JULY/AUGUST 1999 · VOLUME 20· NUMBER 7 & 8
Protecting Public Health & the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle
Edited by Carolyn Raffensperger and Joel Tickner
Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999
352 pages; $30
Public health and environmental activists have long advocated for the need to foresee and forestall damaging human activities before science delivers irrefutable proof that there is a problem. They are now articulating this philosophy as the Precautionary Principle:
"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."
As expressed by a group of 32 scientists, policymakers and activists who came together in Wingspread, Wisconsin in 1998, this definition of the Precautionary Principle has four parts:
1. People have a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm;
2. The burden of proof of harmlessness of a new technology, process, activity, or chemical lies with the activity's proponents, not with the general public;
3. Before using a new technology, process or chemical, or starting a new activity, people have an obligation to examine a full range of alternatives, including the alternative of doing nothing;
4. Decisions applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include affected parties.
The Precautionary Principle is rapidly becoming the philosophy behind many of the strongest challenges to strengthen environmental, occupational and consumer regulations. It has been raised in policy debates concerning toxic chemical pollution (e.g. endocrine disruption), the introduction of genetically-modified organisms and global warming.
Protecting Public Health & The Environment will be of lasting use for activists, scientists, lawyers and others concerned about these and other issues.
The collection of papers in the book, based upon a series of presentations made at Wingspread, is organized into four sections that describe the history and scientific and philosophical foundations of the Precautionary Principle; how it functions in different activities, including agriculture and manufacturing; how to know when precautionary action is needed and who should decide what action will (or will not) be taken; and how the burden of proof of harm can be shifted to proponents of a potentially hazardous activity.
A number of examples are offered where the Precautionary Principle has already been incorporated into existing international treaties (one appendix provides specific language from 16 such treaties), national policies (e.g. Sweden's chemical policy laws) or state laws which address pollution (e.g. the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act). There are also chapters which explain how existing laws fail to provide for precautionary action.
The book describes how the Precautionary Principle challenges traditional models of academic or laboratory science, whose standards for establishing conclusive knowledge are often a barrier to taking action when transferred to debates around protecting public health and the environment. It is a direct challenge to the corporate call for "sound science," a code phrase for something akin to requiring scientific certainty of harm as a precondition for regulatory action. The precautionary model of science encourages cross-disciplinary study, anticipatory speculation and an ethical examination of the boundaries within which science is conducted.
For activists and organizers, the book serves as more than simply a means of improving their literacy on scientific policy-making. The book issues an implicit challenge to convert the principle into constructive action. The contributors point out that the first step toward embedding the Precautionary Principle in today's regulatory framework is its incorporation as a general duty into local, state, and national laws the way proposed legislation would do in Massachusetts. Specific tools which would help implement precautionary laws are explored, such as assessments of alternatives, citizen review boards with the power to veto introduction of dangerous substances or technologies (already applied in Denmark) and the application of surety bonds to potentially damaging activities (with those carrying out the activity required to post a bond to cover potential harms).
At its heart, the Precautionary Principle offers a fundamental challenge to corporate-driven science and policymaking. As Peter Montague points out in one chapter, "As we think about the possibility of establishing the Precautionary Principle as standard operating procedure in the United States in the 21st century, we would be remiss if we did not examine the nature of this legal entity, the corporation." At the same time, the Precautionary Principle can be distorted in the same way corporations have altered the meaning of "sustainable development" and countless other phrases and concepts. The Precautionary Principle in particular is subject to wide interpretation because it cannot be applied absolutely -- absolute caution would lead to paralysis.
A careful examination of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development demonstrates how the Precautionary Principle can be misused: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." Use of the term "cost-effective" here ultimately serves to hedge any action with the consideration of economic feasibility -- thereby legitimizing the existing framework of cost-benefit analyses and risk assessment, and undermining the thrust of the Precautionary Principle.
The best way to prevent misuse of the Precautionary Principle, the book's
contributors argue, is to ground it in democratic processes. Empowering
citizens to participate in the Precautionary Principle's implementation,
in making the policy choices inevitably raised by its application, is
the best way to prevent corporations from undermining it.