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Precautionary Principle - Essays

The Precautionary Principle The Precautionary Principle As Forecaring: Hopeful Work For The Environmental Health Movement
By Carolyn Raffensperger

Taking Back Our Food, Farms and Playgrounds: A conference on the interlocking issues of pesticide reform, environmental health, genetic engineering and corporate control of agriculture.

Plenary on Pulling it All Together: A New Movement for Environmental Health

I have had the privilege of working with the precautionary principle for more than three years. It has been a large, communal effort with many of you playing a significant role in advancing the ideas forward. The activists who got the Los Angeles Unified School District to adopt the principle with respect to pesticides, those working on envisioning how it might apply to the San Francisco area, Breast cancer activists who are invoking the principle in their attempt to bring together the environmental and public health communities. You are heroes. I am so grateful to you.

I work for the Science and Environmental Health Network which was set up to serve you. One of our functions is as a think tank - to develop the rich, robust ideas with you that we need in order to ensure that we use science and ethics to protect children, seeds, -- indeed all living things. So I would like to invite you into our most recent conversations exploring the precautionary principle. We would love to dialogue with you and see if we are heading in the right direction and how you see, hear and feel these ideas.

Frankly, I haven't taken criticism of the precautionary principle very seriously. It seems unassailable if you've got a heart and mind. Who can oppose taking action to prevent harm when the science is uncertain? Who can oppose goal setting, performance bonds, alternatives assessment, democratic participation, reversing the burden of proof, a general duty to act with precaution etc?

Well we've had a little voice, even on our staff that said, "but this isn't enough." WHAT isn't enough, I would think? And Mary O'Brien would say, what about restoration? Isn't the precautionary principle really negative? How do we factor in positive action? And the right answer was not, what side are you on Mary? Because nobody loves this planet more than she does. Besides, my husband Fred Kirschenmann agreed with her, even at the Wingspread Conference where we began our work on the precautionary principle. So I would ask, are there other principles?

Yes, the Germans who developed the idea of precaution, Vorsorge, have five principles of which the precautionary principle is only one. Is what we are talking about one of those principles? Maybe. That's another discussion.

But our staff returned to the precautionary principle. In the middle of the last staff meeting our Communications Director, Nancy Myers launched into a jazz-like riff interpreting the German word Vorsorge into English. She said, at one point it means "forecaring". I think Katherine Barrett, another staff member said the words at the very same time. As soon as Nancy said the word "forecaring" Mary and Ted Schettler's faces were literally filled with light from the joy of this idea. The Germans use it in the sense of preparing for what may be a difficult future. I understand this living in North Dakota.

In September I am vigorously preparing for winter. Splitting enough wood for the wood stove, canning the last corn relish and freezing kale and watermelon. We at SEHN believe that the idea of forecaring as deeply embedded in the precautionary principle provides a whole new pantry of thought that can infuse our work with hope. I would submit to you that forecaring carries with it three important concepts.

First, forecaring allows us to take positive, affirmative action to protect future generations of whales, humans, redwoods. This dovetails beautifully with the precautionary ideas of stopping damage before we know for sure all of the dimensions of that damage.

Second, forecaring, carries with it the concept of prediction - a fundamental task of precautionary science. This moves science to the frontier of the philosophy of science. Science has been good at description but rarely at prediction. But this is exactly what we need when we examine large systems over long time frames. So science is going to have to grow up beyond the limited confines of DesCartes, Bacon, Occam, EPA, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Third, forecaring, makes explicit the ethical underpinnings of the precautionary principle. Accordingly, for the first time since Occam, a Medieval Theologian who split off everything except the most rudimentary facts from explanations, we have the enormous and exciting task of putting ethics and science back together as one unified discipline. You may have heard of Occam whose famous Occam's razor says that you always choose the simplest explanation for any occurrence. Well the simplest explanation generally leaves out ethics, economic irrationality, love—all of those things that motivate humanity and are at play in ecosystems.

What does all of this mean for our work? I would offer you my musings.

  1. Forecaring expands the time frame for considering environmental health. Seven generations is probably the minimum. This means that some disciplines like toxicology aren't very useful. We need to make very close friends with evolutionary biologists since seven generations is a poetic expression of an evolutionary time scale. The basic question here is not, "is it safe?" but "how does nature work?" How do we fit the human enterprise into the natural world rather than forcing our way through it? We are going to have to rely on scientific principles as much as individual facts. For instance, why does nature put up barriers between species? Does it slow down evolution? Or does it do something else? If we haven't evolved with branching hydrocarbons like phthalates and DDT, what happens to our most vulnerable species and ages when they are explosed relentlessly to them? If a molecule, like CFC is stable, what can we expect as it persists in the environment? In our scientific explorations we will have to solicit all information from all informed parties. Citizen science must expand because it is the only way to get all the information. But because prediction is inherently uncertain we will need the precautionary principle with all of its lovely dimensions. And of course we will need to monitor to verify and check up on our predictions.
  2. If the question "how does nature work" is a good question, then it allows us to understand that it is a true medical statement to say, "we are the land, we are the water, we are the seeds, we are the otters."
  3. Forecaring is going to require us to stop thinking self-referentially, particularly in scale and scope. We do better understanding mammals that weight about 150 pounds than we do understanding microbes or ecosystems. So we need to get a grip on coexisting with little things and very big things. I might add that children are little things and we haven't protected them very well as Ted Schettler and Gina Solomon's work so aptly demonstrates.
  4. Forecaring puts values four square in the middle of the discussion about environmental health and well-being. By values I mean, Forecaring and the precautionary principle help us protect those things we love or find beautiful. I have this fantasy of sending to EPA or WHO a list of those things I love. Protect these! It would say. You have a right—even an obligation to speak from your heart as well as your mind when you speak truth to power.
  5. Forecaring means not only stopping damage before it happens but cleaning up our messes now and not leaving them for the future. This is restoration. By restoration, I mean it in two senses, to restore biological systems and processes to health and to restore humans to a right relationship with the rest of the world. And this, I now believe is the central task, restoring humans to a right relationship with the Earth. Forecaring embodied in the precautionary principle gives us some signposts for how we might do that.

And before I close I want to say that I also believe that forecaring and the precautionary principle require us to take on a difficult spiritual task - to bear witness to suffering and to alleviate suffering. Suffering is passed on from generation to generation. Suffering is a kind of damage. It can of course be transformed into strength and resilience. But the suicide of a North Dakota or an Indian farmer is damage. While we farm organically, on a farm our size the cost of pesticides can cost well over a hundred thousand dollars a year. Farmers run themselves through a hay baler to get the insurance to pay off the kind of debt that those kinds of bills incur. Suicide reverberates through the lives of children and grandchildren. It forever changes the shape of a community.

Sick salamanders in my county, one of the primary food sources of white pelicans have had a massive die off this year. Salamanders dying in one county might not notable, but the world wide loss of amphibians, probably because of human action is a kind of suffering. The trees in my shelterbelts are dying because of the increase in pesticides some of which is due to the use of genetically modified organisms. My trees are suffering. In order to forecare - to care for the future, we need to bear witness and alleviate the suffering of trees, salamanders and farmers. In conclusion, at a conference at Harvard two weeks ago, I ended my talk with the statement that the precautionary principle is no longer in the hands of academics, it is in the hands of the people. It is in your hands. This is a sign of great hope.

Thank you.


Carolyn Raffensperger
Mount Alverno Conference Center
Redwood City, California, October 6-8, 2000


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