Rachel's Precaution Reporter #130

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2008.........Printer-friendly version
www.rachel.org -- To make a secure donation, click here.

Featured stories in this issue...

Green Economics and New Thinking
  Ordinary risk analysis asks, "How much environmental damage will be
  allowed?" But the precautionary principle asks, "How little damage is
  possible?" Today we're seeing the principle adopted more and more
The Doctors Are In. the Jury Is Out.
  It is "very unwise to wait until we have complete scientific truth"
  and the "prudent judgment is to protect human health."
Wingspread Takes Flight
  Over ten years of promoting the precautionary principle as a
  helpful tool for creating healthier communities, one of the joys of
  doing this work has been hearing the stories of communities all over
  the country who have made the principle their own.
Policy, Persuasion, Possibilities: Wingspread Plus Ten
  The simple idea of protecting people and the environment despite
  scientific uncertainty was really the gateway for a whole complex of
  ideas that could set a new track for environmental policy in this
  country and in the world.
Learning and Teaching Precaution
  "It is the work of the next ten years to transform teaching
  precaution from mention in the text to the foundation of our
Evidence Gathers on Health Hazards of Power Lines
  "The fact that the evidence has amalgamated over the last three or
  four years has certainly shifted my view to see there is sufficient
  evidence now to say we should probably apply the precautionary
  principle in order to save lives."
Zones for Scam
  "We must respect the "precautionary principle" and not resort to
  land acquisition unless it can be demonstrated to increase welfare. We
  must invest real content in the right to life."


From: WorldChanging, Feb. 18, 2008
[Printer-friendly version]


By Tom Prugh

A few years ago, a homeowner in Las Vegas -- a place that gets maybe
five inches of rainfall a year -- was confronted by a water district
inspector for running an illegal sprinkler in the middle of the day.
The man became very angry. He said, "You people and all your stupid
rules -- you're trying to turn this place into a desert!"

Ideas about how the world works that don't accord with reality can be
unhelpful. That's especially true about mainstream economics, which is
based in part on ideas that made a lot of sense at some point in the
last 250 years but that have outlived their time and usefulness. These
ideas -- such as the reliance on GDP as the key index of general
wellbeing -- still dominate assumptions and thinking about economic
matters in the media, governments, businesses, and popular

But in recent decades, economics theoreticians and researchers have
suggested a variety of reforms that would make economics truer,
greener, and more sustainable. My colleague Gary Gardner and I
describe seven of these in Chapter 1 of the Worldwatch Institute's
latest report, State of the World 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable

1) Scale. How big is the global economy relative to the global
ecosystem? This is crucial, because the economy resides totally inside
the global ecosystem -- the ecosystem gives the economy a place to
operate, supplies all of its raw materials, and supports it with many
critical services. In physical terms, economic activity is basically
converting bits and pieces of the ecosystem to human uses: trees and
forests into lumber and houses, grasslands and other habitats into
farms to feed the billions of humans, and so on.

We've gotten really good at economic growth. Since Adam Smith's time,
the number of people in the world has exploded from about 1 billion to
nearly 7 billion. And in the last 200 years, Gross World Product has
risen by nearly a factor of 60. The ecosystem has suffered as a
result, hence the headlines we see every day: climate change, species
extinctions, dwindling rainforests, water shortages, and all the rest.

Piecemeal, we're starting to get the message about the economy's
scale. For instance, we know that there's too much carbon floating
around for the system to handle benignly. Last year, more than 90
major corporations, including General Electric, Volvo, and Air France,
called on governments to set goals for reducing greenhouse gas
emissions, and the European Union has set up a carbon cap-and-trade

Waste minimization is another way to reduce scale. Every year we dig
up and process more than half a trillion tons of raw materials -- and
six months later more than 99 percent of it is waste. That can be
fixed too: Ray Anderson's Interface carpet company is a leader in this
area, reducing manufacturing waste by 70 percent since the mid-1990s
and saving over $300 million while doing it.

2) Stress development over growth. That is, make the economy better at
satisfying human needs, not simply bigger.

This is partly about eco-efficiency. It's now cost-effective to boost
resource efficiency by at least a factor of four -- and possibly by a
factor of 20. And given the need for billions of people to grow their
way out of dire poverty, we have to pursue these gains.

But it's also about asking the question, what is an economy is really
for? Not only can the global economy not keep growing forever, growth
isn't even working for many of us in wealthy nations anymore: U.S.
per-capita income has tripled since 1950, for instance, but the share
of Americans who say they're very happy has dropped over the last 30
years. Studies in hedonic psychology reveal that higher incomes only
improve life satisfaction up to a point. The research also says that
the more materialistic people are, the lower levels of happiness they
report. And it says that there appears to be a correlation between
rising consumption and the erosion of the things that do make people
happy, especially social relationships, family life, and a sense of

In response, a lot of people are rejecting the competition and get-
ahead mentality of consumerism. They're downshifting and pursuing
voluntary simplicity all over the globe, and they're taking collective
action via campaigns for healthy eating, work leave for new parents,
and shortened workweeks. The governments of Australia, Canada, and the
United Kingdom have made wellbeing a national policy goal, and there
is a lot of interest in indicators that measure wellbeing more
directly than GNP.

