Rachel's Precaution Reporter #8
Wednesday, October 19, 2005

From: Multinational Monitor (Vol. 25, No. 9) ..............[This story printer-friendly]
September 15, 2004


[Rachel's introduction: In Denton, Texas, residents want to protect the future of their town by adopting precautionary policies. A social movement is gathering strength, based on foresight and forecaring...]

By Nancy Myers

Ed Soph is a jazz musician and professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, a growing town of about 100,000 just outside Dallas, Texas. In 1997, Ed and his wife Carol founded Citizens for Healthy Growth, a Denton group concerned about the environment and future of their town. The Sophs and their colleagues -- the group now numbers about 400 -- are among the innovative pioneers who are implementing the Precautionary Principle in the United States.

The Sophs first came across the Precautionary Principle in 1998, in the early days of the group's campaign to prevent a local copper wire manufacturer, United Copper Industries, from obtaining an air permit that would have allowed lead emissions. Ed remembers the discovery of the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle -- a 1998 environmental health declaration holding that "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" -- as "truly a life-changing experience." Using the Precautionary Principle as a guide, the citizens refused to be drawn into debates on what levels of lead, a known toxicant, might constitute a danger to people's health. Instead, they pointed out that a safer process was available and insisted that the wise course was not to issue the permit. The citizens prevailed.

The principle helped again in 2001, when a citizen learned that the pesticides 2,4-D, simazine, Dicamba and MCPP were being sprayed in the city parks. "The question was, given the 'suspected' dangers of these chemicals, should the city regard those suspicions as a reassurance of the chemicals' safety or as a warning of their potential dangers?" Ed recalls. "Should the city act out of ignorance or out of common sense and precaution?"

Soph learned that the Greater Los Angeles School District had written the Precautionary Principle into its policy on pesticide use and had turned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a system aimed at controlling pests without the use of toxic chemicals. The Denton group decided to advocate for a similar policy. They persuaded the city's park district to form a focus group of park users and organic gardening experts. The city stopped spraying the four problem chemicals and initiated a pilot IPM program.

The campaign brought an unexpected economic bonus to the city. In the course of their research, parks department staff discovered that corn gluten was a good turf builder and natural broadleaf herbicide. But the nearest supplier of corn gluten was in the Midwest, and that meant high shipping costs for the city. Meanwhile, a corn processing facility in Denton was throwing away the corn gluten it produced as a byproduct. The parks department made the link, and everyone was pleased. The local corn company was happy to add a new product line; the city was happy about the expanded local business and the lower price for a local product; and the environmental group chalked up another success.

The citizens of Denton, Texas, did not stop there. They began an effort to improve the community's air pollution standards. They got arsenic-treated wood products removed from school playgrounds and parks and replaced with nontoxic facilities. "The Precautionary Principle helped us define the problems and find the solutions," Ed says.

But, as he wrote in an editorial for the local paper, "The piecemeal approach is slow, costly and often more concerned with mitigation than prevention." Taking a cue from Precautionary Principle pioneers in San Francisco, they also began lobbying for a comprehensive new environmental code for the community, based on the Precautionary Principle.

In June 2003, San Francisco's board of supervisors had become the first government in the United States to embrace the Precautionary Principle. A new environmental code drafted by the city's environment commission put the Precautionary Principle at the top, as Article One. Step one in implementing the code was a new set of guidelines for city purchasing, pointing the way toward "environmentally preferable" purchases by careful analysis and choice of the best alternatives. The White Paper accompanying the ordinance pointed out that most of the city's progressive environmental policies were already in line with the Precautionary Principle, and that the new code provided unity and focus to the policies rather than a radically new direction.

That focus is important; too often, environmental matters seem like a long, miscellaneous and confusing list of problems and solutions.

Likewise in Denton, the Precautionary Principle has not been a magic wand for transforming policy, but it has put backbone into efforts to enact truly protective and far-sighted environmental policies. Ed Soph points out that, in his community as in others, growth had often been dictated by special interests in the name of economic development, and the environment got short shrift.

"Environmental protection and pollution prevention in our city have been a matter, not of proactive policy, but of reaction to federal and state mandates, to the threat of citizens' lawsuits, and to civic embarrassment. Little thought is given to future environmental impacts," he told the city council when he argued for a new environmental code.

He added, "The toxic chemical pollution emitted by area industries has been ignored or accepted for all the ill-informed or selfish reasons that we are too familiar with. The Precautionary Principle dispels that ignorance and empowers concerned citizens with the means to ensure a healthier future."

The Precautionary Principle has leavened the discussion of environmental and human health policy on many fronts -- in international treaty negotiations and global trade forums, in city resolutions and national policies, among conservationists and toxicologists, and even in corporate decision making.

