The ‘environmental crisis’ has happened because the human household or economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature – Wendell Berry
We need new economic models for the 21st Century and future generations. We must combine enterprise with wisdom and common sense if humans are to survive on this planet.
True Cost Clearinghouse
Here you will find articles and reports documenting the economic, health, and social costs of pollution, worker exposures, and resource exploitation, as well as the underreported benefits of remediation and precautionary policies.
Both quantitative economic analyses and qualitative value analyses are included, but our emphasis is on cost of pollution rather than resource valuation.
See LINKS for more information on resource valuation and other helpful organizations and resources.
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The Owl Economy
The old bull-and-bear economy is bankrupting the planet. Maybe our icon should be the owl. What would an owl economy look like?
The owl economy would be green, fair, and diversified. It would emphasize the long-term bottom line—prosperity now that can be carried into the future. It would measure wealth by the wellbeing of communities as well as individuals. It would grow social and natural capital as well as material capital. It would be grounded in the biological reality of a generous but limited planet. It would protect, restore, and enrich the commons—air, water, soil, wildlife and lands, and the shared wealth of human knowledge, cooperation, and infrastructure. Its goals would be to create jobs and beauty.
The owl economy is beginning to show itself. . . .
By: Joshua Skov and Nancy Myers
Science and Environmental Health Network
The rapid expansion of operations to extract natural gas from coalbeds, currently planned in Southeast Montana and Northern Wyoming, is a risky venture. The risks involved in tapping this new energy source will fall on the public, not the energy companies who do the drilling.
The largest risk is depleting groundwater in this semi-arid region. Water wasted in the drilling could be worth up to $10.1 billion dollars in current market value.
No mechanisms currently in place will compensate for either the known public costs or the huge risks to the region’s society and economy.
Oil and gas companies will pull out gas over the next 15-20 years. In exchange, states will receive a temporary boost in tax revenues. But residents will lose rangeland, cropland and tourism based on the area’s pristine beauty. The region could be permanently scarred by an industrial operation that will bring tens of thousands of new methane wells into a section of Northern Wyoming and Southeastern Montana.
As much as 11 trillion gallons of water could be lost, enough to meet the household needs of all the current residents in both states of Wyoming and Montana for 150 years, if current expansion plans are carried out. Water is lost when it is pumped to the surface in order to release methane gas that is trapped underground. Up to 5,000 private groundwater wells could go dry and require deepening as the water table drops up to 600 feet in CBM extraction regions.
Coalbed methane expansion and subsequent dewatering of semi-arid Northern Wyoming and Southeast Montana, where ground water is central to farming and ranching communities, will greatly exacerbate water supply and growth problems. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Powder and Tongue River Basins, which already experience water supply problems, could see as much as a 36% population increase by the year 2025, significantly adding to water shortages.
Public subsidies, no accountability
People living in Wyoming and Montana have little recourse to stop this destruction because oil and gas companies from outside the regions, with no vested interest in the health of the region’s economy, people, or ecosystems, have been given almost complete control of most aspects of the mining process by the federal government. Energy companies operating in the Powder River Basin take advantage of a combination of large subsidies, tax incentives and exemptions from environmental laws and public review requirements. Over the next five years, federal tax breaks for these oil and gas companies operating in the Powder River Basin alone could range from $700 million to $1.7 billion.
As of May 2003, there were 11,238 wells in the Powder River Basin. Under the current plan, the number of CBM wells is projected to climb to 77,000 within the next ten years. If half of these wells become eligible for pending tax credits, the subsidy received by oil and gas drillers would exceed $300 million per year.
A fair shake for the people of Montana and Wyoming
Public subsidies to destructive activities constitute gross mismanagement of resources that are intended for the good of all. Is state and federal support for CBM a violation of the public trust?Easy Money, Hidden Costs describes avenues for assuring that the public good is served and that the total public welfare is enhanced rather than diminished.
The first section of the report outlines the requirements of sound economic analysis and introduces the tenets of the precautionary principle—assigning full value to human health and the environment, taking uncertainty into account and describing full costs and harms. Details of CBM expansion plans are presented, along with analysis of known and unknown costs, risks, and benefits.
Findings are summarized in tables presenting qualitative costs, risks, and benefits of CBM drilling over time. These tables demonstrate that benefits are weighted heavily to energy companies and occur in the short term, while costs and risks are distributed over a longer term and accrue to the public.
Toward a Sound Energy Policy
The second section describes two financial tools, damage agreements and assurance bonding, that might address some of the problems brought by the large and long-term risks of CBM drilling and the unfair distribution of these risks.