3) Make prices tell the ecological truth. Cheating a bit here -- this
isn't really a conceptual reform. Every economist knows that markets
fail when prices don't reflect actual costs. The reform would be
actually applying this rule to the ecosystem. For instance, climate
change is arguably the result of failing to charge for dumping carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere. Another example is human-caused species
extinction. We're basically dismantling our life-support machinery,
and by and large until recently nobody paid for it. Fortunately,
governments and business are beginning to experiment with carbon
markets, water pricing mechanisms, and conservation banking. Carbon
market trading was worth $59 billion in 2007, and there are now
several hundred wetlands and species banks in the United States alone.

4) Account for nature's services.This is closely related to #3. In the
United States, the pollination performed by honeybees is worth about
$19 billion per year. There's also air and water purification, soil
generation, pest control, seed dispersal, and nutrient recycling,
among the many other services that nature provides. Tearing up
ecosystems undermines these services, so some countries have begun
trying to value them properly. Costa Rica, for example, pays
landowners to preserve forests and their biodiversity, with the money
coming from fuel taxes and sale of environmental credits to
businesses. Mexico and Victoria, Australia, have also set up systems
to assign values to formerly free services.

5) The precautionary principle. This is just the age-old wisdom of
"first, do no harm" and "look before you leap," but applied to public
policy toward new products (like chemicals) and technologies that
could pose serious risk. Ordinary risk analysis asks, "How much
environmental damage will be allowed?" But the precautionary principle
asks, "How little damage is possible?" Today we're seeing the
principle adopted more and more widely. The Maastricht Treaty that
created the European Union in 1991 puts the principle at the center of
its environmental policy, and San Francisco made precaution official
policy in 2003.

6) Commons management. People generally believe that there are only
two workable regimes for managing resources: private property or
government control. But commons management regimes are a third way,
one that taps the strong human impulse toward cooperation and the
common good. Commons management has proven itself over centuries of
experience -- there are collectively managed irrigation systems in
Spain that were begun in the 15th century, for instance, and other
commonly managed forests and pastures in Switzerland, Japan, the
Philippines, and Indonesia that are centuries old. Commons management
lives and thrives today in such things as Wikipedia, community
gardens, and farmers markets everywhere. The writer and entrepreneur
Peter Barnes has suggested that the atmosphere, which everyone ought
to own, could be successfully managed and protected via a commons
regime. Ocean fisheries might be as well.

7) Value women. Economic systems ought to be gender-blind but they're
not. A UN report in the 1990s noted that "most poor people are women,
and most women are poor." All over the world, women earn less than men
for equivalent work, they lack access to land and credit, and they do
more than their share of child- and elder care, volunteer work, and
other unpaid labor. There is evidence that this gender bias actually
suppresses economic activity. In response, a few governments in
industrial countries are trying to develop policies that take unpaid
work into account. Muhammad Yunus's Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is
using the terms of its loans to help to ensure that wives are legally
entitled to their share of a couple's assets. And the microfinance
movement appears to have given millions of women a valuable economic

These seven ideas are hardly the only changes brewing in economics,
but the innovations described in State of the World 2008 can generally
be traced to one or more of them. Hopefully, they are on the way to
transforming economics from "the dismal science" into more of a
delightful one -- or, to paraphrase E.F. Schumacher, into an economics
as if people and the planet mattered.

Tom Prugh is editor of the Worldwatch Institute's bimonthly magazine,
World Watch, and co-director, with Gary Gardner, of State of the World

Return to Table of Contents


From: New York Times, Feb. 16, 2008
[Printer-friendly version]


Mercury in Fish: Two Views

The [New York Times] Public Editor's Journal

By Clark Hoyt

Philippe Grandjean is adjunct professor of environmental health at
Harvard University's School of Public Health and chairman of the
department of environmental medicine at the University of Southern
Denmark. Dariush Mozaffarian is assistant professor of epidemiology at
the Harvard School of Public Health.

Both agree that fish -- the right kind in the right amounts -- is good
for you. Both agree that mercury is harmful to the neurological
development of unborn and young children, and both support the
government's 2004 recommendation that pregnant women, women who might
get pregnant, nursing mothers and young children limit their
consumption of fish and avoid certain types known to be high in

But they come at the issue with a strikingly different emphasis.

Each was quoted in a January 23 New York Times article about mercury
in tuna sushi, and I thought it would be useful to readers to hear
what they have to say at greater length.

What follows is a link to an interview Mozaffarian gave to Time.com
on the day after the Times article and answers that Grandjean sent to
questions I asked after reading Mozaffarian's interview with Time and
talking with him.

