Rachel's Precaution Reporter #9

"Foresight and Precaution, in the News and in the World"

Wednesday, October 26, 2005..........Printer-friendly version
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Table of Contents...

Eugene, Oregon Is About to Ban Pesticides in a Few Parks
  Citizens in Eugene and Portland, Oregon want city government to
  minimize the use of chemical pesticides in public parks because less-
  dangerous alternatives already exist.
Victoria, British Columbia, Takes Aim at Pesticides
  "Victoria, British Columbia is on track to become the first
  municipality in the region to ban use of pesticides for cosmetic
  purposes in gardens and parks... following the lead of at least 70
  other municipalities in Canada with similar regulations...."
A Global Crisis: The Earth's Life-Support System Is in Peril
  The European Commissioner for environment and three other respected
  scientists say the earth is in danger of becoming less habitable and
  that the precautionary principle must be applied.
Letter to the Editor: Elizabeth Whelan Deserves a Response
  "Let's keep our focus on establishing the precautionary principle
  at the 'new product development stage' so it can redirect the path of
  innovation towards safer technologies, as it has with food additives
  and drugs." -- Professor Clark Bullard
The Precautionary Principle as a Basis for Decision Making
  "We argue that the precautionary principle does not help
  individuals or nations make difficult choices in a non-arbitrary way.
  Taken seriously, it can be paralyzing, providing no direction at all."


From: The Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon), Oct. 22, 2005
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The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides has issued a
new report pointing out that all pesticides cause some harm and that
less-harmful alternatives already exist for managing pests in public

By Diane Dietz

Are you irritated at your neighbor who allows her copious dandelion
fluff to tumble onto your pristine lawn, spreading its pesky seeds?

Or are you the guy who's traumatized by a neighbor who regularly
carpet bombs his yard with poisons to ensure that every blade of weed
be gone, gone, gone?

Imagine how it will be for the city of Eugene as it tries to bridge
this divide. The parks maintenance staff is on the verge of declaring
about a half-dozen small parks as pesticide-free zones.

Officials are trying to gauge whether Eugene residents must have every
park pristine-looking, or if -- in the name of sending less poison
into the air and soil -- people can tolerate some increased weediness
around trees and along fence lines.

"We want to start relatively small and then evaluate about a year from
now: Did it work for us? Did it work for the neighbors? Should we do
the same thing again? Should we expand it?" said Kevin Finney, Eugene
parks maintenance manager.

The Eugene-based Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides
urged the city to designate some pesticide-free parks.

The coalition's new report "Pesticide-free parks: It's time,"
contends that all pesticides -- an overall term referring to both
insecticides and herbicides -- can hurt people, pets and the

To support their view, they point to an April 2004 study published in
the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Researchers found that terriers who were exposed to the common lawn
herbicide 2,4-D were four to seven times more likely to contract
bladder cancer than terriers in a control group.

The Purdue University authors theorize that the terriers carry a gene
that makes them susceptible to the cancer -- and that some people are
likely carry a similar gene.

Finney said he doesn't know whether the herbicides the city uses
causes harm to people or pets. Researchers have produced contradictory
evidence on many commonly used chemicals, he said.

"Some people have proposed the precautionary principle: If you don't
know, you don't use. But that's a community-level decision," he said.

In fall 2004, the coalition -- which also works in Washington,
Northern California, Idaho and Montana -- convinced the city of
Portland to make three small parks -- Arbor Lodge, Lair Hill, and
Sewallcrest -- pesticide-free.

"People want pesticide-free parks. They want places they can go with
their children and pets where they won't be exposed to pesticides,"
said Megan Kemple, the coalition's pesticide-free parks coordinator.

"We would like to see all of Eugene's parks be pesticide free. And
we're glad the city is ready to move forward," she added.

Joel Miller, Springfield's new parks director -- working at
Willamalane Park & Recreation District -- is interested in the
pesticide-free concept. He came six months ago from Olympia, where the
idea has gained some traction.

