The Precautionary Principle

We are at a crossroads in our country and on our planet. We must all become better stewards with the environment and address these issues today and in the future. The business side of energy retrieval and production along side the development of mass-produced products made out of or enhanced by petro-chemicals have placed our planet in a precarious position. For the longest time, these industries have been able to delay addressing issues citing the data is not conclusive or shows causality. Proof or true causality oftentimes takes thirty years or more. In the interim, the data can show a high correlation that an activity is leading to a problem. For those who did not take statistics, correlation means things rise and fall together.

In the US, we place the burden of proof on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and like agencies who govern other areas of commerce. Other countries have a variation of the EPA.  In some countries that burden resides with the developer to show that something is not toxic or harmful to others. Several scientists and concerned citizens got together at Wingspread in Canada to discuss these issues. One of the tenets of that meeting can be summed up by a statement made by Bradford Hill, a medical statistician and inventor of the randomized clinical trial, back in 1965:

“All scientific work is incomplete – whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have or postpone the action that it appears to demand at a given time.”

In short, we should not wait to do something later if the evidence is telling us something is amiss now. With toxic chemicals, for example, if you wait to fully prove something is bad, the damage is already done. Especially when you are dealing with children who are still developing and breathe in more than adults.

The group at Wingspread developed the following Precautionary Principle

“When an activity raises threat 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. In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

“The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action,” noted Dr. Sandra Steingraber in her book “Living Downstream – An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.” In this book and her second book called “Raising Elijah” she notes industry has tended to stiff arm science to continue to conduct practices that are harmful to the environment and people. The democratic process she references is hard to conduct, when so much money is at stake.

If I have not scared you enough, I am reading a book now called “Water – The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization” by Steven Solomon. If you like history, you will love this book. I have not finished it, so I don’t know the ultimate punch line. Yet, through history it has been shown that great civilizations have risen and fallen by their ability to manage the water and sewage supply. The data he has shown thus far is very compelling. Water is our dearest resource next to air. Without either, we cannot survive on this planet. If we do not protect what is happening to either we are destined to fail as country, planet and people.

I use fracking as a good case in point. The data is highly correlated that fracking leads to toxins in the water and air of the surrounding area. Yet, I believe and have said this in letters to the editor and to politicians, set that aside for now. Fracking takes a huge amount of water out of the water supply and it cannot go back as it is poisoned with the fracking chemicals. We can ill-afford to waste our water on this environmentally destroying  retrieval process. Water is very dear and the droughts and fights over water supply will continue to show this. The developers say the same things they have said for years on other issues – you cannot prove there is a causal relationship between fracking and the toxins. Yet, we can prove you are taking a lot of drinking, bathing and sewage water away from people. And, the data is very compelling on the toxins as well.

This brings us back to the Precautionary Principle. We should reverse the equation. OK, Mr. Developer, since you want to make a ton of money and pay off people to frack beneath their land, YOU prove that fracking is NOT toxic to people or environment before you dig one hole. You prove that this is the best use of our dear water supply. And, you keep testing after you start digging. I have known many developers in my day and the last thing they want to do is hold off on doing something. They want to make their money and leave the problems for someone else. If we reverse the equation, they will have to do more homework beforehand and throughout. That is a good thing.

The dilemma we face as a planet is there is a lot of money to be had in developing energy and chemical products from fossil fuels. As a result, the industry supports a lot of politicians with a lot of money and lobbying efforts. Yet, we must diminish our reliance on fossil fuels, we must understand the impact of petro-chemicals on our environment and people and we must put the burden of proof that an activity is not harmful on the purveyor of that activity beforehand and throughout. In the meantime, if anyone says we should do away with the EPA, for you, me and our children, tell them that is the dumbest idea you have ever heard and would be poor stewardship of our planet. Please help advocate the Precautionary Principle as well.



14 thoughts on “The Precautionary Principle

  1. Really, this is something that should be obvious. But it’s funny how conditioned we are to letting business take the offensive side and not the defense in these scrimmages over the environment. Excellent post.

  2. Well done! But as I read your well-reasoned blog two things occur to me (1) you are spitting into the wind (i know whereof I speak!) and (2) reason will not win the day. Money is all-powerful and those who have it refuse to see the problem. Common sense tells us to adopt the “precautionary principle” — I have blogged about erring on the side of caution. But common sense seems to play no role, either. But keep it up! I know I will.

  3. Isn’t it Jared Diamond who forecasts that the earth can support only a billion and a half people on an infinitely sustainable basis?

    • I cannot recall his name. But, a study was done in the UK that reached the conclusion if people consumed resources like they do in a poor African country, the planet could support 16 billion. Yet, if they consumed like people in North America, earth could only support 1.5 billion. With a population of around 8 billion with people wanting to be like us, that does not bode well.

  4. To Hugh Curtler: What do you mean your readership “is not impressive”?!! I do hope you are talking about quantity 🙂

    This is an admirable and for me informative column.I especially like this: “With toxic chemicals, for example, if you wait to fully prove something is bad, the damage is already done.”

    The PP should appeal to all serious and conscientious people as an absolutely essential tool for use in environmental protection.

    However I’m dubious about the wisdom of Steingraber ‘s assertion that

    “The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties.” Sounds good and eminently reasonable, of course. But isn’t environmental protection and the lack of same already a thoroughly democratic phenomenon? Isn’t it true that most people really don’t give a shit about nature? Most people don’t care, really, and so the environment everywhere continues to degrade. What could be more democratic than that? If this is right, and I think the evidence overwhelmingly supports my contention that it is, then democracy is part of the problem rather than the solution. When I earned an M.A. in environmental ethics a few years ago, the internationally famous professors I studied with were contemptuous of thinkers like Laura Westra (see her Living in Integrity: A Global Ethic to Restore a Fragmented Earth; her perspective has gained some support recently, see David J. C. Shearman, David J. C. Smith, and Wayne Joseph The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy) who argues that in fact democracy stands in the way of radical change. But I happened to notice that these philosophical eminences actually offered no good rebuttals to those of us who question the greatness of democracy.

    Is this disturbing? Hell yes. Democracy sounds like such a good idea. I want to believe in it. But if you ask me is it working, in many respects, including the challenge of anthropogenic environmental degradation, if I’m honest I have to answer most definitely not.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Very good points. Since many go through life uninformed, especially in the US, we are beholden to what people tell us. To me, they listen to someone who espouses an idea and then through early judgment, say this person is their evangelical leader of this set of issues. When confronted with data to the contrary, they still look to that leader for advice. Why do people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity get followers when more reasonable people tune them out. It also goes back to so many in the GOP who are voting against their economic interests and have no earthly idea they are doing so.

      If you read Steingraber’s books she will tell you how much she had to fight to be heard. That is why we need to be a beating drum behind people like this to say listen to what this woman is saying. Unfortunately, the democratic process is being bought and sold by business interests. If we do not watch ourselves, we may return to the Robber Baron days. Bill Maher said something dead on accurate Friday night. We need the Occupy movement not just to occupy, but organize around platforms and candidates and get out the vote. The Tea Party showed how it can be done.

      As an Independent voter, I am very disappointed with both parties, but especially the GOP. It is not a “normal” distribution of fabricating information. It is heavily weighted to the conservative side. Since people are ill-informed or don’t take the time to find out what the real data is since so much of it is biased, they don’t realize when politicians are telling them a lie. The fact the GOP is getting away with convincing people global warming is not happening or is not man-made is borderline criminal.

      So, I think democracy needs its boat rockers.

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