Q and A with Philippe Grandjean:

Q: You told The Times that, "The current advice from the F.D.A. is
insufficient." Would you elaborate? In what way is it insufficient?

What advice do you believe the government should give consumers
regarding tuna and/or the consumption of fish in general?

A: I support the recommendation to eat fish for dinner once or twice
per week for the sake of important nutrients. However, I would advise
against eating seafood high in mercury due to the risk of toxicity. At
best, the mercury may cancel out the benefits from fish. If you eat
fish high in mercury and low in n-3 fatty acids -- such as bluefin
tuna -- then the balance has tilted, because bluefin tuna has a very
high mercury concentration and only little n-3.

International and national agencies have examined the mercury
literature and reached the conclusion that mercury in seafood
represents a risk, especially to pregnant women and children. They
have therefore recommended to keep mercury intakes at safe levels,
i.e. below the US EPA's reference dose or some other value like that.

Although recent research has shown that these limits may be too high
and do not provide the protection originally stated, I would support
the EPA limit as appropriate and well documented. The trouble is that
it can be difficult to respect this limit while also eating fish
dinners and trying to get enough n-3 (without taking fish oil caps).
As a rough calculation, if you want to respect the EPA mercury limit
and still want to eat 400-500 grams of fish per week, then the mercury
concentration in the fish should average no more than 0.1 ppm.

The FDA has many years ago fixed a limit for mercury in fish at 0.5
ppm. This limit was essentially based on what was achievable, and for
large (predator) fish, a limit of 1 ppm was decided, simply to avoid
having to reject too much fish from the market. The limit is not based
on health risks. The problem is that eating fish for dinner at high
but legal levels can exceed the EPA limit.

The two agencies have worked out a compromise recommendation of limits
to how much fish one can eat of one kind or another. This advice is
complicated for the average consumer, and the EPA limit will easily be
exceeded anyway. My advice is simple: Eat smaller fish (sardines!)
that are low in the food chain (avoid those that eat other fish) and
have been caught in unpolluted waters (respect the state fishing

I would have preferred if the FDA would tell the consumers which fish
contain very little mercury and can be eaten for dinner twice per week
or even more. Salmon is such a fish that contains very little mercury
and has a high content of n-3, and it is superb for sushi in my
opinion. I would emphasize the positive aspects and point to the kinds
of fish that are safe.

Q: Your Harvard colleague, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, told Time magazine
that the E.P.A.'s acceptable limit for mercury includes a 10-fold
safety factor, so that, for example, if six pieces of tuna sushi a
week put you at the limit, you would have to eat 60 a week to get to a
level where the E.P.A. determined that risk was occurring. Do you
agree with that characterization? If not, how would you characterize
the limit?

A: This is a misunderstanding. The EPA reference dose (as approved by
experts of the National Academy of Sciences) was arrived at by first
calculating a so called benchmark dose that statistically is
associated with a small, but detectable adverse effect. Dr.
Mozaffarian is assuming that the benchmark dose is "safe," but is not.
Research has clearly showed adverse effects below this level.
According to EPA's procedures, this benchmark dose is then divided by
10 to arrive at a limit that can be considered safe. This factor of 10
is also meant to take into account differences in sensitivity (because
the statistical calculation of the benchmark dose assumes that all
people are equally sensitive, which they are not). WHO used a similar
procedure but reached a limit that is twice as high. More recent
research suggests that both limits are too optimistic and that mercury
is more toxic that previously thought. The WHO limit is for weekly
intakes, which I think is better than having a limit for daily intake,
since the critical factor is the long-term exposure.

Q: Dr. Mozaffarian said that the dangers of not eating fish, including
tuna, outweigh what he called "the small possible dangers from
mercury." What would you say?

A: I agree that there are nutritional advantages of eating fish, but
tuna is not a good source of essential nutrients such as n-3 fatty
acids. The mercury content can easily outweigh the advantages. I would
not call the dangers from mercury small. Mercury is toxic to brain
development and is therefore a danger to pregnant women and children.
In non-pregnant adults, mercury very likely contributes to the
development of heart disease.

Q: Is it correct that the existing government limits were determined
with women of child-bearing age, pregnant women, nursing women and
young children in mind? Does that mean that others are at less and
perhaps little or no risk when mercury levels are higher than the
government standard?

A: Yes, the existing limits were developed to protect the most
sensitive populations you mention. In addition, we are all at risk of
developing heart disease, and current evidence suggests that it would
be wise to limit our mercury intake at a similar level.