A certain number of damage agreements have been negotiated but these are limited in scope, and landowners often have little bargaining power.
Assurance bonding could provide a more comprehensive solution. Environmental assurance bonds would shift the burdens of risk and responsibility onto those who gain from the activities that carry the risk–an essential corollary of the precautionary principle.
Developing and applying this tool would require considerable courage and determination on the part of public officials dedicated to upholding their responsibilities as public trustees. Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal’s proposed coalbed methane contingency fund to compensate for unforeseen damages is a form of assurance bond. The proposed $50 million fund would have been too small to address the real needs, and it was quickly tabled in the face of industry opposition, but the idea was sound. Implementing it would require strong public support for officials willing to use such tools to protect the public trust.
The report concludes by placing coalbed methane in the larger context of national energy and water policies. Coalbed methane development poses a choice between natural gas and water, two resources of enormous practical and symbolic importance. The fossil fuel represents the U.S. economy’s previous foundations and the problems it has created, while water represents both our enduring basic needs and humanity’s emerging challenges.
Appendix A lists the major corporate, government, and NGO actors in coalbed methane development and assembles information that may be helpful in holding the CBM private sector accountable to the public good. In addition to the state departments of environmental quality and boards of oil and gas, the report acknowledges the governors’ responsibilities. Since most of the agencies involved in regulating various aspects of CBM development have assiduously avoided responsibility for the processes as a whole, constituents should call upon chief executives of the respective states to become involved.
“If you could ask Dante where he got the idea of life as a road, or Rilke where he found the notion that time is a destroyer, they might have said the metaphors were hewn from their minds, or drawn from a stock of poetic imagery. Their readers might have said the imagery had origins more divine, perhaps even diabolical. But neither poets nor readers would have said the metaphors were designed…Can metaphors be designed? I’m here to tell you that they can, and are.”
– Michael Erard, author and linguist
An El Niño was first explained to me using a bathtub; the Pacific Ocean basin’s water sloshing back and forth. My professors used a bathtub analogy to communicate climate equilibrium and the Earth’s energy budget.
The word doesn’t have much power in and of itself. It gains power by suggesting one thing belongs to another. An ocean is within our grasp – we can see through a hundred different eyes, from the point of view of a giant, an atom, the oldest tree. Locked up in a word are possibly game-changing ideas.
SEHN has been at the forefront of developing game-changing ideas, and finding words that express those ideas and challenge status quo concepts which are harmful. As Executive Director, Carolyn Raffensperger put it, “When I look for good policy ideas I want them to have a mythic power, a legal hook and an ecological coherence.”
Over the years, SEHN has initiated several policies based on the rights of future generations. One of those policies was that governments at any level could designate a legal guardian for future generations.
The bridge between the metaphor and public policy is the archetype. A word like Guardian carries in it a mythic figure and power, as well as a response contained in the word. The Precautionary Principle recognizes inherent scientific uncertainty and ways of acting in the face of uncertainty to prevent harm. It gains new traction when it can be told through Guardian language.
Other SEHN ideas like ecological medicine or the ecological framework carry truths, that we are what we breathe and drink, and what’s put on our skin; that we are part of a complex system.
These concepts frame more interesting questions: how does oil become more valuable than water? What is the true basis of a healthy system? How does an Owl economy compare to a Bull and Bear economy? In this way an idea can have the power to create new policies and rearrange the way we go about working and living together.
That is why ideas – and the words used to give ideas power – matter. The idea that government prioritizes the economy leads to principles like ‘oil is more valuable than water’. In Flint, MI the decision to switch water supplies was made by people who failed to ask the right questions, and then failed to heed early warnings. The costs of this mistake are huge. We at SEHN would argue that these decisions are unethical and misuse science.
Flint is symptomatic of a larger problem of cumulative neglect of the role that the environment has on public health. SEHN’s role is to counter this neglect with ideas that put public and environmental wellbeing and integrity front and center. In this narrative, the free market, capital and private property are not the primary goals or processes of democracy.
If we decide instead to prioritize clean air, healthy kids, environmental health, biodiversity, we start to think about laws and governance differently. Flint is the tale of so many places.
In this month’s Networker we share some of the ways ideas like Guardian, Sentinel, Elder, and Storyteller – the urge to protect and prevent — are being translated into organizing strategies, research agendas, and principles of law.
