|I.||Questions For Precautionary Thinking||Nancy Myers|
|I. Questions For Precautionary Thinking||TOP|
|By Nancy Myers
This Networker is part of an occasional series on the precautionary principle, which has been a major focus of the work of the Science and Environmental Health Network since 1998.The recurring question is how we implement the precautionary principle. On the simplest level, the emerging principle of international law known as the precautionary principle is “invoked” to justify taking protective action when serious harm might occur. The precautionary principle, used this way, is a kind of emergency measure—to slow development of a new technology, such as genetically engineered crops, until more is known about its side effects; or to bar imports of substances over which there is scientific controversy, such as beef containing hormone residues.
But these cases are far from simple. They involve judgment calls about what is dangerous—since science cannot provide definitive answers–and what risks a society is or is not willing to take. When opposing interests are involved, or different societies with different values and standards, any decisions will be challenged. The result is often stalemate.
This narrow invocation of the precautionary principle in certain limited circumstances is not enough. We need to back up these “simple” judgment calls with a logic and ethic powerful enough to expose and counter prevailing myths and errors in the current ways of acting. We must clarify and act upon the values that cause us to make such judgments. And we must supplement these judgments with a comprehensive and consistent approach to making decisions about how we develop and use technologies and products, and how we treat the Earth and it most vulnerable species and inhabitants.
This does not translate into a one-size-fits-all method, however. Rather than suggesting comprehensive procedures for “implementing the precautionary principle”—although these will be appropriate in some cases–we might think instead of the kinds of questions that invoke our precautionary intelligence in different situations, faced with many kinds of decisions. These questions, like the precautionary principle, are deceptively simple. They do not have prescribed answers. Rather, they are designed to make us think better and act more wisely. They remind us of what we forget when we are stuck in current ways of thinking or caught up in futile arguments. They are a checklist for sanity and wisdom.
A version of this list of questions will appear in a forthcoming book (Myers and Raffensperger, editors), so please let us know what you think. Do you find them useful? Is anything missing?
Many of the examples will be more fully explained in that book. On the nearer horizon is an important book to be published this fall by Island Press, edited by Joel Tickner, on precautionary science. Some chapters of that book are cited here.
1. What do we care about?
In a society where value systems compete, it is especially important to name the values to which we aspire. When we do, we may find allies in surprising places. On the other hand, each of us holds conflicting values and follows no single set of values with absolute consistency. This often shows up as a contradiction between what we say and what we do, and it is important to expose those contradictions. But taking a positive approach—inviting people to act on what they believe and value—may be more effective in the long run. Guilt can be paralyzing, and what we want is change, not paralysis.
Example: The Health Care Without Harm campaign has had considerable success persuading medical institutions to reduce the amount and toxicity of medical waste and to find safer substitutes for problematic materials such as phthalate-containing plastic IV bags by emphasizing the shared ethic summed up as “first, do no harm.”
The questions that follow are all aspects of the next logical question: If we know what we care about, how do we exercise that care?
2. What is our goal?
Ex.: In marine fisheries, the precautionary principle has been applied to the limited goal of protecting fisheries, species by species, rather than protecting marine ecosystems. This limitation and the failure to articulate the goal have interfered with the achievement of the goal.
U.S. society is built on the premise that freedom is more important than goals; that is, that nearly any activity is justified, regardless of its purpose, unless it harms others. Even if we do not challenge this basic assumption it is possible to introduce purposeful activity that changes its terms. When we set a goal such as improving children’s environmental health or restoring biodiversity we decide to act in certain ways to reach that goal, often in concert with others, rather than being left entirely to our own devices.
Ex.: The restoration of mine sites described in the January 2002 Networker is an example of how a positive goal spurred purposeful activity that brought a community into a new, harmonious relationship with its environment.
a. Whose goal is it?
Ex.: The POPs treaty is an effort to insert the voice of the affected global population into decisions about persistent organic pollutants.
Likewise, in beginning purposeful activity with precautionary goals, it is important to gather allies and establish as robust a consensus as possible. Opposition to change is inevitable, but working toward a shared goal, including all affected parties, may be more effective in some cases than simple, direct confrontation.
b. Does the goal reflect precautionary values?