Miller said he would attend a meeting Saturday to learn more about the
coalition's plans.

Local parks managers say the pesticide-free movement caps a long
effort to reduce the amount of pesticides used in parks.

"It used to be a standard thing to spray malathion everywhere to kill
aphids and everything," Finney said, adding that Eugene hasn't sprayed
for insects for a decade now.

Today crews use Roundup, an herbicide, to kill weeds in selected
places such as rhododendron beds and along fence lines.

Crews don't use pesticides to treat the park lawns -- generally --
with the exception of sports fields, Finney said. There, they use
chemicals to kill broad-leaf weeds such as dandelions and clover
because those plants can create slick spots where athletes may slip
and be injured.

If some Eugene parks go pesticide-free, the city may have to pay more
for grounds crews to pull the weeds or for them to use alternative
treatments such as clover oil or hot foam, Finney said. Even then, the
parks may look a little bit shaggier.

That may clash with the norm in some Eugene neighborhoods, Finney
said. In some neighborhoods, "it's a very highly controlled aesthetic.
There's not a weed in the lawn. There's not a weed in the beds and
everything is very trim and very nice," he said.

But in other areas of town, people seem to enjoy the dandelions,
English daisy and clover riddling their yards, he said.

"Some people think if you have weeds in your lawn it means you don't
care," Finney said. "I have weeds in my lawn, but it means my 4-year-
old can run and play out there and I don't have to think about it.
That's where I'm coming from, but my neighbors may not see it that


The city of Eugene will consider designating some neighborhood parks
pesticide-free zones. But first, officials want to hear what the
public thinks.

Meeting today: 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Eugene Public Library. City
parks officials and representatives from the Eugene-based Northwest
Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides will discuss -- and hear
public views -- on the concept.

Advocates' views: See NCAP report, "Pesticide-free Parks: It's Time,"

Share your views: The Eugene parks maintenance manager is interested
in public comment on the issue. E-mail your thoughts to

Copyright 2005 -- The Register-Guard

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From: Times Colonist (Victoria, B.C., Canada), Oct. 25, 2005
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By Malcolm Curtis

Victoria is on track to become the first municipality in the region to
ban use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes in gardens and parks.

Regulations, based on a model bylaw approved by the Capital Regional
District [CRD], would ban "non-essential" use of chemicals used to
destroy pests on all land in the city, public and private.

"I think the time is right," said Denise Savoie who, as chairwoman of
the CRD's environment round table, has been promoting the new rules.
"It's not an extreme kind of bylaw, it really deals with cosmetic non-
essential use of pesticides."

Victoria council approved regulations in principle last week subject
to a report from staff on the possible impact on municipal operations.

The city already limits pesticide use. But those policies didn't
prevent city crews last year from using such chemicals as Trillion to
kill weeds on playing fields. Exposure to Trillion can cause skin
irritation, and studies -- which are in dispute -- have raised
concerns about reproductive problems.

At CRD open houses last year, some owners of landscaping businesses
worried about banning pesticides. They argued that customers want
weed-free gardens.

But Savoie said the regulations follow "the precautionary principle"
at a time when links between pesticides and health risks are well
established. The bylaw requires of residents just a "slightly higher
tolerance for weeds in your otherwise perfect lawn," she said. The
municipality, she said, would embark on a program to advise residents
of non-chemical alternatives to pesticides.

Organic gardeners often mention mulching, landscape fabrics, hand
weeding, and hoeing as ways to keep weeds in check.

Regulations would not affect chemicals used to combat pests that could
hurt public health, commercial food production or public safety.
Exceptions include use of pesticides in an aerosol can.

The City of Victoria would be following the lead of at least 70 other
municipalities with similar regulations, including the City of
Vancouver. Saanich is also looking at the CRD model bylaw.

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that municipalities have the
right to restrict use of pesticides.

"In the long run it's probably a good thing," said Nathan Millin,
assistant manager at the Garden Works store on Oak Bay Avenue. Millin
said acceptance of gardening without pesticides is growing,
particularly among younger customers.