Last, we want to give you an update on the SEHN finances as we begin 2016. Over the years our funding was primarily from foundations but our support has gradually shifted to be mostly from individual donors. We are learning as we go and want to thank you for your contributions to SEHN. We are in better shape than we have been in several years heading into 2016, thanks to you. What we pledge to you is that we will do our best to bring SEHN’s unique strengths and contributions to sponsor clean water, a stable climate, environmental justice and health in the coming year.
In good health,
We want to hear from you! We’re hoping you’ll take a couple of minutes. We’re curious how SEHN engages you and what kind of content we can be providing in our newsletter. We’d be grateful and our content will be richer for it.
Iowa Utility Board Deliberations on Dakota Access Bakken Pipeline
Iowa is the last hold-out. The Bakken pipeline is the largest proposed pipeline project in the country and slated to carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil a day. SEHN intervened on behalf of future generations, the first time they have been represented in an administrative proceeding in this country. Follow the Coalition’s activities here.
IOWA UTILITY BOARD HEARINGS – RECENT COVERAGE Bakken pipeline OK looks likely in Iowa, say foes, supporters
“Carolyn Raffensperger…said it appears likely the board will approve the project, but with certain conditions. Her organization has proposed that if the pipeline permit is granted and an oil spill of more than 100 barrels occurs, the pipeline should be shut and its state permit revoked…Right now the company says ‘It can’t spill”.”
SEHN has joined the Keep It In The Ground campaign, a call to the President to stop new federal leasing of fossil fuels and to keep our remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
SEHN’s Program Director, Kaitlin Butler’s statements appear in some of the press coverage. Listen to her interviews with Radio Active and KZMU Moab (archiving soon).
A new movement partnership
SEHN’s program director Kaitlin Butler has been working on behalf of SEHN with Elders Rising for Intergenerational Justice on climate justice issues in Utah on actions to withdraw consent to the Bureau of Land Management’s competitive oil and gas lease sales of public land, as part of the national Keep It In the Ground campaign.
National media coverage
Utah actions have gained national media attention. Google reports 140 articles the day after the protest. Read some of SEHN’s statements for the day-of press release and following the auction. In addition to the 100+ community members peacefully protesting the auction, national headlines focused on author and activist Terry Tempest Williams, who purchased over 1,700 acres in parcels (see Democracy Now, TIME). When asked if she was a legitimate bidder, Williams responded, “You cannot define our definition of energy,” Tempest Williams said. The energy development we are interested in is fueling the movement of Keep It in the Ground.”
A Story of Health Wins Excellence in Communications Award by the CDC
Keynote, Becoming Guardians of Future Generations:
How will future generations tell the stories of this generation as we faced dire threats to climate, water and food? Ancient ideas like care for the seventh generation can be forged into new policies that will enable us to become beloved ancestors. This will require innovation, vision and creativity as well as the wisdom of past. We begin that journey now.
Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America
“This book bears witness to hydraulic fracturing in the United States. Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America brings together the voices of more than fifty writers exploring the complexities of fracking through first-hand experience, investigative journalism, story-telling, and verse. At a time when politics and profits inhibit our ability to have meaningful discussions about the hazards of fracking, these creative perspectives are needed to ignite the national conversation about how we can live with more compassion toward Earth.”
Walking the property line: eminent domain and the U.S. oil and gas rush
Editor’s note, May 2015 Networker:
Some of the first stories my parents read to me were Beatrix Potter’s fables. Did you know that several of Potter’s tales originated from letters or oral stories she shared with children she was close with? She was also an avid naturalist and conservationist. On her death, she left 4,000 acres to the National Trust.
Potter’s love for nature was told through her Arcadian fables for children she loved. Stories now told to children who love her natural world but know very little nature . Many children will only know the vast majority of wilderness, wild animals, flora and fauna through stories. The clarity in which children understand justice always struck me as worth paying attention to.
Copyright: Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com
How will we tell children the story of allowing 7.5 million acres (three Yellowstone’s worth) of land stripped bare by U.S. drilling? Of the next million acres? What number is too many? How far down the path of global warming have we gone, and how much further can we safely go?
2,795 is the estimated gigatones of carbon of all known fossil fuel reserves (NOT including unconventional fossil fuel: tar sands, oil shale and methane).
565 is the estimated gigatones of carbon we have left in our carbon budget if we want to say below 2 degrees Celsius warming.
11 is the estimated number of years, at current fossil fuel use rates, that the estimated carbon budget (above) will be exhausted (estimate made in 2013, could be less at this point).
80% is the estimated amount of all fossil fuel reserves that need to remain untouched to avoid uncontrollable warming.
$28.5 trillion is the estimated value of U.S. oil, coal, and natural gas reserves.
