. The first person I had as a hero was Lois Gibbs -- the housewife who was at Love Canal, who broke that news and articulated the key element of the precautionary principle, which is: "We don't want to keep making these messes." It was out of Love Canal that so much of our work was born.

You've probably heard about two of the most terrible disasters of the environmental movement: Love Canal and Bhopal. I mention Lois Gibbs and Love Canal because we really are a movement, and we are going to have the first national conference on the precautionary principle in June, 2006. Lois Gibbs is the lead person helping to organize that conference along with our organization, the Science and Environmental Health Network. We are bringing together everyone, you included. We want you there. The precautionary principle is no longer a little idea out there. It is now moving hearts and minds. It is now being incorporated into government. It is now being used to prevent the kind of damage that we saw at Bhopal and Love Canal. No more.

Any idea is really an ecology of ideas. It's not as if the precautionary principle sprung out of my brain, or anybody else's brain for that matter, fully formed. It really was the experience of Love Canal and Bhopal, and all of those other disasters and the search for solutions. The search for ways of no longer saying no. And then, oh no. That's what we have been saying, isn't it? In my case, I've been saying no to the terrible loss of the white pelicans in North Dakota for two summers now. Last summer 27,000 white pelicans vanished. They just disappeared. But this year 9,000 of them came back. We didn't know if they would. Nine thousand came back to North Dakota to the Chase Lake Refuge. Do you know what happened this year? Another, "Oh, no." Eight thousand babies died. Last year the adults vanished, and this year the babies. Oh no.

What do we say yes to? There is a fantastic quote about this ecology of ideas. The quote is by Barry Lopez, who says, "Pay attention to the mystery. Apprentice to the best apprentices. Rediscover in nature your own biology. Write and speak with appreciation for all you have been gifted. Recognize that a politics with no biology, or a politics without field biology, or a political platform in which human biological requirements form but one plank, is a vision of the gates of hell."

We are at the gates of hell, and if we want to go on through the gates of hell we can continue business as usual. We can continue doing the kind of slash-and-burn chemistry that we have been doing, or we can adopt green chemistry. We can change the way that we do health policy, become ecologically sound and use ecological medicine. We can use adaptive management for relating to our large ecosystems. We can begin to use all of these things, and those ideas are at the heart of the precautionary principle.

So, what is this precautionary principle? The word itself was translated from a German word, which literally means fore-caring. It's the foresight principle. It's the fore-action principle. It's the grandmother principle. It's the principle that says, "We are going to look out for future generations and to future generations for their well-being and their sanity." So that they will not be lonely. So that they will not live in a world without jaguars. So that they will not live in a world without white pelicans. So that they will not live in a world without all of our fellow travelers and our fellow beings.

The idea of the precautionary principle was summed up in the Wingspread statement, which says, "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 have not been fully established scientifically." How is that for a mouthful? Do you know what it means? Do you know what you can do now to just walk out and take care of the precautionary principle, and enact it and carry it out in your communities? Well, we didn't either. So, we take that idea and the central core of it -- like the seeds in an apple. They are very clear, and they are in every single definition of the precautionary principle. What are those seed ideas?

It's the threat of harm. What are we worried about? What do we care about? What threatens what we love? It is scientific uncertainty. What don't we know? How do we know? Do we know? And there are all of the things that go into scientific uncertainty. Are we just ignorant and nobody knows? Can we find out through more data? What is it that we need to use science for, and what can't science help us with? And it is taking action. We need to take action to prevent more global climate change and global warming. We need to take action to prevent the destruction of our children's brains through toxic chemicals. We want our breast milk pure. So we have to act. We have to act to prevent harm.

So, what's the harm? What do we know and what don't we know? And can we take action? Those three elements: action, uncertainty and harm. That's all it is. People will tell you, "Oh, we don't know what the precautionary principle means. There are just so many definitions," Well, we do know what it means. It means those three things every time.

But that's still not going to help you a lot when you want to take action, say in San Francisco or Denton, Texas. So what do you do then? There are five steps that you can take that will get you through almost any situation They will help you apply this precautionary principle, and help you take precautionary and preventive action to prevent harm.