Two treaties negotiated in 2000 incorporated the principle for the first time as an enforceable measure. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety allows countries to invoke the Precautionary Principle in decisions on admitting imports of genetically modified organisms. It became operative in June 2003. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants prescribes the Precautionary Principle as a standard for adding chemicals to the original list of 12 that are banned by the treaty. This treaty went into force in February 2004.

Making Sense of Uncertainty

Understanding the need for the Precautionary Principle requires some scientific sophistication. Ecologists say that changes in ecological systems may be incremental and gradual, or surprisingly large and sudden. When change is large enough to cause a system to cross a threshold, it creates a new dynamic equilibrium that has its own stability and does not change back easily. These new interactions become the norm and create new realities.

Something of this new reality is evident in recently observed changes in patterns of human disease:

Chronic diseases and conditions affect more than 100 million men, women, and children in the United States -- more than a third of the population. Cancer, asthma, Alzheimer's disease, autism, birth defects, developmental disabilities, diabetes, endometriosis, infertility, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease are becoming increasingly common.

Nearly 12 million children in the United States (17 percent) suffer from one or more developmental disabilities. Learning disabilities alone affect at least 5 to 10 percent of children in public schools, and these numbers are increasing. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder conservatively affects 3 to 6 percent of all school children.

The incidence of autism appears to be increasing.

Asthma prevalence has doubled in the last 20 years.

Incidence of certain types of cancer has increased. The age-adjusted incidence of melanoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and cancers of the prostate, liver, testis, thyroid, kidney, breast, brain, esophagus and bladder has risen over the past 25 years. Breast cancer, for example, now strikes more women worldwide than any other type of cancer, with rates increasing 50 percent during the past half century. In the 1940s, the lifetime risk of breast cancer was one in 22. Today's risk is one in eight and rising.

In the United States, the incidence of some birth defects, including male genital disorders, some forms of congenital heart disease and obstructive disorders of the urinary tract, is increasing. Sperm density is declining in some parts of the United States and elsewhere in the world.

These changes in human health are well documented. But proving direct links with environmental causative factors is more complicated.

Here is how the scientific reasoning might go: Smoking and diet explain few of the health trends listed above. Genetic factors explain up to half the population variance for several of these conditions -- but far less for the majority of them -- and in any case do not explain the changes in disease incidence rates. This suggests that other environmental factors play a role. Emerging science suggests this as well. In laboratory animals, wildlife and humans, considerable evidence documents a link between environmental contamination and malignancies, birth defects, reproductive disorders, impaired behavior and immune system dysfunction. Scientists' growing understanding of how biological systems develop and function leads to similar conclusions.

But serious, evident effects such as these can seldom be linked decisively to a single cause. Scientific standards of certainty (or "proof") about cause and effect are high. These standards may never be satisfied when many different factors are working together, producing many different results. Sometimes the period of time between particular causes and particular results is so long, with so many intervening factors, that it is impossible to make a definitive link. Sometimes the timing of exposure is crucial -- a trace of the wrong chemical at the wrong time in pregnancy, for example, may trigger problems in the child's brain or endocrine system, but the child's mother might never know she was exposed.

In the real world, there is no way of knowing for sure how much healthier people might be if they did not live in the modern chemical stew, because the chemicals are everywhere -- in babies' first bowel movement, in the blood of U.S. teenagers and in the breastmilk of Inuit mothers. No unexposed "control" population exists. But clearly, significant numbers of birth defects, cancers and learning disabilities are preventable.

Scientific uncertainty is a fact of life even when it comes to the most obvious environmental problems, such as the disappearance of species, and the most potentially devastating trends, such as climate change. Scientists seldom know for sure what will happen until it happens, and seldom have all the answers about causes until well after the fact, if ever. Nevertheless, scientific knowledge, as incomplete as it may be, provides important clues to all of these conditions and what to do about them.

The essence of the Precautionary Principle is that when lives and the future of the planet are at stake, people must act on these clues and prevent as much harm as possible, despite imperfect knowledge and even ignorance.

Environmental Failures

A premise of Precautionary Principle advocates is that environmental policies to date have largely not met this challenge. Part of the explanation for why they have not is that the dimensions of the emerging problems are only now becoming apparent. The limits of the earth's assimilative capacity are much clearer now than they were when the first modern environmental legislation was enacted 30 years ago.

Another part of the explanation is that, although some environmental policies are preventive, most have focused on cleaning up messes after the fact -- what environmentalists call "end of pipe" solutions. Scrubbers on power plant stacks, catalytic converters on tailpipes, recycling and super-sized funds dedicated to detoxifying the worst dumps have not been enough. The Precautionary Principle holds that earlier, more comprehensive and preventive approaches are necessary. Nor is it enough to address problems only after they have become so obvious that they cannot be ignored -- often, literally waiting for the dead bodies to appear or for coastlines to disappear under rising tides.