Q: You told The Times that it is "very unwise to wait until we have
complete scientific truth" and that the "prudent judgment is to
protect human health." For a lay audience, how would you characterize
the state of science with regard to the health effects of mercury at
levels such as those found in the samples of tuna tested for The

A: In science, we like to have our hypotheses verified by repeated
studies and replications, before we can say that we have the proof. In
regard to a public health hazard, we rarely have the luxury of time.
It would be unethical for us to allow an almost certain toxic hazard,
while we study how it impacts on brain development in children or
causes heart disease in adults. We therefore have to strike a balance,
where we protect public health but don't overreact to the smallest
warning signals. In the EU, this is called the "precautionary
principle." In regard to mercury, decades of research have documented
adverse effects even at very low exposures. This is now widely
accepted, and the UN Environment Program obtained consensus between
140 countries that mercury pollution is an international problem that
must be combatted. In regard to the mercury in tuna tested by the NYT,
I would say that there is little hazard if you do this once or on a
very rare occasion. But if you include tuna sushi in your diet on a
regular basis, say once a week, then we have ample scientific support
to say that can result in adverse effects. Tuna is low in n-3 fatty
acids, so there is no nutritional advantage, thus emphasizing the
toxic risk.

Q: I am struck by the apparent differences in how two highly respected
medical researchers see this issue, and I think it presents an
interesting challenge for a general circulation newspaper like The
Times. The broad question is what should a newspaper say to properly
inform its readers so they can make intelligent decisions?

A: I think the contrast appears because Dr. Mozaffarian and other
respected colleagues speak from a nutrition standpoint. I certainly
agree that fish can be a healthy component of a balanced diet. Just
like water or vegetables. But that does not mean that we should favor
contaminated water or vegetables, or fish for that matter. I think the
misunderstanding comes from the failure to recognize that fish and
seafood constitute a highly varied food source. Some types are high in
nutrients while low in mercury, and they should be favored. FDA and
the nutritionists should help us making the wise choice instead of
trying to explain away a toxic pollutant. In plain terms, switch to
salmon sushi and serve sardines as hors d'oeuvre.

Return to Table of Contents


From: The Networker, Feb. 1, 2008
[Printer-friendly version]


By Katie Silberman

The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle, the first
major gathering of American advocates to define the principle and
dream of its possibilities, was held in January 1998. In the ten years
since, we wonder, what ripples have flowed outward from that pebble in
that pond? How has Wingspread actually changed the direction of public
health and environmental decisionmaking in the face of uncertainty?
What happens in the next ten years, and the ten after that?

At Wingspread, participants drafted a statement defining the
precautionary principle that has since become standard fare:

"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."

Sounds good on paper. But what has this meant to real communities in
10 years? In Los Angeles, it meant replacing pesticides in school with
safer alternatives. In San Francisco, it meant looking at the $600
million the City spent every year on goods and services, and choosing
more sustainable options. In Atlanta, it meant demanding more health
and more justice for a community already burdened unfairly with
threats to their well-being.

In fact, over ten years of promoting the precautionary principle as a
helpful tool for creating healthier communities, one of the joys of
doing this work has been hearing the stories of communities all over
the country who have made the principle their own.

In 2008, the Networker will be devoted to looking back at the ten
years since Wingspread, as well as looking forward: to the next ten
years of "Wingspread Taking Flight." As such, in this issue you will
find reflections on Wingspread from SEHN Communications Director Nancy
Myers, who's been along for the ride for all ten years, as well as
SEHN Board Member Madeleine Kangsen Scammell, whose career has been
shaped by Wingspread's afterglow.

Do you have a story about how Wingspread has affected your work or
your life? We'd love to hear it at info@sehn.org. Onward and upward!

Return to Table of Contents


From: The Networker, Feb. 1, 2008
[Printer-friendly version]


By Nancy Myers

Just over ten years ago a friend roped me into what we both thought
was a short-term freelance writing assignment. Could I please help
with a conference she was planning? Grant proposals, a press release
after the conference, and maybe some follow-up fact sheets and

I was available but a little reluctant because I'd just left a job
that required me to do a lot of that kind of policy-and-persuasion
writing and I was ready to do something entirely different. But my
friend, Carolyn Raffensperger, is a very persuasive person. I asked
what the conference was about. She said it was about the precautionary

I don't remember what Carolyn told me about the precautionary
principle then but I remember thinking: This idea sounds simple and
obvious. What's the catch? I had just come from a policy arena of big,
intractable problems in which simple ideas competed with hugely
complicated approaches. The simple ideas galvanized public attention
but when it came down to making actual changes in policy, things
inevitably got complicated.

The intractable problem I'd been working on was the nuclear arms race,
attacking it from all angles including the simple idea of a nuclear
freeze and the complicated warhead counts of the second Strategic Arms
Limitation Treaty. The SALT II negotiations took so long they were
obsolete by the time an agreement was reached and the US Senate never
ratified the treaty. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of
hopeful Americans rallied for a few years around the simple idea of
"the freeze"--never making any more nukes. But the decision makers
were never persuaded.