What are the five steps? First, you set goals. What kind of world do we want to live in? There are health problems all over the country, and everywhere I go I learn the statistics of wherever I am. What do you care about in Marin County? What do you care about in Anchorage, Alaska? What do you care about in all of the places where the Beaming Bioneers satellite conferences are being held? Atlanta, Georgia, what kind of world do you want to live in? Do we want to continue to have a rising rate of asthma? Of breast cancer? When my mother got married, the statistic was one woman in 25. Just a few years ago it was one woman in eight. Now not a lot has changed between my mother and me genetically, so it's not that. Do you know what the statistic is today? One woman in seven. When my ten-year-old niece gets married, what's the statistic expected to be? One woman in three. Is that the kind of world we want to live in? I don't. So, what kind of world? Is that preventable? Let's prevent those breast cancers if we can.

Let's establish the goal for the kind of world we want to live in. Do it in your own communities, and then you can start to look for the safest, and most beautiful, most respectful alternative. What are the ways that will help us meet our goal? How do we have healthy babies? How do we ensure that there will be jaguars in the world?

Second, we begin to look at our alternatives. We begin to look at the ways that we are doing business and that are not helping us meet our goals. We choose the alternatives to get us to where we want to be. There are some wonderful examples of doing this. In North Dakota they have developed a seed-breeding project, where the farmers and the scientists in the whole Great Plains region are developing seeds that are suitable for that environment, and they're doing it together. Then they're trying to figure out how to protect and keep the seeds for generations, like a library. That's an alternative to genetically modified organisms, and it's better suited to have breeding projects and programs in our community. It's a wonderful alternative.

Debbie Raphael works for the city of San Francisco, and she has figured out how to think about these alternatives. San Francisco looked at all of the money that the city and county were spending on things that actually got in their way, that are not helping them meet their goals and live in the kind of world that San Francisco wants to live in. They developed an overarching precautionary ordinance that said, "San Franciscans have a right to a healthy and safe environment." I don't know about you and other places in the country - if you're in Iowa, Arkansas, or Colorado -- do you have a right to a healthy environment? Or is it only San Franciscans? I think we all do. Many of your constitutions around the country say that you have that right.

Then San Francisco wanted to look for those safer alternatives, and so they took the second step and developed an environmentally preferable purchasing policy to carry out the very first step of implementing the precautionary principle. What are the alternative products that we can purchase and use in our daily activities that will help us reach the goal that we're trying to meet? It's a wonderful ordinance. You can look at the ordinance on our Web site (

So, set your goal, look for the alternative ways to meet those goals, and then, third, start to heed early warnings. How do we start paying attention to the signals and the clues that are going on in the environment? The motto of Bioneers is: It's all alive. It's all connected. It's all intelligent. It's all relatives. Well, I don't know about the intelligent part. If we can't figure out the patterns and the early warnings, our intelligence is a little bit questionable. Are we educable as a species?

If we begin to look at these patterns -- for instance, the patterns of the rising rate of breast cancer -- and we begin to say, "This is not the way we want to live," then we can take action in the face of those early warnings. How many things can you think of where we didn't take heed of some bad pattern? How long did it take before the tobacco executives said, "Oh, tobacco causes cancer." How long did it take? It took from the first studies in 1945 until we finally had proof in the mid-1990's. How much evidence do we need? How much evidence do we need when a baby is born with a pesticide in its meconium -- so that it has crossed the mother's body into the placenta and into that baby, and now that baby is excreting it? We already know a little bit about some of these pesticides and what they do to rats and mice. I am hoping that we can be smarter, that we can say, "this is not a good idea." Do we want to do this to our children? No. We know what we did by ignoring lead. We knew what would happen when we ignored asbestos. I could go on down the line. Heed early warnings and you'll help meet the goals.

Then fourth, let's reverse the burden of proof. Do you know what happened to places like Love Canal? Business and government would say, "Oh, you're fine. There's no problem. It's not making you sick." The residents said, "We've got a problem. This is not good for us. This is not good for our health." Business and government said, "Prove it. You prove that this is toxic. You prove that it's doing harm." They didn't even test their chemicals. Then they said, "There's no evidence that it causes problems." So we need to reverse the burden of proof. I should not have the responsibility of proving that your chemical or genetically modified organism is causing me harm if you haven't even tested it. If you don't know, how come I have to know? Your ignorance is not my problem. But in many cases, it has turned out to be my problem.