The third factor in the failure of environmental policies is political, say Precautionary Principle proponents. After responding to the initial burst of concern for the environment, the U.S. regulatory system and others like it were subverted by commercial interests, with the encouragement of political leaders and, increasingly, the complicity of the court system. Environmental laws have been subjected to an onslaught of challenges since the 1980s; many have been modified or gutted, and all are enforced by regulators who have been chastened by increasing challenges to their authority by industry and the courts.

The courts, and now increasingly international trade organizations and agreements like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have institutionalized an anti- precautionary approach to environmental controls. They have demanded the kinds of proof and certainty of harms and efficacy of regulation that science often cannot provide.

False certainties

Ironically, one tool that has proved highly effective in the battle against environmental regulations was one that was meant to strengthen the enforcement of such laws: quantitative risk assessment. Risk assessment was developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a systematic way to evaluate the degree and likelihood of harmful side effects from products and technologies. With precise, quantitative risk assessments in hand, regulators could more convincingly demonstrate the need for action. Risk assessments would stand up in court. Risk assessments could "prove" that a product was dangerous, would cause a certain number of deaths per million, and should be taken off the market.

Or not. Quantitative risk assessment, which became standard practice in the United States in the mid-1980s and was institutionalized in the global trade agreements of the 1990s, turned out to be most useful in "proving" that a product or technology was not inordinately dangerous. More precisely, risk assessments presented sets of numbers that purported to state definitively how much harm might occur. The next question for policymakers then became: How much harm is acceptable? Quantitative risk assessment not only provided the answers; it dictated the questions.

As quantitative risk assessment became the norm, commercial and industrial interests were increasingly able to insist that harm must be proven "scientifically" -- in the form of a quantitative risk assessment demonstrating harm in excess of acceptable limits -- before action was taken to stop a process or product. These exercises were often linked with cost-benefit assessments that heavily weighted the immediate monetary costs of regulations and gave little, if any, weight to costs to the environment or future generations.

Although risk assessments tried to account for uncertainties, those projections were necessarily subject to assumptions and simplifications. Quantitative risk assessments usually addressed a limited number of potential harms, often missing social, cultural or broader environmental factors. These risk assessments have consumed enormous resources in strapped regulatory agencies and have slowed the regulatory process. They have diverted attention from questions that could be answered: Do better alternatives exist? Can harm be prevented?

The slow pace of regulation, the insistence on "scientific certainty," and the weighting toward immediate monetary costs often give the benefit of doubt to products and technologies, even when harmful side effects are suspected. One result is that neither international environmental agreements nor national regulatory systems have kept up with the increasing pace and cumulative effects of environmental damage.

A report by the European Environment Agency in 2001 tallied the great costs to society of some of the most egregious failures to heed early warnings of harm. Radiation, ozone depletion, asbestos, Mad Cow disease and other case studies show a familiar pattern: "Misplaced 'certainty' about the absence of harm played a key role in delaying preventive actions," the authors conclude.

They add, "The costs of preventive actions are usually tangible, clearly allocated and often short term, whereas the costs of failing to act are less tangible, less clearly distributed and usually longer term, posing particular problems of governance. Weighing up the overall pros and cons of action, or inaction, is therefore very difficult, involving ethical as well as economic considerations."

The Precautionary Approach

As environmentalists looked at looming problems such as global warming, they were appalled at the inadequacy of policies based on quantitative risk assessment. Although evidence was piling up rapidly that human activities were having an unprecedented effect on global climate, for example, it was difficult to say when the threshold of scientific certainty would be crossed. Good science demanded caution about drawing hard and fast conclusions. Yet, the longer humanity waited to take action, the harder it would be to reverse any effect. Perhaps it was already too late. Moreover, action would have to take the form of widespread changes not only in human behavior but also in technological development. The massive shift away from fossil fuels that might yet mitigate the effects of global warming would require rethinking the way humans produce and use energy. Nothing in the risk- assessment-based approach to policy prepared society to do that.

The global meetings called to address the coming calamity were not helping much. Politicians fiddled with blame and with protecting national economic interests while the globe heated up. Hard-won and heavily compromised agreements such as the 1997 Kyoto agreement on climate change were quickly mired in national politics, especially in the United States, the heaviest fossil-fuel user of all.