30% is the value of some of the world’s stock exchanges in proven coal, oil and gas reserves.
$5.3 trillion is the dollars spent by governments worldwide subsidizing coal, oil, gas (higher than global public health spending).
The story these numbers tell is that we are already about ¾ of the way to the 2 degree Celsius target for limiting warming (some argue fossil fuel emissions need to peak this year if we are to have any chance at all of staying below 2 degrees Celsius of global warming ), and also that oil companies are heavily invested in pumping these reserves or their value plummets. We need to reduce emissions drastically, now. But key decision-makers are ignoring that logic, and moral urgency, while more and more people depend on burning global energy reserves.
The responsibility of those reviewing proposed pipeline, fracking and mining projects are to assess what constitutes a ‘public good’ and a ‘public benefit’. Governments have taken to using eminent domain to support the new U.S. oil and gas rush. Moving property out of the Commons and into the hands of private corporations makes clear that the current U.S. political agenda defines fossil fuel as a public good, and job and energy creation as public benefits. But the jobs and the energy are incredibly short-term (all of the oil sands in Utah would provide the rough equivalent of 2-3 years of U.S. oil consumption ), especially when compared to the project’s ongoing and long-term costs. In the face of everything we know – about climate change, about the environmental and health impacts from these energy extraction projects, about the critical role of biodiversity in our survival – a permitting process that defines these projects as “no significant impact” is simply a lie. What exactly does that tell citizens?
It tells them that the laws put in place to protect them are negotiable, that they and the spaces they are trying to protect are disposable, and that the wellbeing of people and the planet mere decades from now is a bartering chip. Climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation—these are moral issues because they are rooted in how we define equality.
But wait! Where governments are failing to meet their responsibilities, citizens are stepping up in countless brave ways. Where decision makers are taking baffling policy and economic stances in the face of increasingly dire warnings, citizens are serving the role of witness and of innovators. In direct response to the political battle over climate (in)action, citizens are taking action. Stories, images, data, dreaming, blockading, improvising—these are gaining traction as another kind of political power.
Take the Legal Principles into your community, and use them in your organizing
As Raffensperger envisions them, “a clear articulation of legal principles challenges existing assumptions in the public square about the role of government. If government agencies assume their primary responsibility is to grow the economy, which is indoctrinated as limitless, they are less likely to take precautionary action. However, if they know that their responsibility is to serve as a trustee of the Commons such as water, land, and biodiversity then they are more likely to protect our shared resources. They also give common language to all the groups arising to resist threats to their communities.”
The resounding message across the country is No Eminent Domain for Private Gain. Future emissions must be kept within a precautionary, science-based, and finite global carbon budget. The U.S. has a moral obligation to create binding actions to meet large domestic emissions reductions targets and incentivize low carbon economies elsewhere. The legal principles are offerings in the face of this U.S. oil and gas boom, as one basis for organizing against projects and pathways that confound wealth with debt, in defense of the right to a life-sustaining, community-nourishing, and dignity-enhancing ecological Commons is a fundamental human right of present and future generations .
One of the reasons I love speculative storytelling like Beatrix Potter’s is because it asks “what if?” What if we change what’s real or possible? I also love the term because it’s mercurial; we are always pushing the edges of what is possible.
“This future I do not accept it. Because an error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. We can redirect this.”
 See also: World Wildlife Foundation (September 2014). Living Planet Report 2014. Available online: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/all_publications/living_planet_report/.
 The fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in 2007, warned that global emissions would need to peak by 2015 to avoid more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming. For the IPCC Climate Change Synthesis Report (2007). See: https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/spms5.html.
The IPCC’s Climate Change 2014 Synthesis reports slightly more conservative estimates, at about 2/3 of the 2900 GtCO2 that would limit warming to less than 2°C (relative to the period 1861-1880) with a probability of >66%: “Multi-model results show that limiting total human-induced warming to less than 2°C … would require cumulative CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources since 1870 to remain below about 2900 GtCO2…About 1900 GtCO2 had already been emitted by 2011.” Pg. 10, from: IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp. Available online: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/
For some additional commentary on the 2°C target, see:
Suzanne Jacobs (May 7, 2015). “Dear Climate Scientists: Just Tell it to Us Straight Please.” Grist. Available: http://bit.ly/1ImmQdc.
Katherine Bagley (Feb 14, 2013). “The Most Influential Climate Science Paper Remains Unknown to Most People.” InsideClimate News. Available: http://bit.ly/1EXLRnY.