3. What choices do we have?
a. What is feasible and likely to move us toward the goal?
b. How do choices compare and rank?
c. How do we find even better solutions?
d. How do we adopt better solutions?
Ex.: 1) The treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons in order to protect the ozone layer gave rise to the rapid development of safer substitutes, which had been available but not widely used at that point. 2) Raising gasoline mileage standards helped make American automobiles more competitive on the world market.
4. What is the bigger picture?
a. What are the “upstream” problems? What are the downstream repercussions? What is the broader context?
Ex.: A classic example is a cluster of seemingly separate issues around beef cattle that includes “Mad cow disease,” animal welfare, hormones, bacterial contamination, and human dietary issues. The upstream view would look at the industrial beef system based on large slaughtering operations, feedlots, massive corn production, and fossil fuel consumption. The downstream view considers the sanitation problems, disease, and other human and ecological health threats that flow from that system. The broader context is the consumer demand for cheap meat, which, in turn, is fueled by the fast food industry. (Michael Pollan, “Power Steer,” NY Times Magazine, March 31, 2002)
b. What are the earlier solutions? The most elegant? The most comprehensive? What are the system solutions? Where can we intervene in the system to set in motion the best solutions?
Often the bigger picture will reveal potential solutions that combine comprehensive, early, and/or carefully targeted intervention with a kind of aesthetic and emotiona – as well as scientific and practical – “rightness.” Increasingly, such systems are being identified, described, and developed. These “integrated systems” are more than technical improvements on the current ways of doing things; they are based on sound scientific and ethical principles that support sustainability. Further development of these systems and many others should be a priority for science, especially publicly funded research, in the 21st Century.
Examples include Biomimicry, Green Chemistry/Building/Manufacturing, Sustainable Agriculture, Clean Production, and Ecological Medicine.
5. What do we know and how do we know it?
a. How would we know if harm was occurring or about to occur?
Ex.: A state department of health is setting up an Emerging Issues Advisory Group to evaluate emerging environmental health issues and recommend policy that safeguards public health. The committee includes specialists in different disciplines as well as expert observers such as practicing physicians.
An important priority for publicly funded science should be to establish comprehensive inventories and databases that will help us track changes in health and the environment over time and, therefore, might give early indication of harm (see Carl Cranor in Tickner, forthcoming). Until more such systems are in place, however, we must rely on what early warnings we do receive from various monitoring programs and studies. As bearers of bad news, the scientists who do these studies are often attacked, and critics emphasize the gaps in their knowledge. Cutting-edge science indeed involves great uncertainty. But these early warnings are often the only sign we have of even greater danger to come. They have been right far more often than they have been wrong. (See Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen 2001.)
Ex.: Environmental groups were the first to pay attention to early warnings about endocrine-disrupting effects of DDT. However, the science of endocrine disruption was not taken seriously until twenty years later. It is now linked to hundreds of substances
b. What do we know about harmful effects?
Deciding “what we know,” therefore, often means looking at the weight of evidence. Does the preponderance of evidence point to a certain conclusion? Is it suggestive? We do indeed “know” a great deal.
But the discussion should not stop here—or get bogged down, as it often does, in what one scientist has called “adversary statistics”— duels over competing interpretations of data (Richard Levins in Tickner, forthcoming). The way out of such dead ends is to combine the “what do we know” question with the other questions in this list, and in the whole grid.
Ex.: The raging controversy over studies that suggest artificially modified corn genes have found their way into native Mexican maize varieties illustrates how adversary statistics are used to discredit scientists who uncover evidence that a technology might be harmful.
c. Where does our knowledge come from?
This question also prompts us to examine sources of knowledge for bias and conflicts of interest. Bias—the lens through which each of us acts and sees the world–is inevitable in both scientific and lay observation. No science is pure, objective, and value-free. A scientist may have a strong commitment (bias) toward protecting the environment and public health. However, the effect of this bias is not the same as the pressure of financial obligations, or conflict of interest, which Black’s Law Dictionary defines as the clash between the public interest and the “private pecuniary interest” of the individual concerned. The difference is money.