In the United States and around the globe, a different kind of struggle had been going on for decades: the fight for attention to industrial pollution in communities. From childhood lead poisoning in the 1930s to Love Canal in the 1970s, communities had always faced an uphill battle in proving that pollution and toxic products were making them sick. Risk assessments often made the case that particular hazardous waste dumps were safe, or that a single polluting industry could not possibly have caused the rash of illnesses a community claimed. But these risk assessments missed the obvious fact that many communities suffered multiple environmental assaults, compounded by other effects of poverty. A landmark 1987 report by the United Church of Christ coined the term "environmental racism" and confirmed that the worst environmental abuses were visited on communities of color. This growing awareness generated the international environmental justice movement.

In early 1998, a small conference at Wingspread, the Johnson Foundation's conference center in Racine, Wisconsin, addressed these dilemmas head-on. Participants groped for a better approach to protecting the environment and human health. At that time, the Precautionary Principle, which had been named in Germany in the 1970s, was an emerging precept of international law. It had begun to appear in international environmental agreements, gaining reference in a series of protocols, starting in 1984, to reduce pollution in the North Sea; the 1987 Ozone Layer Protocol; and the Second World Climate Conference in 1990.

At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, precaution was enshrined as Principle 15 in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

In the decade after Rio, the Precautionary Principle began to appear in national constitutions and environmental policies worldwide and was occasionally invoked in legal battles. For example:

The Maastricht Treaty of 1994, establishing the European Union, named the Precautionary Principle as a guide to EU environment and health policy.

The Precautionary Principle was the basis for arguments in a 1995 International Court of Justice case on French nuclear testing. Judges cited the "consensus flowing from Rio" and the fact that the Precautionary Principle was "gaining increasing support as part of the international law of the environment."

At the World Trade Organization in the mid-1990s, the European Union invoked the Precautionary Principle in a case involving a ban on imports of hormone-fed beef.

The Wingspread participants believed the Precautionary Principle was not just another weak and limited fix for environmental problems. They believed it could bring far-reaching changes to the way those policies were formed and implemented. But action to prevent harm in the face of scientific uncertainty alone did not translate into sound policies protective of the environment and human health. Other norms would have to be honored simultaneously and as an integral part of a precautionary decision-making process.

Several other principles had often been linked with the Precautionary Principle in various statements of the principle or in connection with precautionary policies operating in Northern European countries. The statement released at the end of the meeting, the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, was the first to put four of these primary elements on the same page -- acting upon early evidence of harm, shifting the burden of proof, exercising democracy and transparency, and assessing alternatives. These standards form the basis of what has come to be known as the overarching or comprehensive Precautionary Principle or approach:

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 this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.

The conference generated widespread enthusiasm for the principle among U.S. environmentalists and academics as well as among some policymakers. That was complemented by continuing and growing support for the principle among Europeans as well as ready adoption of the concept in much of the developing world. And in the years following Wingspread, the Precautionary Principle has gained new international status.

Nancy Myers is communications director for the Science and Environmental Health Network. This article is based on a chapter in a the new book, Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental Policy, edited by Nancy Myers and Carolyn Raffensperger (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005); ISBN 0-262-63323-X.


From: Multinational Monitor ...............................[This story printer-friendly]
September 15, 2004


[Rachel's introduction: Opponents trot out a series of misleading claims to contest the precautionary principle. A careful look shows how these claims misrepresent basic Precautionary Principle precepts.]

By Nancy Myers

Opponents trot out a series of misleading claims to contest the precautionary principle. A careful look shows how these claims misrepresent basic Precautionary Principle precepts:

Claim: "If precaution applies to everything, it would stop all technology in its tracks."

Response: Precautionary action usually means adopting safer alternatives. A broad precautionary approach will encourage the development of better technologies. Using this approach, society will say "yes" to some technologies while it says "no" to others. Making uncertainty explicit, considering alternatives, and increasing transparency and the responsibility of proponents and manufacturers to demonstrate safety should lead to cleaner products and production methods. It can also mean imposing a moratorium while further research is conducted, calling for monitoring of technologies and products already in use, and so forth.

Claim: "Precaution calls for zero risk, which is impossible to achieve."

Response: Any debate over the possibility of "zero risk" is pointless. Our real goal must be to impose far less risk and harm on the environment and on human health than we have in the past. We must harness human ingenuity to reduce the harmful effects of our activities.

The real question is who or what gets the benefit of the doubt. The Precautionary Principle is based on the assumption that people have the right to know as much as possible about risks they are taking on, in exchange for what benefits, and to make choices accordingly. With food and other products, such choices are often played out in the marketplace. Increasingly, manufacturers are choosing to reduce risk themselves by substituting safer alternatives in response to consumer uneasiness, the threat of liability and market pressures.