Bill McKibben (July 19, 2012). “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Rolling Stone Magazine. Available online: http://rol.st/1E2jwfD.
 For tar sand count in Utah, see for example: http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/tarsands/.
For U.S. Oil consumption, see for example: http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=33&t=6
 The Commons, not private property or capital, are the real foundation of the economy and all commoners have an equal right to shared resources. The commonwealth and health must be protected from harm or exploitation. It is the obligation of government to care for the Commons and pass them on unimpaired to future generations. If the Commons are damaged, the polluter, not the commoners, pays.
Our Island Home, a Sailor’s Perspective
Editor’s note: Our Earth is an Island, residing in the uninhabitable “sea” that is space. Like islanders of old, we do not or cannot yet leave our island. We do not know what lies beyond our home or if we could even survive the journey. Protecting our island is a matter of survival. Today we feature a piece from John Raffensperger, MD and Sailor on what islands can teach us about our only Earth island.
ISLANDS AS A MICROCOSM OF THE WORLD
John Raffensperger, MD
We were four days out of Gibraltar, sailing to the Caribbean, when I glanced up from the compass to see in the distance, Porto Santo an island in the Madeira archipelago. A few hours later, our ketch, “Lady Luck” rounded the last point of land into a bay where two of Prince Henry the Navigator’s captains found refuge from a storm in 1418.
The island was starkly barren. There were no trees, no green leaves, not even a blade of grass. Deep ravines gouged in rock and gravel hills plunged into the sea. I wondered what terrible catastrophe had caused this destruction.
Portugal established a colony on Porto Santo a year later. One ship carried a female rabbit whose offspring thrived and devoured the native vegetation. The first settlers, with terracing and irrigation of the fertile volcanic soil grew grapes, cereal crops and vegetables. These crops, along with fish allowed the early settlers to be self sufficient for food. The Portuguese established a sugar cane industry, which made a few men wealthy but furthered environmental destruction. Christopher Columbus lived on the island for a while and married the Governor’s daughter. His former home is now a tourist attraction. Intense agriculture and rabbits decimated the natural vegetation and caused loss of topsoil. This destruction caused by overpopulation, deforestation, intense agriculture and imported animals took place in less than five hundred years, scarcely the blink of an eye in the history of the world. The islanders are now dependent on imported food and tourists.
Two days of fast sailing brought us to the Canary Islands, known to the ancient Arabs and Phoenicians as the “Fortunate Isles”, where happy spirits dwelt in peaceful gardens. Commencing in 1402, the Spanish cut down trees, terraced hills, irrigated and cultivated the hilly islands. During the 15th century, the islanders grew enough food to provision the ships of Spanish exploration, but now exploitation has reduced several of the islands to deserts. The main city, Las Palmas on Gran Canaria, a crowded commercial center with jammed streets, sprawls into the surrounding countryside. Bulldozers carve away hills overlooking the sea for tourist developments. There has been outward migration for centuries, but the island is drastically overpopulated with a thirty percent rate of unemployment. The Canaries are no longer “fortunate”.
When Columbus anchored off the island of Hispianola 1492 the natives grew fruit, cotton and vegetables on rich soil. The land was covered with trees and native plants. The Spanish decimated the native population and commenced environmental degradation with gold mining and the introduction of cattle. In 1697, France took possession of Haiti and imported African slaves to produce sugar. Haiti became a wealthy French colony but by 1804, at the time of the slave rebellion, the island was almost entirely deforested and the erosion of topsoil was well underway.
During the 20th century, basic medical care reduced infant mortality but without birth control and massive outward migration, the population soared. Today, the Haitian half of the island is barren. Villagers plant corn on steep hillsides but tropical rains carry away the seedlings and topsoil. Except for a narrow coastal plain the land is barren and rocky. Sediment and sewage has destroyed ocean reefs, depleting the population of fish.
Foreign aid temporarily supports Haiti but has failed to halt the environmental degradation, overpopulation and social unrest.
On another voyage, I visited Easter Island, a tiny speck in the southern Pacific, thousands of miles from the nearest land. The first Polynesians who sailed to Easter Island, escaping overpopulation, found fertile soil, fish and huge rookeries of nesting birds that supplied food. These people had the energy to carve, move and erect huge stone monuments facing the sea. As resources diminished, there were no longer trees for the construction of canoes, birds sought new nesting places and the eroded land no longer supplied enough food. My guide pointed out gardens where the ancients had attempted to grow food on rocks and gravel. Warfare, hunger and disease decimated the population. Today, Easter Island is barren, rocky and bereft of fertile soil. The great mysterious stone monuments still stand, reminders of a once robust people who descendants now depend on tourism to survive.