Copyright Times Colonist (Victoria) 2005

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From: International Herald Tribune, Jan. 20, 2004
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By Margot Wallstrom, Bert Bolin, Paul Crutzen and Will Steffen

Our planet is changing fast. In recent decades many environmental
indicators have moved outside the range in which they have varied for
the past half-million years. We are altering our life support system
and potentially pushing the planet into a far less hospitable state.

Such large-scale and long-term changes present major policy
challenges. The Kyoto Protocol is important as an international
framework for combating climate change, and yet its targets can only
ever be a small first step. If we cannot develop policies to cope with
the uncertainty, complexity and magnitude of global change, the
consequences for society may be huge.

We have made impressive progress in the last century. Major diseases
have been eradicated and life expectancy and standards of living have
increased for many. But the global population has tripled since 1930
to more than six billion and will continue to grow for several
decades, and the global economy has increased more than 15-fold since
1950. This progress has had a wide-ranging impact on the environment.
Our activities have begun to significantly affect the planet and how
it functions. Atmospheric composition, land cover, marine ecosystems,
coastal zones, freshwater systems and global biological diversity have
all been substantially affected.

Yet it is the magnitude and rate of human-driven change that are most
alarming. For example, the human-driven increase in atmospheric carbon
dioxide is nearly 100 parts per million and still growing -- already
equal to the entire range experienced between an ice age and a warm
period such as the present. And this human-driven increase has
occurred at least 10 times faster than any natural increase in the
last half-million years.

Evidence of our influence extends far beyond atmospheric carbon
dioxide levels and the well-documented increases in global mean
temperature. During the 1990's, the average area of humid tropical
forest cleared each year was equivalent to nearly half the area of
England, and at current extinction rates we may well be on the way to
the Earth's sixth great extinction event.

The Earth is a well-connected system. Carbon dioxide emitted in one
country is rapidly mixed throughout the atmosphere, and pollutants
released into the ocean in one location are transported to distant
parts of the planet. Local and regional emissions create global
environmental problems.

The impacts of global change are equally complex, as they combine with
local and regional environmental stresses in unexpected ways. Coral
reefs, for example, which were already under stress from fishing,
tourism and agricultural pollutants, are now under additional pressure
from changing carbonate chemistry in ocean surface waters, a result of
the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Similarly, the wildfires that hit southern Europe, western Canada,
California and southeastern Australia last year were a result of many
factors, including land management, ignition sources and extreme local
weather. However, prevailing warm and dry conditions -- probably
linked to climate change -- amplified fire intensity and extent.

Poor access to fresh water means that more than two billion people
currently live under what experts call "severe water stress." With
population growth and economic expansion, this figure is expected to
nearly double by 2025. Climate change would further exacerbate this

Biodiversity losses, currently driven by habitat destruction
associated with land-cover change, will be further exacerbated by
future climate change. Beyond 2050, rapid regional climate change, as
would be caused by changes in ocean circulation in the North Atlantic,
and irreversible changes, such as the melting of the Greenland ice
sheet and the accompanying rise in sea levels of 6 meters, or 20 feet,
could have huge economic and societal consequences.

It is now clear that the Earth has entered the so-called Anthropocene
Era -- the geological era in which humans are a significant and
sometimes dominating environmental force. Records from the geological
past indicate that never before has the Earth experienced the current
suite of simultaneous changes: we are sailing into planetary terra

Global environmental change challenges the political decision-making
process by its uncertainty, its complexity and its magnitudes and
rates of change.

Because of the uncertainties involved, decision-making will have to be
based on risks that particular events will happen, or that possible
scenarios will unfold. A lack of certainty does not justify inaction
-- the precautionary principle must be applied.

Because of its complexity, global environmental change is often
gradual until critical thresholds are passed, and then far more rapid
change ensues, as seen in the growth of the ozone hole. Some rapid
changes -- such as the potential melting of the Greenland ice sheet --
would also be irreversible in any meaningful human timescale, while
other changes may be unstoppable, and indeed may have already been set
in motion.