A key to making those choices is transparency -- about what products contain, and about the testing and monitoring of those ingredients. Another is support, by government and industry, for the exploration of -- and rigorous research on -- alternatives.

Market and voluntary action is not enough, especially on issues that go beyond individual and corporate choice. It is the responsibility of communities, governments, and international bodies to make far- reaching decisions that greatly reduce the risks we now impose on the earth and all its inhabitants.

Claim: "We don't need the Precautionary Principle; we have risk assessment."

Response: Risk assessment is the prevalent tool used to justify decisions about technologies and products. Its proponents argue that because conservative assumptions are built into these assessments, they are sufficiently precautionary.

Too often, however, risk assessment has been used to delay precautionary action: decision-makers wait to get enough information and then attempt to "manage" rather than prevent risks. Risk assessment is not necessarily inconsistent with the Precautionary Principle, but because it omits certain basic requirements of the decision-making process, the current type of risk assessment is only helpful at a narrow stage of the process, when the product, technology or activity and alternatives have been well developed and tested and a great deal of information has already been gathered about them. Standard risk assessment, in other words, is only useful in conditions of relatively high certainty, and generally only to help evaluate alternatives to damaging technologies.

Under the Precautionary Principle, uncertainty is also given due weight. The Precautionary Principle calls for the examination of a wider range of harms -- including social and economic ones -- than traditional risk analysis provides. It points to the need to examine not only single, linear risks but also complex interactions among multiple factors, and the broadest possible range of harmful effects.

This broad, probing consideration of harm -- including the identification of uncertainty -- should begin as early as possible in the conception of a technology and should continue through its release and use. That is, a precautionary approach should begin before the regulatory phase of decision-making and should be built into the research agenda.

What is not consistent with the Precautionary Principle is the misleading certainty often implied by quantitative risk assessments -- that precise numbers can be assigned to the possibility of harm or level of safety, that these numbers are usually a sufficient basis for deciding whether the substance or technology is "safe," and that lack of numbers means there is no reason to take action. The assumptions behind risk assessments -- what "risks" are evaluated and how comparisons are made -- are easily manipulated by those with a stake in their outcome.

Claim: "Precaution itself is risky: it will prevent us from adopting technologies that are actually safer."

Response: This is not true. Precaution suggests two approaches to new technology:

Greater vigilance about possible harmful side effects of all innovations. Alternatives to harmful technologies (such as genetic modification to reduce pesticide use) must be scrutinized as carefully as the technologies they replace. It does not make sense to replace one set of harms with another. Brand-new technologies must receive much greater scrutiny than they have in the past. Redirection of research and ingenuity toward inherently safer, more harmonious, more sustainable technologies, products, and processes.

Claim: "Implementing the Precautionary Principle will be too expensive. We can't afford it."

Response: If a cost-benefit analysis indicates that a precautionary approach is too expensive, that analysis is probably incomplete. Does it consider long-term costs? The costs to society? The costs of harmful side effects -- monetary and nonmonetary? The costs spread over a product's entire lifecycle -- including disposal? The pricetags of most products and developments do not reflect their real costs. Like precautionary science, precautionary economics operates in the real world, in which connections, costs and benefits are complex and surrounded by uncertainty -- but they cannot be ignored. Tallying the "cost" of precaution requires making true value judgments, which can only partially be expressed by money. But in the 21st Century, precaution is essential to a healthy, sustainable economy.

Claim: "The Precautionary Principle is anti-science."

Response: On the contrary, the Precautionary Principle calls for more and better science, especially investigations of complex interactions over longer periods of time and development of more harmonious technologies. It calls for scientific monitoring after the approval of products. The assertion that the principle is "anti-science" is based on any or all of the following faulty assumptions:

1) Those who advocate precaution urge action on the basis of vague fears, regardless of whether there is scientific evidence to support their fears.

Most statements of the Precautionary Principle say it applies when there is reason to believe serious or irreversible harm may occur. Those reasons are based on scientific evidence of various kinds: studies, observations, precedents, experience, professional judgment. They are based on what we know about how processes work and might be affected by a technology.

However, precautionary decisions also take into account what we know we do not know. The more we know, scientifically, the greater will be our ability to prevent disasters based on ignorance. But we must be much more cautious than we have been in the past about moving forward in ignorance.

2) Taking action in advance of scientific certainty undermines science.

Scientific standards of certainty are high in experimental science or for accepting or refuting a hypothesis, and well they should be. Waiting to take action before a substance or technology is proven harmful, or even until plausible cause-and-effect relationships can be established, may mean allowing irreversible harm to occur -- deaths, extinctions, poisoning, and the like. Humans and the environment become the unwitting testing grounds for these technologies. This is no longer acceptable. Moreover, science should serve society, not vice versa. Any decision to take action -- before or after scientific proof -- is a decision of society, not science.