In south Florida, greedy developers, the tourist industry, over population and invasive species have fouled our waters and have almost destroyed our native flora and fauna. Just as on Porto Santo, the sugar cane industry has despoiled entire river systems as well as the Everglades, one of the world’s most beautiful areas.
During the 1970’s far sighted environmentalists, purchased land for wildlife preserves that was to be developed for housing to preserve Sanibel, a barrier island off the southwest coast of Florida from massive commercial development. Until very recently, the residents and visitors to Sanibel lived in harmony with beaches and wildlife but the tourism industry together with local politicians have promoted the island to the point where the beaches are overcrowded, the numbers of birds have diminished and the island suffers from massive traffic jams. The quality of human life as well as wildlife habitat is diminishing. Sanibel has reached the limits of its carrying capacity.
We must learn from these other islands and take care for there are no new islands to conquer.
Technology: Who Chooses? a precaution primer
By Nancy Myers and Carolyn Raffensperger
In Germany more than 20 years ago, private landowners noticed that their treasured forests were dying. They appealed to the government to do something about the tragedy. Germany then began an all-out effort to cut down power plant emissions to reduce acid rain in an effort to save the Black Forest. Later, that urge to protect and prevent was translated into a formal principle of German law, the lovely Vorsorgeprinzip, literally, the “forecaring principle.” In the years that followed, the German idea became enshrined in international law as the precautionary principle.
Vorsorge incorporates the notion of preparing for a difficult future, the way one might buy extra food and candles before a blizzard. We in America have trouble with the concept of a difficult future. Technology and a new president are supposed to solve everything.
“Onward and upward.”
But warning signs now tell us something different. The increases in breast cancer, learning disabilities, and other health problems associated with environmental degradation; the loss of plants and animals we love; and the increasing number of environmental catastrophes all suggest that something is awry. We’ve had three decades of environmental laws, and we’ve learned to recycle. But it hasn’t been enough.
The precautionary principle, or the idea of “forecaring,” gives us a way to change our behavior, personally and collectively. It reminds us to acknowledge our mistakes, admit our ignorance, and act with foresight and caution to prevent damage. It also removes the barriers to that kind of precautionary action.
One widely cited formulation of the precautionary principle is the 1998 Wingspread Statement: “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.”
In colloquial language, it’s the common sense idea behind adages like “Look before you leap.” “Better safe than sorry.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” In its more sophisticated formulations, key elements include taking precautions in the face of scientific uncertainty; exploring alternatives to possibly harmful actions; placing the burden of proof on proponents of an activity rather than on victims or potential victims of the activity; and using democratic processes to carry out and enforce the principle—including the public right to informed consent. The precautionary principle calls for the humble recognition that the world is full of scientific uncertainties. The Earth is made of complex, interrelated systems, vulnerable to harm from human activities, and resistant to comprehensive understanding. Precaution is an expression of values that gives priority to these vulnerable systems, including those of our own human bodies.
The precautionary principle particularly singles out scientific uncertainty, because it is often raised as a barrier to protective action. It usually comes up in arguments to preserve economic interests or our own habits: “Let’s wait until we know for sure how much human activity is influencing the climate before we make any changes.” “Let’s find out exactly what levels of arsenic in drinking water are unsafe before we set stricter standards.” “Scientists don’t agree on the dangers.”
The precautionary principle counters that mentality with what Wendell Berry has called an “ecological morality,” which is based on the idea that all of life is interdependent. The principle is an ethic of survival—not just some Miss Manners niceties—to protect the web of life. Rather than asking how much toxic damage is acceptable in a baby or an ecosystem, a precautionary approach asks how much can be avoided.
We go to great lengths to save an ill child or a beached whale. The precautionary principle calls for us to act before such tragedies occur and, if necessary, to err on the side of caution because such errors are less costly in the long run.
Precaution in Action
It is easy to see why we need the precautionary principle. It is harder to say exactly how it should be applied because there is no simple formula.
At the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN), we have been working to understand how the precautionary principle can help advocates for public health and environmental integrity in their campaigns. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
Lesson one: Apply it early and often. By the time a company has spent millions of dollars developing a chemical or technology, it is hard to apply the precautionary principle. What agency will say “no” in the face of all that money pressure? Instead, we discovered that it is much more useful to apply the principle before a technology, such as genetic engineering of crops, is a done deal.