Instead, actual disarmament began in a way no one could have
predicted, with the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire--Mikhail
Gorbachev and all that followed, with Ronald Reagan playing a
surprising part. When that happened, the "nuclear freeze" movement
fizzled because that simple idea, too, had become obsolete. It was too
narrow to meet the new possibilities.

We need the persuasive power of ideas but they must also work in the
nitty-gritty grind of policy and the unpredictable shifts of history.
And this was the possibility I saw unfolding in the January 1998
Wingspread conference on the precautionary principle. Soon after the
conference I joined the staff of the Science and Environmental Health
Network and kept writing about the precautionary principle, including
Precautionary Tools for Environmental Policy (Myers and Raffensperger,
MIT Press, 2006).

The simple idea of protecting people and the environment despite
scientific uncertainty was really the gateway for a whole complex of
ideas that could set a new track for environmental policy in this
country and in the world. The Wingspread conference laid down the
first and still most important lines of that policy track: heeding
early warnings, shifting the burden of proof, examining and choosing
better alternatives, and making decisions democratically when they
affect people and the environment.

At the same time, the idea of precaution made sense on an intuitive
level--look before you leap, better safe than sorry. Just apply these
maxims to our policies on environmental health. It seemed to be the
kind of simple, big idea that might generate a movement.

What actually happened was both more complicated and interesting than
either of those two possibilities alone--the policy implementation or
the popular movement--or even the combination of policy and persuasion
that evolved after Wingspread. Here are some things I and others have
discovered about the precautionary principle over the last decade:

The precautionary principle changes the way we think. Most big
problems start in the human mind. As Albert Einstein famously said
about nuclear weapons, "The unleashed power of the atom has changed
everything save our way of thinking and thus we drift toward
unparalleled catastrophe." Einstein made that statement in a telegram
he sent in 1947 to raise money to launch the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, the magazine where I was working 50 years later. That is
great policy-persuasion writing!

The precautionary principle has shifted our way of thinking so that we
at least know what we must do to stop the drift toward environmental
catastrophe. We start by not waiting for reductionist science to give
us all the answers. We start by acting on what we see, know, and can
intelligently guess about the consequences of our actions.

The precautionary principle has layers. The more we looked into this
simple idea, the more implications we saw. The implications introduced
at that Wingspread conference radiated out into others: In order to do
these things we should set goals. We have to learn how to handle
scientific uncertainty both in the law and science and in making
decisions. We need to prevent harm upstream through inherently safe
and sustainable technologies and approaches.

The precautionary approach begins to open our minds to the endless
possibility of things we can and must do, in a way that shows that all
these actions are related. On top of that, the precautionary set of
ideas works on every level, from daily life to business and
agriculture, from city council planning decisions to international

The precautionary principle has spiritual power. This has been the
most surprising and engaging discovery, and it is the real reason I am
still writing about the precautionary principle a decade after taking
on this temporary assignment.

First, some of us noticed that the precautionary principle made a
statement about values, giving priority and the benefit of the doubt
to the health of people and the planet. Health ahead of free
enterprise? What a subversive idea! What kind of economy, then, would
support this set of values? How can we shore up these values in our
legal system, our way of practicing medicine, our food systems? And on
and on... These values have endless, exciting implications that bring
heart as well as mind to the way we shape our social systems.

And then we combined these ideas with what our Native American allies
in the precaution movement were saying, that the precautionary
principle was really the Seventh Generation principle laid down by the
founder of the Iroquois Confederacy 500 years ago: Make your decisions
with the wellbeing of the seventh future generation in mind.

If you do not think people care about future generations, watch the
movie Children of Men (or read the book). It's about a world in which
people have stopped having babies. From the opening scenes you
understand what that means. Even individuals lose their will to live
and live well when there is no future for the species.

Translating our instinctive stake in the future of humanity into law,
policy, and practice is no simple matter. But the idea that we can and
must do that, raising our sights to the long term and drawing on our
love for our children's children's children, taps into our deepest
capacities. It is a spiritual commitment that engages art and dreams
as much as science and the law. It opens a new gateway of ideas and

In the next Networker we'll report new developments in SEHN's work
with the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Harvard International
Human Rights Clinic, and others on law and guardianship for future

Meanwhile, times have changed since 1998. The precautionary principle
has fueled a movement, but it is not a movement of big mass marches
and the precautionary principle is not this movement's single rallying
cry. Events like Katrina and the Iraq war have also fueled this
movement. It is a movement for complex, multifaceted, revolutionary
change in the way we do business, produce and consume food, earn our
livings, and treat our neighbors, both human and nonhuman, both
present and future. It is a movement to learn our place on the web of
life and act accordingly.