So we reverse the burden of proof from society to the promoters of these technologies or practices. What it means is giving the benefit of the doubt to human health and the environment. It means giving the benefit of the doubt to that child's brain that is in that mother's womb. It means giving the benefit of the doubt to your daughter's breasts so that you don't have to start planning for her mastectomy. It means giving the benefit of the doubt to the whales. It means giving the benefit of the doubt to our rainforests. It means giving the benefit of the doubt to Prince William Sound and to the Copper River and to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge rather than to profit. Why do we give the benefit of the doubt to money? Why do we do that? This is nuts.

Are we educable as a species? Well that's what the precautionary principle is hoping. We're asserting that we're educable and that we can act on early warnings and that we can reverse the burden of proof and actually give the benefit of the doubt to the things we love. What a good idea.

That brings me to another point: The precautionary principle is not just dependent on science. We can't leave these decisions to science alone. It actually doesn't require just the head. It requires the heart. It requires ethics and values, the things we care about. When you bring those two together, you have a pretty good way of deciding about the kinds of actions we take. If a scientist can't make the decision, who is going to? We are. We, the people, need to be at the table, because all of these decisions affect our lives. They affect your grandchild's life, and your grandchild's grandchild's life. We have to be at the table. That's democracy.

So those are the five elements of how you carry out the precautionary principle. You start by setting a goal and envisioning the world that your community wants to live in. You choose the alternative that helps you meet your goal, the safest alternative, the most beautiful alternative, the one that also helps provide jobs. There are no silver bullets with the precautionary principle. We want a buffet of options. We want to encourage green chemistry. That's at the heart of things like a good precautionary principle. We want sustainable agriculture. So set the goals, find the safest alternative, heed early warnings, and then reverse the burden of proof and give the benefit of the doubt to public health and the environment. Then use democracy. We get to decide.

Is anybody doing this? There are wonderful stories in so many places. The Los Angeles Unified School District asked, "Why are we using all of these pesticides in the schools when we could do something different? We could apply the precautionary principle and use integrated pest management and not do this." They did it because they had read about the Wingspread statement, and those wonderful activists successfully applied it to the school and removed about one hundred toxic chemicals from use.

Denton, Texas did something very similar. These activists realized, "Hmmm. They're using pesticides in the parks." They went to the park district and said, "This is not a good idea. These are hazardous to human health and they're hazardous to our pets. Gosh, can't we do something different?" So they went to the chamber of commerce and said, "We need to do something about this." The chamber of commerce replied, "Oh no, we can't have an ugly dandelion." They weren't so worried about the cancer or the other harm. It was the dandelions that were a problem. So, in Denton, Texas, they researched and discovered that Iowa State University had actually developed a natural herbicide out of the waste part of corn. Denton, Texas had a white corn processing plant, and that waste was becoming a community problem. They took that waste and made it into a natural herbicide for the parks. They found an alternative and they were able to carry it out. So they adopted the precautionary principle.

I want to celebrate Indiana because that red state is actually the home, the birthplace, of the precautionary principle in the United States. Dan Quayle's campaign chairman -- the vice-president under the first George Bush -- appointed a country lawyer in Indiana named Gordon Durnil, to head the International Joint Commission. He didn't like what was going on in the Great Lakes. He didn't like the toxic chemicals and he didn't like seeing birds with their deformed beaks. So he said, "We're going to use the precautionary principle." That happened in Indiana. Do you know what that means? No more red states. No more blue states. All green. We want the next election to all be green states.

I want to leave you with that wonderful line in Wendell Berry's poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, in which he asks two questions:

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?

If we always ask those questions, we'll be okay. If our pregnant women can sleep, if our pregnant polar bear mothers can sleep, we'll be okay. If they are satisfied to bear a child, they'll be okay and we'll be okay with the decisions we make.

I love the very last line in that Wendell Berry poem, especially when we're faced with so much destruction and when it doesn't feel as if there are a lot of options.

He says, "Practice resurrection."

Thank you to every one of you who is making a difference in this world. Your work matters. Practice resurrection.