3) Quantitative risk assessment is more scientific than other kinds of evaluation.

Risk assessment is only one evaluation method and provides only partial answers. It does not take into account many unknowns and seldom accounts for complex interactions -- nor does it raise our sights to better alternatives.

Claim: "The Precautionary Principle is a cover for trade protectionism."

Response: The Precautionary Principle was created to protect public health and the environment, not to restrict valid trade. North American, Argentinean and other representatives in trade talks have leveled this accusation against the European Union in response to EU action on beef containing growth hormones and on genetically modified foods and crops. Recent EU statements on the Precautionary Principle have emphasized that the principle should be applied fairly and without discrimination.

However, the real issue is not protectionism but whether a nation has the sovereign right to impose standards that exceed the standards of international regimes. The 2000 European Commission statement on the Precautionary Principle and Cartagena Biosafety Protocol both assert that right.

Nancy Myers is communications director for the Science and Environmental Health Network.


From: The Providence (R.I.) Journal .......................[This story printer-friendly]
August 29, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: An editor of the Washington Post visits Finland and observes the use of foresight and forecaring to improve social well-being -- trying to do the least harm to the common good. In this view, even taxes are precautionary.]

by Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor, Washington Post

Finland is a leading example of the northern European view that a successful, competitive society should provide basic social services to all its citizens at affordable prices or at no cost. This isn't controversial in Finland; it's taken for granted. For a patriotic American like me, the Finns present a difficult challenge: If we Americans are so rich and so smart, why can't we treat our citizens as well as the Finns do?

Finns have one of the world's most generous systems of state-funded educational, medical and welfare services. They pay nothing for education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which contributes to an infant-mortality rate that is half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another, indefinitely.

On the other hand, Finns live in smaller homes than Americans and consume a lot less. They spend relatively little on national defense, although they still have universal male conscription, and it is popular. Their per-capita national income is about 30 percent lower than ours. Private consumption of goods and services represents about 52 percent of Finland's economy, and 71 percent of the United States'. Finns pay considerably higher taxes -- nearly half their income -- while Americans pay about 30 percent on average to federal, state and local governments.

Should we be learning from Finland?

The question occurred to me repeatedly as I traveled around Finland this summer. Americans could easily get used to the sense of well- being that Finns get from their welfare state, which has effectively removed many of the sources of anxiety that beset our society.

But the United States could not simply turn itself into another Finland. Too much of Finnish reality depends on uniquely Finnish circumstances. Finland is as big in acreage as two Missouris, but with just 5.2 million residents. It's ethnically and religiously homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to consensus: Every significant Finnish political party supports the welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes it possible. And Finns have extraordinary confidence in their political class and public officials. Corruption is extremely rare.

One fundamental Finnish value sounds a lot like an American principle -- "to provide equal opportunities in life for everyone," as Pekka Himanen, 31, an intellectual wunderkind in Helsinki, put it. Himanen, a product of Finnish schools who got his Ph.D. in philosophy at 21, argues that Finland now does this much better than the United States, where he lived for several years while associated with the University of California, Berkeley.

Finns are enormously proud of their egalitarian tradition. They are the only country in Europe that has never had a king or a homegrown aristocracy. Finland has no private schools or universities, no snooty clubs, no gated communities or compounds where the rich can cut themselves off from everyday life. I repeatedly saw signs of a class structure based on economics and educational attainment, but was also impressed by the life stories of Finns I met in prominent positions, or who had made a lot of money.

One of the richest Finns is Risto Siilasmaa, 39, founder and chief executive of F-Secure, an Internet-security firm that competes successfully with American giants Symantec and McAfee. Siilasmaa, a teenage nerd turned self-made tycoon, is worth several hundred million dollars. His wife, Kaisu, the mother of their three children, has a decidedly un-tycoonish career: She teaches first and second grade in an ordinary school. Like every Finn I spoke to about money, Siilasmaa would not acknowledge any interest in personal wealth. "I'm a competitive person, I like to win," he said, "but I've had enough money since I was 15."

This too seems to be part of Finnish egalitarianism; most Finns don't boast or conspicuously consume (except perhaps when they buy fancy cars). Finnish authorities know how much everyone earns, and they pro- rate traffic fines depending on the wealth of the malefactor. Last year, the 27-year-old heir to a local sausage fortune was fined 170,000 euros, about $204,000 at the time of the fine, for driving at 50 miles an hour in a 25-mph zone in downtown Helsinki.