Because of the magnitudes and rates of change, we are unsure of just
how serious our interference with the dynamics of the Earth's system
will prove to be, but we do know that there are significant risks of
rapid and irreversible changes to which it would be very difficult to

The first step toward meeting the challenge presented by global change
is to appreciate the complex nature of the Earth's system, the ways in
which we are affecting the system, and the economic and societal
consequences. Scientists and policy-makers must establish a dialogue
to communicate current knowledge and to guide future research.

Real policy progress must address the need for large-scale change,
technological advances and global cooperation. Incremental change will
not prevent, or even significantly slow, climate change, water
depletion, deforestation or biodiversity loss. Breakthroughs in
technologies and natural resource management that will affect all
economic sectors and the lifestyles of people are required.

Although action at local, regional and national levels is important,
international frameworks are essential for addressing global change.
We must develop new approaches that consider the diversity of national
circumstances and interests, based on a shared political will for
action. Never before has an effective multilateral system been more

The evidence of our impact on our own life-support system is growing
rapidly. Will we accept the challenge to respond in a precautionary
manner, or wait until a catastrophic, irreversible change is upon us?


Margot Wallstrom is the European Commissioner for the environment.
Bert Bolin is the founding chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change. Paul Crutzen was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in
Chemistry. Will Steffen is executive director of the International
Geosphere-Biosphere Program. This comment is based on "Global Change
and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure," which looks at the
findings of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program.

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From: Rachel's Precaution Reporter #9, Oct. 26, 2005
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By Clark Bullard

Elizabeth Whelan's essay "Can Too Much Safety be Hazardous? in
RPR #3 deserves a response. What she advocates is backsliding into
the same "risk assessment" morass that has failed us in the past.

She frames her critique around a hypothetical ban on chlorine,
asserting that evidence to date indicates that the benefits of
chlorine exceed its risk, and therefore a "precautionary" ban would be
unwise. And she makes the more general claim that "the precautionary
principle assumes that no detriment to health or the environment will
result from the proposed new banning or chemical regulation."

In fact the precautionary principle substitutes precaution for
recklessness, not for evidence. The idea is to apply the principle at
the outset, when a new chemical (or other risk) is first proposed and
ignorance reigns. Just as we do in the case of food additives and
drugs, we hold a new product off the market until evidence of its
safety is produced. Often those scientific experiments identify a
safer pathway to progress.

With 20-20 hindsight, Whelan claims that chlorine turned out to be
worth the environmental costs. We can never know whether a
precautionary approach would have led to the invention of ozone-based
bleaches and related technologies decades earlier. What we do know is
that other large-scale experiments on non-consenting human subjects
have turned out to be disastrous: DDT, lead-based paint, and CFC's,
for example. Now a billion people in the developed world are trying
another such [poorly designed, poorly controlled] experiment with
greenhouse gases, while billions of nonconsenting humans in the
developing world have the most to lose.

Would we perform such experiments in our laboratories? No, it would be
unethical. Has that moral taboo retarded scientific progress and
prevented discovery of some miracle drugs? Maybe. But I would not
recommend that we start conducting scientific experiments on
nonconsenting human subjects, just so we can look back a half-century
from now and see how many succeeded and how many failed.

Let's keep our focus on establishing the precautionary principle at
the "new product development stage" so it can redirect the path of
innovation towards safer technologies, as it has with food additives
and drugs.

Clark Bullard
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1206 W Green St
Urbana IL 61801
217 333 7734 (voice) 217 333 1942 (fax)

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From: The Economists' Voice, Jun. 15, 2005
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By Robert W. Hahn and Cass R. Sunstein


Over the coming decades, the increasingly popular precautionary
principle is likely to have a significant impact on policies all over
the world. Applying this principle could lead to dramatic changes in
decision making. Possible applications include climate change,
genetically modified food, nuclear power, homeland security, new drug
therapies, and even war.