Lesson two: Know what you want. The principle works best when positive goals are set. If your community decides that children’s bodies should be free of toxic chemicals, or that it wants to preserve migratory butter-fly routes, the steps to that goal become clearer. The state of Montana has established its citizens’ desire for a clean and healthy environment as a constitutional right. As a consequence, citizen groups have been successful in court in preventing the mining industry from being exempted from this general duty. In 1992, an International Joint Commission adopted the precautionary principle to set the goal of stopping all persistent organic pollutants from being discharged into the Great Lakes.
Lesson three: Ask bigger questions. Business as usual is going to get us business as usual. Mary O’Brien’s work on assessing alternatives to damaging activities invites a robust creativity. (See Making Better Environmental Decisions, MIT Press, 2000). What alternatives do we have? How do those alternatives help meet our goals? If faced with a Hobson’s choice—say a community is asked to choose between a new waste dump and an incinerator—step back and ask a bigger question: How can we cut down the amount of waste we produce? Reframing the question is often the most important step in applying the precautionary principle. It can turn adversaries into cooperative, problem-solving teams.
Lesson four: Many heads are better than one. In an uncertain world, scientists, corporations, and politicians should not be the only ones to set up the choices or make the decisions. It is important to gather goals and innovative solutions from throughout society. The Health Care Without Harm campaign has brought together environmentalists, medical professionals, researchers, and industry to find substitutes for medical plastics containing phthalates, which have the potential to harm infants in neonatal care and possibly other patients as well. In the meantime, the campaign calls for precautionary action by asking the medical community to go beyond current regulatory requirements and take ethical responsibility for preventing harm.
Lesson five: Lives, not products, come first. It surprises many people to learn that most chemicals and other products are considered safe until proven otherwise. In courts of law, products (and corporations) are often given the benefit of the doubt over those who claim to have been harmed by them. But this isn’t always true. Hudson, Quebec, banned the use of chemical herbicides and insecticides on lawns a decade ago, and the town was subsequently sued by landscaping companies ChemLawn and Spraytech. In June 2001, the Canadian Supreme Court upheld the town’s right to ban pesticides, based on the precautionary principle. (“We’re thinking about adopting the dandelion as the municipal flower,” Hudson Mayor Stephen Sharr told the CBC.)
Lesson six:Make proponents bear the burden of proof. If project proponents cannot demonstrate to the satisfaction of the public that their actions will not cause harm, they may be legitimately stopped. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome that government and industry find so frustrating is often a common-sense exercise of the precautionary principle on the part of citizens. Given the choice of being exposed or not exposed to something that shows some possibility of being harmful, and weighing the benefits to themselves and their descendants, people will generally choose not to accept the danger if they believe it provides little benefit and there are better alternatives, or that alternatives have not been sought vigorously enough.
Lesson seven: Just do it. Precautionary action comes in many shapes and sizes. Bans or phaseouts may be appropriate, but pre-market testing can also be precautionary. Monitoring of all kinds fits into a precautionary scheme: products already on the market, human effects on ecosystems, the condition of human bodies.
Any action that helps to prevent harm and to protect humans and the environment in the face of scientific uncertainty qualifies as a precautionary action. Even actions after the fact can be in the spirit of the principle. The Agent Orange Act of 1991 instructed scientists and policy makers to give veterans the benefit of the doubt in the absence of full scientific proof that they had been exposed to herbicides or harmed by them. A scientific review committee of the US Institute of Medicine worked out a standard for evaluating harmful effects of a substance based on the weight of the evidence—”more likely than not”—rather than conclusive proof.
Lesson eight: Wise up. Choosing the right precautionary action requires wisdom. The regulatory systems we have are based on rules that often leave little room for good sense or even good evidence. Rules have their place, but in making decisions that affect our health and future, we need all the wisdom we can muster. That means not only looking at scientific evidence but also practicing flexibility, foresight, fairness, responsibility, and honesty.
The Federal Aviation Administration took precautionary action when it banned use of cell phones and electronic devices at takeoff and landing, based on a single study that suggested these devices might interfere with a plane’s electronic systems. Scientists have not been able to duplicate that study. Nevertheless, because the costs of continuing the ban are practically nil, and because the potential adverse consequences are so great, it seems sensible to continue the ban unless it is proven unnecessary.
Lesson nine: A little precaution is better than none. The precautionary principle is not an absolute. Nothing guarantees a risk-free world. But we must get better at predicting harmful side effects and acting on the first signs of harm. We have very far to go, and many changes and decisions will be difficult. Any progress in exercising precaution is worth applauding—and then pushing further. The Methodist Church adopted the precautionary principle in 2000 as a way of expressing their commitment to be stewards of God’s creation. The Republican Party of Indiana adopted the principle as one of its planks in 1998.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has adopted a pesticide reduction plan based on the precautionary principle. The principle can be adopted and used to good effect by any organization at any level of jurisdiction—even by families.
