Environmental Research Foundation  [Printer-friendly version]
June 23, 2006


Peter Montague, co-editor, Rachel's Precaution Reporter

The precautionary principle is not a silver bullet for solving
environmental, economic, or social problems. Organized civic action in
local communities is still the only reliable way to achieve civic
improvement. People who get involved and stay involved can change
things for the better. As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a
small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

The precautionary principle is a decision-making technique that can
serve as a guide for community-based action, and it can provide a
framework for a consistent approach to environmental, economic, and
social problems.

What is new about the precautionary approach is that it asks a
different question. The old method of making decisions asked, "How
much harm is acceptable?" The precautionary approach asks, "How much
harm is avoidable?"

Precaution invites us to set goals, examine alternative ways of
achieving those goals, set benchmarks, check our progress, and engage
affected parties in decisions.

Precaution asserts an important, even heroic, role for government as
guardian of the commons (all the things we own together but none of us
own individually, such as air and water), and it offers us all an
opportunity to create a new, conservative political movement -- a
movement to conserve the best from our cultural traditions.

Eight reasons why a precautionary approach can benefit communities.

Reason #1: The global ecosystem has been badly damaged and is
undergoing further damage all the time. Every part of the global
ecosystem needs to be conserved and preserved, and so a fundamentally
conservative approach to the world is appropriate at this time in
history. In the recent past, the absence of a precautionary approach
has resulted in significant harm to the world and to humans.

Reason #2. The world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years.
The world used to appear to be "empty" but now it is "full" -- of
humans and their artifacts. There is no place left to throw things
"away" without affecting someone, somewhere. Given this fact, and
given that the global ecosystem needs to be preserved and protected
from further damage, humans need a fundamentally conservative
philosophy as a guide.

The precautionary principle is a profoundly conservative idea.
Precaution is grounded in the desire to maintain and preserve the
world that we inherited and will pass on to our children. It leads us
to oppose change for the sake of change. It leads us to oppose
thoughtless, precipitate action. It invites us to set goals, to
envision the world we want and then figure out how to achieve it.

The precautionary principle is grounded in both science and ethics. It
is fundamentally grounded in the modern philosophy of science, the
view that all our scientific knowledge is always contingent and
incomplete, subject to revision in the future. But precaution is also
grounded in ethical knowledge that is timeless, ancient, transmitted
to us by our ancestors, grounded in faith (for some, religious faith,
for others faith that love, respect and charity will prevail over
indifference and self-centeredness, and, for almost everyone, faith
that the golden rule is a steady, reliable guide).

Specifically, the precautionary principle is grounded in ecological
science, the understanding of the world as a complex system whose
interactions cannot be entirely comprehended, so our understanding
will always entail some uncertainty. There are some things that we can
never know (and by definition we don't know what it is that we don't
know), and so we can never assume that we know or understand
everything about any situation. We are always somewhat flying blind,
and so it makes sense to navigate thoughtfully and proceed

Although the precautionary principle is fundamentally grounded in
science, it does not assume that scientific knowledge is the only
valid way of knowing about the world. Historical knowledge, local
knowledge, spiritual understanding, ethical perspectives of right
and wrong, cultural perspectives on what is appropriate, community
preferences and individual conviction -- all have a place in decisions
based on the precautionary approach.

The precautionary principle is conservative because it is grounded in
humility. It does not arrogantly assume that we can re-engineer
natural systems or social systems with foreseeable outcomes. That is
why precaution favors a democratic examination of alternatives. That
is also why it favors monitoring results, with periodic review of
outcomes in a constant search for better ways ("adaptive
management"). And that is why it leads us to prefer decisions that
are reversible.

The precautionary principle is conservative in that it assumes we are
each responsible for the consequences of our own actions and that,
therefore, we have an obligation to try to learn what those
consequences might be before we act (via environmental impact
assessment, and health impact assessment), and what those
consequences have been after we have acted (in other words,
systematically monitoring results).

The precautionary principle improves accountability. No doubt you are
familiar with the argument that private ownership of land leads to
better land-use decisions. By the same logic, people who are going to
be directly affected by a decision should make a better decision than
people who will not be affected. (Internationally this is known as the
"principle of subsidiarity" -- decisions should be made by a
decision-making body that lies as close as possible to those who will
be affected.)

