Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

Beyond trade-offs: making environmental choices

Carolyn Raffensperger

By Carolyn Raffensperger

Many smart people grappling with environmental problems propose single solutions and argue that the trade-off of not using their favored (usually high-tech) solution is disaster. Case in point: Stewart Brand, a renowned environmentalist, has argued hard for nuclear power to staunch the flow of greenhouse gas emissions and prevent climate destabilization.  Brand also claims that the only way to feed the soon-to-be nine billion people in the world is to use genetically modified seeds in agriculture. Many other smart environmentalists who have previously opposed nuclear power or GMOs are doing a similar about face and saying we are left with no choice in these matters if we want to save any remnant of the environment. The form of argument, the trade-off, is not unique to environmentalists who change their mind, it is used by industry about the necessity of their environmentally damaging activity, facility or chemical. Of course we have to use DDT (a toxic chemical) or we’ll have malaria. Of course we have to have brominated flame retardants or we’ll have more home fires that kill people.

The trade-off argument is framed as an either/or. We either use nuclear power or we have global warming. We either use genetic engineering or we have starving babies. We either use this brominated flame retardant or people will burn up in bed. What happens when people are faced with these stark choices is that they are forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Of course we don’t want sick and starving babies or an overheated planet or more people on the burn ward of the local hospital.

This is a specious form of argument and actually gets us into trouble. Either/ors are intellectual leg-hold traps set by well-meaning people. Instead of choosing between two evils, what if we chose from an array of alternatives and selected the one that did the least harm AND the most good? Enter the precautionary principle.

The Wingspread Statement on the precautionary principle established that “[t]he process of applying the Precautionary Principle…must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”

Participants in the Wingspread conference included this in the Statement because we had a long experience with evaluating alternatives in one of the keystone environmental laws in this country, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The search for solutions to an environmental problem is far more likely to generate good ideas if we look at an array of alternatives for meeting our goals.

San Francisco, the first major jurisdiction to adopt and implement the precautionary principle used the search for the best alternative as the driving decision-making strategy to prevent harm. They say this: “It’s a good idea to avoid using potentially harmful products if safer alternatives are available. And it isn’t right that everyday citizens bear the risk of harm from products or practices that might be hazardous. That’s why the city has adopted a Precautionary Principle Ordinance that doesn’t merely ask if a product is safe; it also asks if the product is necessary in the first place. The precautionary approach seeks to minimize harm by using the best available science to identify safer, cost-effective alternatives.”

We are actually getting some practice in evaluating alternatives with climate change and energy policies. Most people who follow the debate are familiar with an array of energy producing alternatives. Nuclear, clean coal, solar, wind, conservation have all been proposed as possibilities. Some stand out as having serious side effects—especially nuclear and coal. They both require iniquitous mining and both have hideous waste problems. We know how to compare various alternatives using life cycle analysis, health impact assessments and other tools. When we begin to compare these alternatives using these tools, we will be able to minimize harm.