The Precautionary Principle – revisiting a relevant post from 2012

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.