The Finnish education system is also a manifestation of egalitarianism. Surprisingly, it is a new system, created over the last generation by a collective act of will. The individual most responsible for it was Erkki Aho, director general of the National Board of Education from 1972 to 1992. Aho, now 68, was "a little bit of a radical," he told me with a smile -- a Finnish Social Democrat who believed in trying to make his country more fair.

For reformers, education was the principal arena. The traditional Finnish system was conservative and divisive: Kids were selected for an academic track at the end of fourth grade. Those not chosen had no chance at higher education. Universities were relatively few, and mostly mediocre.

Aho and his colleagues thought schooling should be "comprehensive," keeping all kids together in the same schools for nine years without tracking them by ability. Only for "upper secondary," or high school, would academic students be separated from those with vocational interests.

The key to reform, Aho and others believed, was teacher training. Teaching had always been a high-status profession in Finland, but now it would become even more prestigious. (Today there are 10 applicants for every place in the universities that train teachers.) Teachers would be required to complete master's degrees, six years of preparation that combined education courses with substantive work in subject areas. "Of course, I faced much criticism," Aho recalled. "Upper secondary-school teachers were very skeptical. Many parents were critical. The cultural elite said this would mean catastrophe for Finnish schools. The right thought the comprehensive schools smacked of socialism."

But by the end of the 1980s, the new system was broadly popular. It was strengthened by a reform of higher education that gave Finland numerous new, high-quality universities. A grave economic recession in the early '90s was a key test, Aho said. "It was wonderful to see how strong the consensus was," even in dire economic straits, he said.

By the '90s, Finland had became a high-tech powerhouse, led by Nokia, now the world's largest maker of cell phones. Finnish students have become the best in the world, as measured by an international exam of 15-year-olds.

In the end, I concluded that Finnish society could not serve as a blueprint for the United States. National differences matter. Ours is a society driven by money, blessed by huge private philanthropy, cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of government and other public institutions. Finns have none of those attributes.

Nor do they tune in to American individualism. Groupthink seems to be fine with most Finns; conformity is the norm, risk taking is avoided -- a problem now, when entrepreneurs are so needed. I was bothered by a sense of entitlement among many Finns, especially younger people.

Sirpa Jalkanen, a microbiologist and biotech entrepreneur affiliated with Turku University, in that ancient Finnish port city, told me she was discouraged by "this new generation we have now who love entertainment, the easy life." She said she wished that the government would require every university student to pay a "significant but affordable" part of the cost of their education, "just so they'd appreciate it."

But if Finland can't be a blueprint for us, it can be an inspiration. Education struck me as the area where Americans could most profit by learning from Finland. Nothing achieved by Aho's reforms would be beyond the reach of American schools if we really wanted them to become good.

Finns speak of the Finnish National Project, an effort involving much of the country, and nearly all of its elites, to make the country more educated, more agile and adaptive, greener, fairer and more competitive in a fast-changing global economy. Manuel Castells, the renowned Spanish sociologist who teaches at the University of Southern California and has been writing about Finland for nearly a decade, argues that Finland's ability to remake itself followed from its success in creating a welfare state that made Finns feel secure. "If you provide security and it is felt, then you can make reforms," he told me.

The complicated Finnish language includes the word talkoot, which means, roughly, "doing work together." It's a powerful Finnish tradition, and reflects a national sense that "we're all in the same boat," as numerous Finns said to me. This idea has always appealed to Americans, but in this country it has nearly always been an abstraction. Finns seem to make it real.


TODAY, Finland is regularly cited as among the world's best in a variety of indexes and comparisons.

For example:

The World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, ranks Finland's the most competitive economy in the world.

Yale and Columbia universities rank nations in a "sustainability index," which measures a country's ability to "protect the natural environment over the next several decades." Finland ranks first.

Statistics of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that Finland invests more of its gross domestic product in research and development than any other country but Sweden.

Finnish 15-year-olds score first in the industrial world on tests of their academic abilities.

According to a global survey by Transparency International, Finland is perceived as the least corrupt country. (The United States is tied for 17th.)

Finns read newspapers and take books out of libraries at rates as high as or higher than all other countries.

Finland trains more musicians, per capita, than any other country.


* Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, recently returned from a three-week trip to Finland.

Copyright 2005 Projo.com


From: The Wall Street Journal ............................[This story printer-friendly]
October 13, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: Professor Gary Marchant seems to be making a career out of trashing foresight and forecaring.]

By Gary Marchant

[RPR introduction: Professor Gary Marchant of Arizona State University seems to be making a career out of trashing the precautionary principle. We last saw his work in RPR #1. His latest book attacking foresight and forecaring can be purchased here. --RPR editors]

Last year, the European Union slipped through a little-known law -- the Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive -- which regulates exposure to electromagnetic fields, including those used for medical diagnostic purposes such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices.