We argue that the precautionary principle does not help individuals or
nations make difficult choices in a non-arbitrary way. Taken
seriously, it can be paralyzing, providing no direction at all. In
contrast, balancing costs against benefits can offer the foundation of
a principled approach for making difficult decisions.


Over the coming decades, the increasingly popular precautionary
principle is likely to have a significant impact on policies all over
the world.

The simplest interpretation of the precautionary principle is that it
is better to be safe than sorry. But the principle comes in many
diverse forms, ranging from weak to strong. One scholar counted

An example of a strong form is the influential Wingspread Declaration,
produced in a meeting of environmentalists in 1998: 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.[1]

The European Union has taken a leadership role in promoting the
precautionary principle as a basis for making decisions on
environmental policy and other areas, such as trade. The EU has not
specified the version of the principle that it would like to use in
particular settings. But it has clearly endorsed the general idea that
regulatory action should be taken even when harm cannot be
established, and indeed even when it is highly speculative.

Applying this principle, in any of its forms, could lead to dramatic
changesin decision making. Possible areas in which it might be applied
include climate change, genetically modified food, nuclear power,
pesticides, cell phones, homeland security, new drug therapies, and
even war.

For this reason, serious thought needs to be given to the strengths
and weakness of adopting this principle before using it to help make
difficult decisions.

Why It's Not Always Better to Be Safe than Sorry

Even the simplest interpretation of the precautionary principle that
it is better to be safe than sorry raises complex questions. To
begin, an essential dilemma for policy makers is that it is not clear
what to do if one wants to be safe. How safe is safe enough? Without
considering the costs of providing safety, it is virtually impossible
to answer this question.

For those who favor taking regulatory precautions, the conceptual
difficulty is even worse. Risks, sometimes unforeseen, can arise from
action as well as from inaction; consider the war in Iraq. And
reducing risks in one policy domain (say, the environment) could
increase risks in another (say, defense) especially when resources
are scarce.

A key problem with strong versions of the precautionary principle is
that they are logically inconsistent. They would frequently eliminate
all policies from consideration including the status quo because
almost all policies impose risksof one kind or another.

A Few Examples of How All Policies Even Precautionary Ones Impose

To understand the difficulty, consider some examples. Genetic
modification of food has become a widespread practice. The risks of
that practice are not known with any precision. Some people fear that
genetic modification will result in serious ecological harm and large
risks to human health; but others believe that genetic modification
will result in more nutritious food and significant improvements in
human health.

Many people fear nuclear power, on the grounds that nuclear power
plants create various health and safety risks, including some
possibility of catastrophe. But if a nation does not rely on nuclear
power, it might well rely instead on fossil fuels, and in particular
on coal-fired power plants. And such plants create risks of their own,
including risks associated with global warming. At the same time,
nuclear energy may actually decrease environmental risks: China, for
example, has relied on nuclear energy, in a way that reduces
greenhouse gases and a range of air pollution problems.

In the early years of the Bush Administration, one of the most
controversial environmental issues involved the regulation of arsenic
in drinking water. There is a serious dispute over the precise level
of risks posed by low levels of arsenic in water, but taking the
worst-case scenario, over one hundred lives might be lost each year as
a result of the original, 50-part-per-billion standard that the
Clinton Administration sought to revise. At the same time,
however, the proposed ten-part-per-billion standard could cost over
$200 million each year, and it is possible that it would save as few
as six lives annually.

In these cases, what kind of guidance is provided by the precautionary
principle? It is tempting to say that the principle calls for strong
controls on genetic engineering of food, on nuclear power, and on
arsenic. After all, in each of these cases, there is a possibility of
serious harms. Genetically modified foods, for example, seem like a
core area in which to apply the Wingspread Declaration, as there are
threats of harm (not fully proven) to human health and the

But so applied, is the precautionary principle really helpful? The
answer, in each of these cases, is that it is not. One reason is that
regulation might well deprive society of significant benefits, and
hence produce serious harms that would otherwise not occur.
In some cases, regulation eliminates the benefits of a process or
activity, and thus causes preventable deaths. If this is so, then
regulation is hardly precautionary; indeed, it violates the
precautionary principle.