Reason #3: The precautionary principle offers an opportunity to
restore confidence in government. It tells us what government is FOR.

The precautionary approach tells us that a major purpose of government
is to safeguard the commons, all the things we own together and none
of us owns individually -- air, water, the human gene pool, all the
human knowledge each of us inherits at birth, and more.

According to the "public trust doctrine" government has a legal duty
to serve as a trustee of the commons (in legalese, the commons is the
"trust property"). The trust beneficiary is present and future
generations. The government's trust responsibility cannot be
alienated, denied, repudiated, given away, or ignored. The trustee has
a responsibility to protect the trust property from harm, including
harm perpetrated by trust beneficiaries.

The commons form the base for the entire human enterprise, the
biological platform that makes all economic activity -- indeed, all
life -- possible. Therefore, protecting the commons deserves the
benefit of the doubt compared to any particular economic activity.

Reason #4: Government regulation of powerful technologies has not
worked out well. The shortcomings of the current regulatory approach
come into sharper focus as the world becomes ever more full. Examples
of large-scale problems: Global contamination from the petrochemical
industry, proliferation of atomic bombs (and radioactive waste)
stemming from the nuclear power industry, global warming caused
chiefly by the transportation and energy industries, the unfolding
threat of global genetic contamination from the biotechnology
industry, and soon the most potent technologies of all -- synthetic
biology and nanotechnology.

Historically, our approach to innovation has been trial and error. Try
something new, then manage the damage. But our technologies are
increasingly powerful, and there are more of us using those
technologies each passing day, so trial-and-error is now less
appropriate than it once may have been. Therefore, prevention is now
much more important than it once was.

Quantitative risk assessment (QRA) provides the basis for most modern
regulatory activity. Unfortunately, by focusing on the most-exposed
individual, quantitative risk assessment has allowed the entire
planet to become contaminated with industrial poisons. In addition,
there are other serious limitations of quantitative risk assessment
as a basis for decision-making. I will mention only four:

1) It is difficult for ordinary people to understand, so it runs
counter to the basic decision-making principles of an open society --
transparency and participation in decisions by those who will be

2) It cannot realistically or reliably assess the multiple stresses to
which we are all exposed more-or-less constantly.

3) The results of a quantitative risk assessment often cannot be
reproduced by two groups of risk assessors working with the same set
of data -- so risk assessment fails a basic test of science,

4) Politics can enter into risk assessments. As William Ruckelshaus,
first administrator of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),
said in 1984, "We should remember that risk assessment data can be
like the captured spy: If you torture it long enough, it will tell you
anything you want to know."

Basically, quantitative risk assessment asks "How much harm is
acceptable?" or "How much damage can we get away with?" instead of
asking, "How much harm can we avoid?"

Quantitative risk assessment may have a role to play in evaluating
alternatives (along with environmental impact assessment, life-cycle
benefit-cost accounting, health impact assessment, and other
evaluative techniques), but this is different from choosing an
alternative then relying heavily (or solely) on quantitative risk
assessment to justify that choice.

Reason #5: Economic growth has been slowing down since 1970, and the
search for a way to accelerate economic growth is propelling a rush to
new technologies ("the next big thing") -- biotechnology,
nanotechnology, synthetic biology, weapons in space, etc. By
definition, rushing into new technologies means that we are flying
blind. This is not a conservative stance.

Furthermore, because of slowed economic growth and the resulting
necessity for "belt-tightening", we can no longer afford to clean up
more big mistakes. Trial-and-error learning has proven to be
prohibitively expensive. For example, the burden of chronic disease,
waste land, unsupportable transportation systems and attendant land-
uses (suburban sprawl) -- all show that past ways of conducting our
lives and our businesses are no longer affordable. As the price of
energy rises, repairing past mistakes (and sustaining past lifestyles)
will be become even less affordable. (In 2000 the price of a barrel of
oil was $10.00; today, six years later, it is more than $60.)

