Rachel's Democracy & Health News #885, December 14, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The precautionary principle gets us searching for root causes of serious problems, forcing us to ask questions that usually don't get asked in polite company.]

By Peter Montague

The goal of the precautionary principle is simply to prevent harm. (Look before you leap. A stitch in time saves nine.) However, if you want to prevent harm, you need a pretty good idea of where the harm is coming from. So you start looking for root causes. If you don't know the root causes of a problem, how can you take effective action to prevent it? (Putting a Band-Aid on a cancer may make you feel better for a short while, but if you don't confront the cancer you'll find yourself in real trouble. And if we never ask what's causing the rise in cancer rates, the trouble just multiplies.)

To me, this is the most important aspect of the precautionary principle. It gets us searching for root causes of harm. Even though this is a good thing -- and necessary -- it can still get you into trouble.

Precaution defines a sustainable society -- one that is always doing its best to look ahead, to avoid trouble. Taking a precautionary approach does not guarantee that a civilization can avoid collapse. But the alternative approach, which dominated our thinking from 1850 to now -- "Shoot first and ask questions later," or "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" -- has damaged the natural environment and human health so badly that the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (result of 6 years study by 1366 scientists in 95 countries) concluded last year, "At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted." A stark warning indeed.

Precaution is an ancient technique for survival, developed long before humans arrived on the scene. Animals have always taken a precautionary approach to life. Crows, woodchucks, monkeys -- all have lookouts who scan the horizon (and the neighborhood), calling out at the first sign of trouble. But, more than this, each member of the animal clan takes on the role of self-appointed guardian, attentive to threats. This precautionary approach has allowed animals to sustain themselves for millions of years in a world that is constantly changing and always uncertain. Survival under these conditions is the very definition of sustainability.

We humans seem to have lost this precautionary perspective. We have come to believe that we can manufacture the conditions for our own survival, regardless of conditions in the world around us. In the early 1990s, a group of scientists actually constructed an artificial ecosystem and tried to live in it; they called it Biosphere II (the earth itself being Biosphere I). The whole thing was a colossal failure; the ants took over and the humans were clueless.

During the 20th century, our novel approach -- behaving as if we are in charge of nature -- brought us multiple disasters, several of which are still unfolding today:

** The nuclear industry has covered the planet with radioactive pots of poison that no one will ever clean up -- radioactive wastes dumped into the oceans; radioactive canyons in New Mexico where the bomb- makers buried their mistakes in unmarked graves; mountainous heaps of radioactive uranium mine wastes blowing on the wind; radioactive residues from factories making products with radium and thorium; swaths of radioactive fallout worldwide. Now nuclear power plants -- often the precursors for nuclear weapons -- are proliferating across the globe. The list of unmanageable problems unleashed by nuclear boy- toys continues to grow at an accelerating pace. This technology alone should teach us that our 20th-century ways are unsustainable.

But we have a second set of experiments to learn from. The petrochemical industry has littered the planet with staggeringly large numbers of toxic waste sites buried in the ground, or simply strewn across the surface. For example, after 25 years of cleanup efforts, New Jersey still lists 16,000 contaminated sites with 200 to 300 new contaminated sites still being discovered each month. Around the world, the petrochemical industry is, daily, creating hundreds more that will remain to plague our children's children's children. The size of this problem is too large to even catalog. And 750 new chemicals are still being put into commercial channels each year.

The regulatory system set up to oversee nuclear and petrochemical technologies has always given the benefit of the doubt to rapid innovation for economc growth, rather than to public health. This may have made sense when capital was scarce and nature was abundant. But now that capital is abundant and nature is scarce, the regulatory system's priorities are causing more harm than good. The world is fundamentally different from the world of 100 or even 50 years ago, and our legal system needs to adapt to these new conditions.

Now the same corporations that created the nuclear and petrochemical messes have been rushing pell mell to deploy a new generation of far more powerful inventions -- biotechnology, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology (the creation of entirely new forms of life that have never existed before).

With these new technologies, no one is even pretending that regulation can stanch the flood of ill-considered innovations, or the harms they seem certain to bring.

So we have to try something new. The best hope, it seems to me, is for all of us to try to change the culture, to make a precautionary approach standard procedure. (If we do that, it will quickly become apparent that many of our existing laws and institutions, such as freewheeling corporations larger than many nations, no longer make sense and need to be rethought.)

Just as our great-grandparents managed to make slavery unthinkable, now we can make it unthinkable to take any big decision without doing our best to anticipate the consequences, to examine our options, and to choose the least harmful way. (Publicly-held corporations, as they are strucrured today, cannot aim to minimize harm; as a matter of law, they can only to do what is profitable for their shareholders.)

Using a precautionary approach, we would still make painful mistakes. But maybe we could avoid the extinction that threatens to snuff us out if we continue on our present path.

So it seems important to search for root causes of our troubles. This is what the precautionary principle would have us do. This gets us asking questions that are not usually asked in polite company.

Q: Why did we develop corporations?

A: To mobilize investment capital to advance economic growth to make more stuff and accrue more capital.

Q: At one time this made sense, but now that there is more than enough stuff to go around -- and nature is sinking under the weight of it all -- why do we need more economic growth?

A: Because growth is what produces return on capital investment.

Q: Since we are already spending huge sums to convince people to buy stuff they don't need, just to produce return on capital investment -- why do we need even more return on investment?

You see what I mean? Searching for root causes of our accelerating train wreck gets us asking questions that some people may not want asked. That's how the precautionary principle can get you into trouble. But delicious trouble it is, I confess.