The problem is not limited to these examples. It is quite general.
Consider, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's
precautionary decision to ban almost all uses of asbestos. That
decision was invalidated in federal court, in part, on the ground that
in some contexts, the alternatives appear to create larger risks than
asbestos itself does.

In the court's words, the EPA cannot say with any assurance that its
regulation will increase workplace safety when it refuses to evaluate
the harm that will result from the increased use of substitute
products especially since many of the substitutes that EPA itself
concedes will be used in place of asbestos have known carcinogenic

The Necessity of Considering All Relevant Risks Not Just Those
Lessened by Regulation

These examples suggest that regulation sometimes violates the
precautionary principle because it gives rise to other risks, in the
form of hazards that materialize, or are increased, as a result of

Consider the drug approval process. If a government takes a highly
precautionary approach to the introduction of new medicines and drugs
onto the market, it will protect people against harms from
inadequately tested drugs; but it will also prevent people from
receiving potential benefits from those very drugs.

Of course, the proper approach to new drugs is much disputed. But the
precautionary principle cannot help to answer a key question within
this inquiry: What is the appropriate level of pre-market testing?
If the strong version of the precautionary principle is taken
seriously, extensive regulatory requirements are both required and
forbidden. Would it not be better to ask whether any particular
approval process creates benefits, through preventing iatrogenic
illness, that exceed the costs of unavailable medications and foregone

Regulation Typically Creates New Risk Profiles, Rather than Simply
Lessening Risk

It turns out that the danger that regulation will create new or
different risk profiles is the rule, not the exception.
In the case of arsenic, the Administrator of the Environmental
Protection Agency expressed concern that aggressive regulation, by
virtue of its cost, will lead people to cease using local water
systems and to rely on private wells, which have high levels of
contamination. If this is so, then stringent arsenic regulation
violates the precautionary principle, for the same reason that less
stringent regulation does.

The issue is compounded by the fact that regulations and policy
interventions use scarce resources. A great deal of empirical work
suggests that anexpensive regulation can have adverse effects on life
and health. It has been argued, for example, that a statistical life
can be lost for an expenditure of between $7 to $15 million.[3]

We do not mean to accept any particular amount here, or even to
suggest that there has been an unambiguous demonstration of an
association between mortality and regulatory expenditures. Rather, for
purposes of evaluating the precautionary principle, with its attempt
to prevent even speculative harm, our only point here is that
reasonable people do believe in that association.

This tradeoff between wealth and health makes the precautionary
principle hard to implement not merely where regulation removes
benefits, or introduces or increases other risks, but in any case in
which the regulation costs a significant amount.

For this reason, the precautionary principle raises doubts about many
expensive regulations. The most general point is that, the
precautionary principle is frequently paralyzing: It can stand as an
obstacle to regulation and nonregulation, and to everything in

Privileging Existing Risks over New Risks Makes Little, If Any, Sense

Advocates of the principle might be able to find ways out of this
dilemma. For example, they could say that new risks are unacceptable,
but existing risks are fine. And, indeed, a bias in favor of existing
risks does seem to animate many uses of the precautionary principle.
But that bias is hard to defend in principle. By its logic, we would
never have accepted electricity, the automobile, the Internet, or
countless other inventions that allow our modern society to function
but that impose risks. (Alternatively, one could embrace all new risks
and scoff at existing risks but that would lead to an equally
troubling result, leading us to accept even very highly risky
innovations with little benefit.)

Or one could say that the precautionary principle will be applied to
the risks that are most salient or of most concern to the public and
that the less salient or visible risks will be ignored. And in fact,
the precautionary principle often seems motivated by this form of
selectivity favoring the kind of risks that cause tragedies that make
headlines, while ignoring the kind that show up only as a result of
statistical analysis.