Reason #6: A precautionary approach could re-energize a broad social
movement aimed at conserving what is best from our past. Although the
environmental movement began more than 100 years ago to conserve the
natural wonders of North America, in recent years it has stalled. Some
even argue that the environmental movement is "dead." Others point
out that most people consider their job more important than almost
anything else in their lives and the environmental movement has often
ignored jobs and economic development. Others say the movement has
lost some of its luster partly because it is "against everything."

The precautionary principle gives us something to be FOR and not
merely AGAINST.

Precaution is a modern idea whose time has come. The European Union
has written precaution into its constitution and is now working out
detailed policies to embody the basic premise of precaution: taking
action to avert harm before the full extent of the harm can be proven
to a scientific certainty.

Precaution offers an opportunity to revitalize the environmental
movement by re-establishing the broken link between environmental
protection and public health, taking advantage of a shared core focus
on prevention. For example, see Kriebel and Tickner, 2001. And see
"Health and 'Environmental Health:' Expanding the Movement," in
Rachel's News #843.

In 1988 the prestigious Institute of Medicine (IOM) provided a useful
definition of public health in its landmark study, The Future of
Public Health. The IOM report characterized public health's mission
as "fulfilling society's interest in assuring conditions in which
people can be healthy."

Another enduring definition of public health was provided in 1920 by
C.E.A. Winslow:

"... the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and
promoting health and efficiency through organized community effort for
the sanitation of the environment, the control of communicable
infections, the education of the individual in personal hygiene, the
organization of medical and nursing services for the early diagnosis
and preventive treatment of disease, and for the development of the
social machinery to insure everyone a standard of living adequate for
the maintenance of health, so organizing these benefits as to enable
every citizen to realize his birthright of health and longevity."[1]

In chapter 1 of his text book, "Public Health: What It is and How
It Works," Bernard Turnock offers this summary of the core idea of
public health:

"If public health professionals were pressed to provide a one word
synonym for public health, the most frequent response would probably
be prevention." (Turnock, pg. 20)

Turnock notes six unique features of public health. I will mention
only four:

1) Public health is based in a social justice philosophy -- everyone
has a right to health; no one deserves to be burdened with disease.

2) Public health is inextricably linked with government -- by
definition government must play a role in fostering conditions that
allow people to become and remain healthy. Governments can promote
vaccines and see that people get vaccinated; can educate the public
about the importance of simple measures such as washing our hands,
wearing a helmet when bicycling, and avoiding tobacco; and can provide
health clinics for pregnant women s that everyone gets an equal
opportunity to be born healthy -- among other things.

3) Public health is grounded in science (many sciences).

4) The primary strategy of public health is prevention.

In sum, the public health approach and the precautionary approach
share a great deal in common.

The precautionary principle offers us a sturdy bridge to connect
time-honored, long-established public health principles and practices
(and infrastructure) with a new generation of community-based
activists and governmental guardians of the public trust (the commons)
to propel a new conservative social movement to prevent harm and
protect our common heritage so that we can pass this world on,
undamaged, to future generations -- a traditional goal of
conservatives like Sir Edmund Burke.

Reason #7. The precautionary principle can help us focus on preventing
social deterioration (for example, crime, drug use, violence, and ill
health), by creating self-reliant and self-sustaining communities. A
precautionary economics stresses the importance of locally-owned
businesses because they create a sturdy middle class, which in turn
provides stability and continuity for the community. See, for example,
Michael Shuman, Going Local (1998), and The Small-Mart Revolution
(in press; 2006).

Reason #8. The precautionary principle promotes efficiency through the
avoidance and prevention of expensive problems. For example, health-care
expenditures in the U.S. are now more than 15% of gross domestic product
and growing. Avoiding and preventing health problems is
cost-effective. Precaution and public health share the central goal
of preventing trouble.

Likewise, the creation of waste is costly and inefficient. From a
precautionary perspective, waste is evidence of design failure. There
are now groups in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. promoting the
concept of "Zero Waste." The Cities of San Francisco and Oakland,
California, and Boulder, Colorado, have adopted "zero waste" as a


[1] C.E.A. Winslow, "The Untilled Field of Public health," Modern
Medicine Vol. 2 (1920), pgs. 183-191.