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

The Power of Precaution

Carolyn Raffensperger with Bioneers editor-at-large Kim Ridley
July 18, 2006

Today, a growing number of communities, school districts, health care organizations, and other entities are applying the precautionary principle to protect the health of people and the environment. San Francisco passed a Precautionary Principle Ordinance in 2003, and many other cities and towns are incorporating precaution into their laws and policies. Schools are using the precautionary principle to find safer alternatives to toxic pesticides. Hospitals are using it to replace supplies containing PVC with healthier options.

It’s an idea whose time has clearly come: The First National Conference on Precaution took place in June in Baltimore, Maryland. The applications of this tool are virtually limitless, says Raffensperger, co-editor of Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental Policy and Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle. She spoke with Bioneers editor-at-large Kim Ridley about the evolution of this new- old paradigm, and its potential to catalyze life-sustaining change.

Kim Ridley: The precautionary principle is rooted in very old ideas. Can you talk about its re-emergence and its particular relevance for today?

Carolyn Raffensperger: It comes from a German word that means forecaring. It’s the grandmother principle — better safe than sorry, an ounce of prevention, a stitch in time. We also have archetypes and stories that are precautionary, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which warns that our technology and arrogance can harm us. An ethical strand comes from the ancient Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm” to prevent suffering. It is out of this wellspring of archetypes and wisdom that the precautionary principle has taken root and bloomed.

As we define it today, the precautionary principle has three core elements: the threat of harm, uncertainty, and precautionary action. I think the big surprise of the precautionary principle is the paradox of action. Taking a precautionary approach doesn’t mean stopping everything or not doing anything or blocking progress. It means looking for alternatives, using democracy, and reversing the burden of proof from those who have been harmed to those who pollute.

The precautionary principle is part of a larger set of ideas that aim to prevent problems in the first place. It encourages us to use our imaginations and all of our technological and intellectual power to create a lustrous and beautiful future for generations to come.

KR: Where are some of the places you’re seeing the precautionary principle being used most effectively?

CR: Communities like Denton, Texas, are applying the precautionary principle to find safer alternatives to harmful pesticides in parks, which is a key way to reduce chemical exposure for children and pets. Many school districts are applying it in similar ways. They are switching to safer alternatives to pesticides and cleaners containing toxic materials. Schools around the country are looking for alternatives to sugary, fatty processed foods in vending machines and lunches. The school district in Emeryville, California, is applying the precautionary principle to all of its activities from the curriculum to school buildings to food to energy.

Some large businesses are also adopting the principle. Kaiser Permanente recognized the cognitive dissonance of causing illnesses through practices that were supposed to be healing. For instance, they are trying to find alternatives to toxic chemicals used in hospitals. Even more interesting is their application of precaution to food in hospitals. Hospitals routinely serve meat and eggs from animals that were raised using antibiotics. This increases the chance that the hospital will foster antibiotic-resistant diseases. By applying the precautionary principle and serving food that was raised without antibiotics, the health care system protects its medicines and decreases the chance of serious illness caused by the very food that should be healing and nourishing.

On an even larger scale, the city and county of San Francisco has consolidated all of its environmental ordinances under the large umbrella of the precautionary principle. One facet of the precautionary principle that has emerged through the experience of San Francisco and other jurisdictions is that the precautionary principle isn’t what lawyers call “self-executing.” A law that is self-executing tells you what should happen and how it should get carried out. So to express the ideals contained in the precautionary principle ordinance, San Francisco has passed a couple of other ordinances. The first law passed to carry out the principle was a purchasing policy ordinance that mandated that San Francisco would purchase the most environmentally sound alternatives.

KR: How does one initiate this idea in one’s own back yard?

CR: Most people start with what they love — or what they fear will happen to what they love. The next step is setting some community goals. For example, here in my state the Iowa Environmental Council set goals for everything from clean water to the number of raptors that would nest here. You can set goals for reducing the asthma rate or increasing the monarch butterflies or pollinators in your community, or whatever problem worries you. Then you can start looking for alternatives to the things that are barriers to achieving your goal.

KR: What role does imagination play in the search for safer alternatives?

CR: The precautionary principle is future-oriented, so we get to apply our imaginations to the kind of world we want to live in. If we can imagine a world where children are born free of toxic chemicals in their bodies — that’s real liberty, by the way — or a world where we can prevent breast cancer, we can begin to move toward that goal. We can ask ourselves, what are the next three steps we need to take?Although the precautionary principle is defined by scientific uncertainty, the outcome doesn’t have to be more decimal points. Sure, we can get more data, we can proceed with science and safer technologies, but just as important, we can choose the most beautiful solution. We’ve been given a biological radar for beauty, which is part of imagination.

KR: What other kinds of problems can the precautionary principle address?