But why would that be sensible? Isn't a death or illness that occurs
quietly, as a result of, say, a cumulative risk, just as important as
a death or illness that occurs in a spectacular fashion that makes
news? Subtle causation is no less deadly.

These points help to identify another problem. The precautionary
principle does not provide guidance on how much to regulate; it does
not easily allow for weighing the variables that are at stake.
It leaves questions like these unanswered: How does one account for
tradeoffs between present and future risks? How should we weigh
expenditures on reducing particulate matter against the possible loss
in resources available for food or health care? Does one value a life
today more than one tomorrow? Without helping to answer such
questions, the principle is not useful.

The Need To Balance Benefits and Costs

We do not believe there is any principled way of making policy
decisions without making the best possible effort to balance all the
relevant costs of a policyagainst the benefits. Looking only to costs,
and ignoring benefits, is always a mistake.

Of course, the proper cost-benefit analysis can and should incorporate
concerns about precaution. For example, a problem characterized by
irreversibilities such as the persistence of certain chemicals in the
atmosphere that deplete the ozone layer can be modeled using standard
techniques in cost-benefit analysis. Uncertainties about both benefits
and costs can also be incorporated, perhaps by specifying a range of
possible outcomes, perhaps by seeking to preserve specified options,
or perhaps by identifying the worst-case scenario and showing a degree
of risk aversion with respect to that scenario.

In some cases, the balancing of benefits and costs will be easy. In
others, it will be hard to quantify benefits as, for example, in the
case of regulations designed to protect against terrorism, where it is
hard to assign probabilities to various outcomes. But even these hard
cases should not excuse decision makers from at least attempting to
make quantitative estimates of the costs of various options.

The Fallacy of Believing We Can Live Risk-Free

The fact is, even in the case of terrorism and other hard cases,
societies cannot afford to seek totally risk-free environments. If
they try, they might well magnify the problems they face.
For example, governments do not ban air travel, even though such bans
would eliminate a possible source of terrorist attacks. An intuitive
benefit-cost analysis suggests that the costs of banning air travel
would greatly outweigh the benefits.

For terrorism, climate change, and other vexing problems, hard choices
must be made. The precautionary principle does not help individuals or
nations to make such choices in a non-arbitrary way. Indeed, taken
seriously, the precautionary principle can be paralyzing, providing no
direction at all. Balancing costs against benefits ought not to be
understood as a way of placing regulators into an arithmetic
straightjacket. But it does offer the foundation of a principled
approach for making difficult decisions.


Robert Hahn is co-founder and executive director of the American
Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center, which focuses on
regulation and antitrust. He is the author of In Defense of the
Economic Analysis of Regulation (AEI-Brookings, 2005), which was
recently written up in the Economist. In addition, Dr. Hahn is co-
founder of the Community Preparatory School an inner-city middle
school in Providence, Rhode Island, that provides opportunities for
disadvantaged youth to achieve their full potential.

Cass R. Sunstein is Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor
at the University of Chicago Law School. His publications include Risk
and Reason (2002), Punitive Damages: How Juries Decide (with several
coauthors, including W. Kip Viscusi); The Second Bill of Rights
(2004); and Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (2005).

References and Further Reading

Arrow, K.J., et al., Is There a Role for Benefit-Cost Analysis in
Environmental, Health, and Safety Regulation? Science, No. 272
(1996), pp. 22 1-222.

Arrow, K.J. and A. Fisher, Environmental Preservation, Uncertainty,
and Irreversibility, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 88, No.
2 (1974), pp. 3 12-3 19.

European Commission, Communication from the Commission on the
Precautionary Principle, Brussels: The Commission of the European

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Copyright 2005 by the authors.
[1] Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, available

[2] Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA, 947 F.2d 1201 (5thCir. 1991).

[3] Ralph Keeney, Mortality Risks Induced by Economic Expenditures,
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Citation: The Economists' Voice Volume 2, Issue 2 (2005).

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