It is not easy to explain what this movement is, but each of us is
learning what we must do. The precautionary principle has helped us
know what to do. It will continue to do so. It's one of the truly big

Return to Table of Contents


From: The Networker, Feb. 1, 2008
[Printer-friendly version]


By Madeleine Kangsen Scammell

My father, who had the IQ to make such claims, once told me that
genius is found in the obvious. This made me feel better when a family
friend said, as I explained the findings of my dissertation research,
"Well, that seems kind of obvious, don't you think?" She caught me off
guard. Obvious findings are not exactly the stuff scientific
credentials are made of, but she was right. My findings made sense.
They highlighted issues that a layperson might consider "obvious" but
are rarely discussed among environmental health scientists. In fact,
by virtue of their absence in scholarly texts, one might believe them
to be unimportant.

We sometimes mistake obvious for simple, and therefore unworthy of
rigorous consideration by great minds, kind of like the precautionary
principle. I actually think it will take many great minds to realize
this particular, perhaps obvious, big idea.

Personally, it is hard but not impossible to imagine life without the
precautionary principle. I was in my early twenties when I began
working at the Loka Institute where I met Carolyn Raffensperger, who
would become our board chair, and Joel Tickner, who was a doctoral
student at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. When they began
planning the Wingspread conference in 1997, I knew something big was
happening but I had no idea Wingspread participants would write a
chapter of my own history.

As a college undergraduate I was attracted by Loka's mission to
"democratize science and technology" because I understood lay access
to scientific expertise and resources was unequal among communities in
the US. From my own experience I understood that research agendas were
driven by people with specialized knowledge and decision-making power.
Democratizing science and technology was as important to me as making
education and healthcare accessible to all.

What I did not appreciate at the time of the Wingspread conference was
that decisions affecting environmental health policies and standards
are not as deeply rooted in science as I would have liked to believe.
And that in the face of inconclusive science, pressing economic and
political considerations often outweigh concerns regarding
environmental health outcomes. Since I had no reason to believe
otherwise, I watched Wingspread unfold not as an active participant,
but as a naive supporter.

After five years at the Loka Institute I decided to move on, with no
plans for exactly where. It was a strange series of events that landed
me in the office of David Ozonoff at the Boston University School of
Public Health. Someone suggested I talk with him about the graduate
program in environmental health, and I recognized his name among the
Wingspread participants. Probably with no effort on his part, Dr.
Ozonoff convinced me to apply to the doctoral program.

In 2001, a few months into my career as a graduate student, I joined
Dave and Prof. Dick Clapp at the International Summit on Science and
the Precautionary Principle at the University of Massachusetts,
Lowell. Studying environmental health, I began to understand what had
attracted Carolyn and Joel to the precautionary principle in the first
place. The textbook that was used in my environmental health course,
for example, did not mention the precautionary principle nor did it
discuss the need for creative decision-making in the face of
scientific uncertainty. I began, finally, to understand the need for
the movement toward precautionary decisions. At the Lowell conference
were many familiar faces, including Carolyn's and Joel's, as well as
new faces and names that would become familiar over the coming years.
The more I began to participate in discussions about precaution, no
longer watching from the sidelines, the more I was challenged. The
precautionary principle is anything but simple.

My biggest challenge is making the precautionary principle more than a
sentiment, and realizing it in my work. The difference between now and
ten or even five years ago is that it isn't just a small group of
people grappling with this challenge. The precautionary principle is a
topic at the meetings of professional societies, including the
International Society for Environmental Epidemiology. At the same time
communities around the country are putting the principle to practice.

Now, as a teacher of environmental health, I use a new textbook,
written by my own colleague in the Environmental Health department,
Nancy Maxwell. A section is devoted to the precautionary principle and
democratic science. Now when students learn about chemicals policies
and evidence-based standards, they have a name for what has been
missing and examples of what it looks like. They get it, too.
Precaution isn't simple, but it is valued. It is the work of the next
ten years to transform teaching precaution from mention in the text to
the foundation of our thinking.

Return to Table of Contents


From: The Press and Journal (Aberdeen, Scotland), Feb. 20, 2008
[Printer-friendly version]


An influential Holyrood committee is urging a precautionary approach
towards possible health hazards caused by long-term exposure to high-
voltage electricity lines.

The long-term dangers of exposure to electromagnetic fields generated
by overhead power lines was compared to passive smoking.

Richard Simpson, Labour MSP [Member of the Scottish Parliament] for
Mid Scotland and Fife, said when he and SNP [Scottish National Party]
MSP Kenny Gibson moved a member's bill to ban smoking in 2001, the
evidence about the dangers of passive smoking was not at all great.
But that changed and the Scottish Parliament banned smoking in
enclosed public places.

Mr Simpson told the public petitions committee that a Commons cross-
party inquiry into childhood leukaemia has found that children living
within 200 metres of overhead power lines had an increased risk of
getting the disease.

Recently there has been anecdotal evidence of a link to Alzheimer's,
he said.

Mr Simpson conceded that the numbers were small and the condition
rare, but added: "The fact that the evidence has amalgamated over the
last three or four years has certainly shifted my view to see there is
sufficient evidence now to say we should probably apply the
precautionary principle in order to save lives."