European bureaucrats claim that, because not everything is known about such technologies, their use must be restricted. In Britain, 12 leading scientists and doctors appealed to the Department of Trade and Industry, stating that such restrictions will actually cause more harm than good by exposing patients to X-rays, a relatively more dangerous technology.

This quandary -- saving many human lives today with a well-studied technology, versus possibly saving hypothetical future lives because not all risks of the technology are understood -- demonstrates an increasingly contentious issue in the European Union known as the precautionary principle.

In its most basic form, the principle suggests that because we don't know everything about a technology, product or process, it is better for regulators and legislators to "err on the side of caution" -- to regulate, restrict or even prohibit technologies, substances and processes unless they are proven "safe."

The principle's strongest advocates include EU bureaucrats, academics, NGOs and even some businesses. They tout the fact that Europe leads the world in employing the precautionary principle in policy making. Citing a litany of cases where regulators did not act quickly enough to prevent tragic unexpected consequences, these advocates herald the principle as an innovation in regulatory decision-making.

In the coming weeks, the European Parliament will vote on new legislation -- the Reach Directive -- which seeks to register and control at least 30,000 manmade chemical substances. Again driven by the precautionary principle, these substances are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The producer must prove that they are harmless to consumers. Yet it is impossible to prove that a substance, technology or process is "harmless" -- for this is a relative concept.

While the notion that it is better to be safe than sorry is intuitively appealing, any rational regulatory decision should take into account the costs of taking action. It certainly makes sense to foresee and avoid harm when the benefits of so doing outweigh the costs, but not when the costs outweigh the benefits. Many modern risk- management systems make great efforts to achieve this balance -- but increasingly this is no longer the case in the EU.

The problem with the principle is that it is not actually a principle. There is no single or official version. Swedish philosopher Per Sandin collected 19 varieties. These formulations differ in important details, such as whether and how costs should be considered, whether all risks or only "serious and irreversible" risks raise concerns, and how a product manufacturer can comply with the principle.

The principle is inherently imprecise. Precisely because it is so difficult to pin down, it can hardly be used as a coherent basis for laws and regulations, whether in the EU or elsewhere.

It is flawed in theory, and it is also flawed in practice. Nowhere is this more evident than in more than 60 legal cases heard in the EU's court system over the past decade. The cases leave little doubt that the principle has become a binding rule of law in the EU -- but judges disagree broadly on its importance and significance. This has led to its selective use, producing extreme, inconsistent and irreconcilable decisions.

In only one of the 60 cases -- Artegodan GmbH vs. Commission (which concerned the withdrawal of marketing authorization for certain obesity drugs) -- did a European court attempt to define the precautionary principle and its requirements. The resulting definition seemingly gives regulators carte blanche as to when to deploy, and when to disregard, the principle.

The Commission often appears to use the principle where science runs at odds with irrational public fears. Its own Scientific Committee for Animal Nutrition (SCAN) advised that a ban on certain animal antibiotics was not necessary during a period in which further tests were being conducted. Yet, while the tests were occurring, the Commission moved forward and banned the antibiotics.

In a truly Orwellian twist, the Court of First Instance primarily relied on SCAN's scientific opinion -- which concluded that there was little or no risk from the antibiotic in question -- to nevertheless ban a product that had been used safely for decades. Recent studies suggest that this use of the precautionary principle may have had the net effect of increasing rather than decreasing human health risks.

Judging by these and countless other examples, the power of the precautionary principle lies in its ambiguity: It is politically viable only while it remains nebulous. Nevertheless, the EU courts' advocate general warned in one opinion that, "The precautionary principle has a future only to the extent that, far from opening the door wide to irrationality, it establishes itself as an aspect of the rational management of risks, designed not to achieve zero risk, which everything suggests does not exist."

Still, most attempts to pin it down will be met with disdain by vested bureaucratic, ideological, commercial and political interests who benefit from the principle.

A reasonable risk-management system prevents unreasonable risks to human health and the environment before they occur. It also recognizes the inherent uncertainty in predicting risks, and the potentially burdensome economic, social and health trade-offs which result from overregulating nonexistent or insignificant risks. It should also be transparent in its methods, and accountable to those who must comply with its demands.

Put on trial in Europe's courts, the precautionary principle is guilty of affording discretionary power to regulators, eliminating transparency amongst regulators and undermining some of the most fundamental tenets of democratic decision making. Put into practice widely, its knock-on effects will result in stagnation -- hardly needed in an already ailing Europe.

The experience of Europe's courts have demonstrated that its "enlightened" reliance on the precautionary principle is no model for the rest of the world: Put into practice, it causes more harm than good.


Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org
Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org


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