CR: It can apply to everything from new technology to social issues. Right now, we’re in dialogue with people working on poverty. We believe that ending poverty is actually an environmental issue. The work that led up to the 1992 Rio Declaration, which was the first clear international expression of the precautionary principle, said that poverty was both a cause and effect of environmental degradation. Excessive wealth amassed by rape and plunder of the earth also is a cause and effect of environmental degradation.

Another set of economic ideas growing out of the precautionary principle is redefining wealth to specify the common wealth and the common health. In this new definition, the commons is the essential basis of the economy, not just capital. In other words, if you can’t breathe the air or drink the water, all of the money you’ve got in the bank doesn’t matter one whit. When you make decisions based on the common wealth, the state or government becomes a trustee to manage resources — the commons — for this and future generations. And guess what, if government is to serve as a good and wise trustee of the commons for future generations, it has to use the precautionary principle.

KR: Is such a shift possible in the current political climate?

CR: What we’ve got now are institutions that are really designed to allow pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is set up to permit pollution. I think that our next task is to begin designing how we want to live together and govern ourselves in a world where we have seen the consequences of our damage. What if we had governmental institutions that were designed to protect future generations?

A number of tribes have been working on something called the Seventh Generation Amendment, which my friend Tom Goldtooth says is the precautionary principle. What’s really exciting is that we don’t have one constitution in the U.S. we actually have fifty-one because every state has a constitution. In addition, we also have more than six hundred federally recognized tribes, most of whom have their own constitution. So what if all these states and tribes adopted essentially a Seventh Generation Amendment in their constitutions?

When you build in the Seventh Generation idea, you’ve defined the government’s responsibility to serve as a trustee, and you have an absolute requirement for the precautionary principle. Imagine if a state like Minnesota said, “We’re going to take that so seriously that we’re going to have a guardian for the Seventh Generation make a decision about every piece of legislation.”

KR: Are there any existing models?

CR: The Florida Constitution requires polluters to pay for damaging the Everglades, a common. Reversing the burden of proof is built into the Florida Constitution. Voters in Florida recognized that the sugar industry was polluting the Everglades, especially Lake Okeechobee. They decided that rather than have the taxpayers pay for clean up, the polluter should be responsible. Reversing the burden of proof means we stop giving the benefit of the doubt to the economy. We give it to public health and the environment. Requiring the polluter to pay for damage is a way of keeping the burden of proof and responsibility on the shoulders of the polluter.

The Hawaii Constitution says that the state is the trustee of the natural resources, and the Hawaiian Supreme Court says you have to use the precautionary principle to carry out that function. In a case where water was being used up by golf courses and big agriculture, the court followed this rule to protect water for and restore water to small farmers and indigenous people. Governments around the world are trying similar ideas. Israel, for example, has a commissioner for future generations.

KR: What are some of the biggest challenges to implementing the precautionary principle?

CR: The chief barrier is the assumption that we have to grow the economy, which means the earth is going to have to keep giving up out of her guts and lungs and kidneys to feed this monster of growth.

The challenge is knowing how to implement the precautionary principle when you’re facing something like a factory hog farm in your community. This moves the precautionary principle out of the realm of “nice, abstract idea” into the realm of fierce and wise ideas. We’ve found that things like reversing the burden of proof from the local community to the factory hog farm owner helps protect the air and the water because if you don’t, the factory hog farm is going to take every opportunity to make the earth and surrounding human community pay the costs of damage so it can make a profit. So you can say to the factory farm, “you have to put up an assurance bond that you won’t pollute. If you release antibiotic- resistant bacteria downstream or foul the air beyond a certain limit, we’re going to revoke your bond, you’re going to lose it.” You really have to give the precautionary principle some teeth. This is a ferocious defense system that lets you say to polluters “We’re not just going to let you rape and pillage and all be nice about it. We’re going to stand up for what we love.”

KR: What about those who say it’s already too late?

CR: We are on the brink of disaster. Kids often come to me and say, “There’s not going to be anything left of the planet when I get old enough and educated enough to try and protect the rainforest or whales or tall grass prairie.” What I tell them is, “We don’t know if we’re going to succeed, but it’s worthy work.”

As Camus wrote, we have to be “dazzling realists.” Is it hard? Yes, it’s impossible. Are we up to it? Maybe. We’re what we’ve got. We need all of the imagination of the younger generation, and all of the ideas of my generation and my grandparents’ generation.

KR: How does spirit inform the precautionary principle?

CR: Love is at the heart of so much of this work, and it’s not a word used in politics very much. Van Jones calls the larger social justice movement a “reverence movement.” Terry Tempest Williams has described the precautionary principle as “restraint in the name of reverence.” The sense of sacredness and of this great responsibility to prevent suffering is really at the core of what we’re doing.

Carolyn Raffensperger is an environmental lawyer and executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, the leading U.S. proponent of the precautionary principle as a new basis for environmental and public health policy. The principle states: “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.”

Copyright 2006 by Collective Heritage Institute

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