Lesson ten: Clean up your messes. The precautionary principle is about preventing damage. But we all know of contaminated sites or bodies, a clear-cut forest, or a channelized stream. Their degraded condition poses risks of both ongoing and future damage. For this reason, restoration is one of the faces of forecaring, or precaution. Citizens of Metropolitan Chicago are preserving and restoring what remains of the region’s oak-savannah prairies. They call their movement “Chicago Wilderness”—an optimistic assertion that it is worth caring for nature even in the most human-dominated landscapes.
These lessons are not easy. Applying the precautionary principle is one of the most challenging tasks facing citizens of the early 21st century. It is not impossible, however, and it is beginning to happen.
Can wetland restoration cool the planet? Restoration of saltwater marshes is a sure bet for sequestering carbon.
Janet Pelley, Environmental Science and Technology
October 22, 2008
Wetlands are champions at carbon storage, but they also release methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. Scientists are boosting research efforts to determine whether the cooling power of carbon storage outstrips the global warming potential of methane in wetlands. They are finding that the greatest cooling occurs from saltwater marshes.
This summer, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced that it was launching a $12.3 million project to capture carbon by growing tules (a species of sedge also known as bulrushes) and cattails in wetlands created on abandoned farmland on islands in California’s Sacramento?San Joaquin River Delta. Two months later, the carbon-storing capacity of wetlands headlined 2 days of workshops at the September 16 meeting of the Association of State Wetland Managers in Portland, Ore.
The USGS project has captured eye-popping amounts of carbon—an average of 3000 grams of carbon per square meter per year (g-C/m2/yr) over the past 5 years. For comparison, reforested agricultural land, eligible for carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, socks away carbon at a rate much less than 100 g-C/m2/yr, says Gail Chmura, a biogeochemist at McGill University (Canada).
Wetlands capture carbon by incorporating CO2 from the air into new plant growth, explains Roger Fujii, a soil chemist with USGS. When the plant material dies, near-constant water cover keeps oxygen out of the rich mud, slowing decomposition that would otherwise emit CO2. Undisturbed wetlands are so effective at accreting carbon that their organic peat soils can be 60 feet deep and 7000?10,000 years old, he says.
USGS is now expanding the delta project to see whether it can regain the land elevation lost since farmers drained the delta island marshes 100 years ago, causing the soil to decompose, emit CO2, and subside, Fujii says. A secondary goal is to find out whether the extraordinary carbon storage capacity of the tule and cattail “farms” could be sold as carbon credits on California’s upcoming CO2 cap-and-trade market, he says.
Scientists are excited by the prospect of selling wetland carbon credits because the sales could provide money and an additional reason for restoring wetlands, says Scott Bridgham, an ecosystem ecologist at Oregon State University. “But if you don’t know what the methane emissions are, you can’t assume there is a net climate-cooling impact,” he says.
The low oxygen conditions that promote carbon storage also promote release of methane, explains Ramesh Reddy, a biogeochemist at the University of Florida. Microbes prefer using oxygen to produce energy, but if they can’t get oxygen, they can use other electron acceptors such as iron oxides, sulfate, and CO2. When they use CO2, they emit methane, he says.
Because the tiny traces of methane gas from microbes are hard to measure, very few data are available on methane releases from wetlands, Bridgham says. He recently coauthored a chapter in The First State of the Carbon Cycle Report, in which he concluded that the climate-warming potential of methane very likely cancels out the climate-cooling potential of CO2 storage for most North American freshwater wetlands.
Because saltwater is high in sulfate, microbes in saltwater marshes don’t have to use CO2 as an electron acceptor, and therefore they produce negligible amounts of methane, Chmura says. She estimates that North American salt marshes sequester an average of 210 g-C/m2/yr. These hefty rates, along with an ability to accrete carbon faster as the sea level rises, make saltwater marshes ideal sites for restoration and carbon storage, she says.
Although the USGS project doesn’t have a reliable estimate of methane emissions from the experimental plots, initial measurements suggest that these emissions may not cancel out the climate-cooling potential of the CO2 storage, says Brian Bergamaschi, a biogeochemist with USGS. He and his colleagues are researching ways to add nutrients to the wetlands and to make water levels fluctuate to maximize carbon storage while minimizing methane emissions.