Rachel's Democracy & Health News #853, May 4, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: If you've been reading our weekly Precaution Reporter, you know that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently came out against the precautionary principle. There's a good reason for this: a precautionary approach offers a truly conservative alternative to the radical philosophy of "corporate profit at any cost" -- a philosophy that is demonstrably wrecking the planet.]

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

The precautionary principle is not a silver bullet for solving environmental, economic, or social problems. Organized grass-roots action in local communities is still the only reliable engine for civic improvement and social change. However, the precautionary principle can serve as a guide for that community-based activism, and it can provide a framework for an integrated, consistent approach to environmental, economic, and social problems.

What is fundamentally new about the precautionary approach is that it asks not, "How much harm is acceptable?" but instead asks, "How much harm is avoidable?" It invites us to set goals, examine alternative ways of achieving those goals, set benchmarks, check our progress, and engage affected parties in decisions. It 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 re-energize participatory democracy and continue building a multi-issue social movement grounded in science, ethics, fairness, and public health.

Six reasons why we need a precautionary approach

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. You can't do anything anymore without affecting someone else. 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 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 deliberately.

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, in principle, 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 (some would argue "the" 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 this "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 affected

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, reproducibility.

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 slowed since 1970, and the search for a path to accelerated economic growth is propelling a rush to dangerous new technologies ("the next big thing") -- biotechnology, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, weapons in space, etc.

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 the environmental movement. In recent years the environmental movement has been struggling to maintain progress toward its goals. The movement has found itself on the defensive. 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 five:

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

2) It is inherently a political enterprise.

3) It is inextricably linked with government -- by definition government must play a role in fostering conditions that allow people to become and remain healthy.

4) It is grounded in science (many sciences).

5) Its primary strategy is prevention.

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

When the U.S. got serious about focusing on environmental problems in the late 1960s, President Nixon responded by creating a new federal agency to "protect the environment," U.S. EPA. An important and powerful citizen movement developed to support, extend, and critique the work of that agency. Unfortunately, much of that work and advocacy took place entirely separate from the agencies, methods, practices and goals that had long ago been established to protect and foster public health.

It seems to me that 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 social movement to prevent harm and protect our common heritage so that we can pass this world on, undamaged, to future generations.


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