Mr Simpson made his claim in support of an ongoing petition from
Stirling Before Pylons, urging the Scottish Government to introduce
planning regulations to safeguard public health.

The committee heard that the government should take into account the
very latest scientific evidence when it considers the reporter's
recommendation on the public inquiry into whether the Beauly-Denny
power line should be upgraded.

It was claimed 14,000 people signed a petition against the upgrade of
the line on health grounds alone.

Return to Table of Contents


From: Transnational Institute, Feb. 18, 2008
[Printer-friendly version]


The contentious issue of land acquisition for industry cannot be
resolved justly without a "precautionary principle" approach that
respects livelihood rights.

By Praful Bidwai

GOING by the number and intensity of protests against displacement
under way in numerous States, land acquisition for industrial, mining
and infrastructure projects has become India's single most contentious
issue. Land is now the main site of struggle as popular movements
confront predatory capital, which can only accumulate through

At stake are thousands of square kilometres of land on which at least
a few million livelihoods depend. For instance, the Special Economic
Zones (SEZs) which have received formal or "in-principle" approval
will alone need over 2,000 square kilometre. If the even larger
swathes typically involved in mining leases, plots earmarked for
industry, and areas claimed by highway development, and above all, by
suburban housing -- now witnessing an unprecedented boom -- are added,
the acreage would be huge.

Uprooting or displacing (usually vulnerable) people is nothing new in
India. Thirty-five to 40 million -- half the population of Germany,
France or Britain -- people suffered that cruel fate during the first
50 years of Independence under "development" schemes, including large
dams, and mining, metallurgical, chemical and power projects. The bulk
of the uprooted were rural people, a large number of them being

What is new about displacement today is its increasingly urban
location, growing absence of resettlement sites and alternative
livelihoods, the changed role of the state -- which acts as a gendarme
on behalf of private business -- and the furious pace of construction.
Take SEZs for which a special Act was passed in 2005. As many as 195
SEZs have been approved and notified by the Commerce Ministry,
covering 22,800 hectares (ha). It is well-established that the
scrutiny process is arbitrary, even cavalier.

A detailed analysis of 154 SEZs (Seminar, January) shows that the
promoters do not furnish the requisite numbers for direct and indirect
jobs, and for investment. Direct employment figures are provided in
just 110 applications, indirect employment figures in 82 and
investment figures in 109 of the 154 applications.

The 154 SEZs are located in only 53 of India's 600 districts. These
have a relatively high level of literacy and industrialisation. Just
20, mostly urban, districts -- including the metropolises and major
cities such as Pune, Ahmedabad, Coimbatore, Indore, Nagpur and
Visakhapatnam -- account for 71 per cent of all SEZs and an even
higher 82 per cent of their land area.

This at once multiplies the displacement quotient. Many Indian cities
have population densities that are 20 to 40 times higher than the
national average (330). For instance, Mumbai has about 22,000 people
per sq km. Delhi and Bangalore about half that. Even smaller cities
such as Patna and Visakhapatnam have very high population densities -
13,700 and 8,800. The urban plan areas of Indore, no aspiring
metropolis, tops with a density of 1,02,800.

The fact that two-thirds of all SEZs are in information
technology/information technology-enabled services further magnifies
the multiplier effect. Such enterprises, almost invariably abut well-
developed urban centres, and are hard to distinguish from, and easily
assimilated/converted to, high-value real estate.

Thus, a large proportion of SEZs might just be plain land scams, with
many more billions involved in property values than in investment in
plant and machinery, which is minimal in IT.

Even on the conservative assumption that the already notified SEZ
areas have a population density of 5,000 (when 10,000 seems a more
reasonable estimate), the number of people liable to be displaced by
them works out to 1.14 million. This is a frightening figure,
considering that the process of displacement was compressed into just
over a year.

More important, this is more than 18 times higher than the number of
people officially claimed to have been directly employed in the
notified zones: 61,015. Even going by the Commerce Ministry's estimate
that 14 persons get indirect employment when 10 new direct jobs are
created, the total employment gain (1,45,335) from the SEZs would be
just about one-eighth of the loss represented by displacement. This is
an obnoxiously, repugnantly, unequal bargain.

However, in the present climate, unequal bargains which destroy
livelihoods have become the norm. There is even talk of Special
Education Zones, presumably modelled after the Vedanta University
project promoted by Anil Agarwal's United Kingdom-based group, now
under way in Orissa.

This campus is being built close to the Konarak-Puri Marine Drive,
less than 60 km from Bhubaneswar on 6,270 acres of land. It will be
connected "by a dedicated railway station and an expressway directly
to the new Bhubaneswar International Airport", which almost seems
designed to enhance its real estate value. To comprehend what 6,270
acres means, just recall that the Indian Institute of Technology
(IIT), Mumbai campus, considered big, even lavish, is 550 acres in

The destructive potential of such land-based and -intensive
"development" will not remain confined to the wiping out of the poor
or middle peasant whose land is acquired, usually compulsorily under
the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. It will unfold fully as property
values get grossly inflated in and around city after Indian city to a
point when even the salaried middle and upper-middle class finds it
impossible to buy modest housing with its savings.