Often, more attention is paid to bias than to conflict of interest. It is customary for the media to cover an environmental story, like many others, by presenting opposing viewpoints (biases). But the questions that may reveal conflict of interest are not always asked.
Ex.: In the Mexican maize case, the scientific debate was strongly influenced by accusations from “concerned citizens” that the scientists who had uncovered evidence of gene transfer into native species were biased because of their ideological leanings. Months later, a Guardian article traced those early accusations to a public relations firm employed by the Monsanto Corporation, a leading developer of genetically modified seeds. (George Monbiot, “The Fake Persuaders,” The Guardian, May 14, 2002)
d. How can we predict from what we know already?
Ex.: The exact effects of global climate change will not be known until the shift is well advanced and irreversible. But scientists are able to make a number of intelligent guesses about effects, based on models.
e. Do we know enough to act?
f. Do we know so little that we must act with caution?
Both this question and the preceding one call for examination of the stakes—the nature of the possible or inevitable harm—as well as the availability of alternatives. These are social and political questions as well as scientific ones.
g. How will we learn?
Scientists, in turn, must consider how to communicate what they know. If citizens have knowledge of evidence that might lead to solving a crime, they are expected to convey that information to those who are in a position to act on that evidence. Likewise, scientists have an obligation to convey the information they have to those who will act on it, such as the public, decision makers, or nongovernmental organizations.
Ex.: In the early years of the atomic age, the fallout from nuclear weapons tests brought widespread public attention for the first time to the secondary dangers of these weapons. Public fear and outrage drove scientists to learn more about these dangers. The new scientific knowledge reinforced the campaign for a ban on nuclear testing in the open air (Barry Commoner, in Tickner, forthcoming).
6. Who is responsible; who and what are affected?
These questions are based on what we know about interdependence and connections—humans with other species; humans with other humans; human activities with their consequences, both desired and undesired—and about the difficulty (uncertainty) of tracking and controlling cause and effect in this complex web of relationships. In such conditions we must act as wisely as we can, given the knowledge we have, and exercise as much care as possible, given our ignorance.
a. Are those responsible accountable?
Ex. In almost every one of the major toxic tort class action suits, such as Agent Orange, asbestos, or the Dalkon Shield, a company had some information but failed to pursue the information or disclose the problem until the suit was initiated.
b. Do the burdens reflect precautionary values?
Science theorists often describe the drawing of lines in terms of Type I and Type II errors. A Type I error is a false positive—finding an effect when there is no effect. Scientists try hard to avoid Type I errors. In so doing, they are more likely to make Type II errors—not finding an effect when there is one (false negatives). But, if errors are to be made, a precautionary mindset (one geared toward policy) leans toward making Type II errors. This is a complicated but precise way of saying that those who suffer harm and those who are vulnerable should get the benefit of the doubt.
Ex.: Congress directed the scientific committee examining veterans’ claims of injury from the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to use a liberal standard of evidence. In effect, Congress and the committee gave veterans the benefit of the doubt when there was some evidence that their claims were justified, even though the evidence fell short of proof. (Joel A. Tickner, Precaution in Practice: A Framework for implementing the Precautionary Principle, doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Dec. 2000)
c. How can we distribute power, costs, benefits, and responsibilities more justly?
Ex. Environmental justice campaigns have created a new kind of popular heroine—the unsophisticated Erin Brokovitches of the world who see harm being done, educate themselves, expose the abusers, and fight tooth and nail for justice. While these campaigns extract a high toll on their leaders and often end in defeat, they are key ingredients for eventual cultural change.
An example of a leverage-point campaign is the Science and Environmental Health Network’s focus on the misuse of science in toxic tort cases. About a decade ago, several legal refinements gave judges considerable power to bar evidence from trials, and this has tipped the balance even further against plaintiffs claiming injury. The Network believes that changing or reinterpreting these rules will lead to necessary reforms and greater justice.