A particularly obnoxious emerging phenomenon is the occurrence of
irrational SEZs along with other extravagant infrastructure projects.
A case in point is Nagpur's Rs.2,581-crore project called Mihan
(Maharashtra Multi-Modal International Hub Airport at Nagpur), being
promoted by the State-sponsored Maharashtra Airport Development
Company (MADC). Mihan was explicitly floated to "firmly put India on
the fast track to economic superstardom", no less.

Under Mihan, the MADC will acquire a total of 4,354 ha, of which 1,278
ha will be earmarked for the airport, and 2,086 for an SEZ, termed
"the free trade paradise". This includes 500 ha for IT parks, 955 ha
for manufacturing units, 60 ha for a "health city", and 200 ha for a
rail-cum-road terminal.

This new city will have numerous residential complexes, hotels,
entertainment facilities, its own power plant, water supply, sewerage,
and even a posh "international" school. The idea is to create an
entirely new entity, Mihanpur, which with its "twin" Nagpur, will
become "India's fastest growing cosmopolitan city". Resistance in

Last fortnight, I visited Shivangaon, one of the 13 villages affected
by Mihan, which falls within Nagpur's municipal limits. Shivangaon's
people have been protesting peacefully against forcible land
acquisition at rates that are only 100th of the market value. On each
day of the past eight months, 20 to 50 people have conducted a relay
dawn-to-dusk hunger-strike.

Sadly, that has had no effect on the Maharashtra government. Nor has
their recent novel protest under which all the male adults and then
the boys shaved their heads. Later, 90 women got tonsured --
signifying widowhood in a traditional Hindu family.

Shivangaon is in Nagpur's prosperous orange belt. Most of its land is
irrigated. It cultivates vegetables for the urban market and also
supplies it 30,000 litres of milk. Shivangaon's literacy exceeds 95
per cent. Its inhabitants include many educated professionals.

"We have been repeatedly forced to surrender our land at throwaway
prices -- for the original Nagpur airport in 1937, for the Improvement
Trust, for a dairy project, and in the 1990s for the 'Gajraj' project
of the Air Force," Baba Daware, an organiser of the protest, told this
writer. "The 270 ha Gajraj land was never used. But the government
won't give it back. It's selling it to private developers and
profiteering on our backs."

Mihan is yet to receive environmental clearance, but land acquisition,
and construction driven by lucrative contracts, have already begun. A
22,000 square-metre Central Facility Building is awaiting completion
by July. So are internal roads.

Mihan will eliminate whole villages and render people landless -
without rehabilitation. In a reply under a Right to Information Act
application, the authorities have clarified that there is "no
notification" for rehabilitation.

The people are willing to sell land, but at market value, so they can
find alternative plots not too far away. The market rate is Rs.2 to 4
crore an acre. This is confirmed by a sale deed of April 30 last,
which shows that a High Court judge and his brothers sold land for a
staggering Rs.2.55 crore an acre. The MADC is offering a pathetic Rs.1
to 2 lakh.

What makes Mihan especially egregious is the spectacular irrationality
of the "hub" airport. This derives from the "hub-and-spokes" civil
aviation model, which has no takers in India. Nagpur airport is puny.

Nagpur records just 2 per cent of India's aircraft movements and only
65,301 domestic passengers a month. By contrast, Mumbai handles 1.65
million, 27 times more. Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore do 8 to 12
times more. Nagpur has half as much traffic as Guwahati, Goa or
Jaipur. It makes no sense to increase its monthly passenger capacity
from 65,301 to 1.2 million under Mihan.

There are three general lessons in all this. First, the colonial LAA
must go. Its "public interest" Section has been extensively abused to
promote corporate interests. Second, the bureaucracy cannot be trusted
to determine the right price of land, based on market value and likely
appreciation, and related to the true costs of rehabilitation.

We need independent commissions. Finally, we must respect the
"precautionary principle" and not resort to land acquisition unless it
can be demonstrated to increase welfare. We must invest real content
in the right to life.

Return to Table of Contents


  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

  To start your own free Email subscription to Rachel's Precaution
  Reporter send any Email to one of these addresses:

  Full HTML edition: rpr-subscribe@pplist.net
  Table of Contents (TOC) edition: rpr-toc-subscribe@pplist.net

  In response, you will receive an Email asking you to confirm that
  you want to subscribe.

  To unsubscribe, send any email to rpr-unsubscribe@pplist.net
  or to rpr-toc-unsubscribe@pplist.net, as appropriate.

Environmental Research Foundation
P.O. Box 160, New Brunswick, N.J. 08903