Precautionary Tale

The latest environmentalist concept--the Precautionary Principle--seeks to stop innovation before it happens. Very bad idea.

Look before you leap.

Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But how reasonable would it be to take such proverbial wisdom and turn it into a Federal Leaping Commission? The environmentalist movement is seeking to create the moral equivalent of just that. In effect, before you or anybody else can leap, you will not only have to look beforehand in the prescribed manner, you will have to prove that if you leap, you won't be hurt, nor will any other living thing be hurt, now and for all time. And if you can't prove all of that, the commission will refuse to grant you a leaping license.

At this year's annual meeting of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science in Anaheim, California, in a symposium titled "The Precautionary Principle: A Revolution in Environmental Policymaking?", environmentalist advocates and academics insisted that a principle of ultimate precaution should trump all other considerations in future environmental and technological policy making. They pointed out that the Principle has already been incorporated into several international treaties, including the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which require developed nations to cut back dramatically on the burning of fossil fuels to reduce the putative threat of global warming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is already using it to help guide its promulgation of new regulations on synthetic chemicals.

Jeff Howard, a panel member who once worked on Greenpeace's International Toxics Campaign and now has a gig at the Center for Science and Technology Policy and Ethics at Texas A&M University, defined the Principle: It calls for precaution in the face of any actions that may affect people or the environment, no matter what science is able--or unable--to say about that action.

Before examining this concept, it's worth pausing to see where it came from. Howard's version of the Principle was formalized last year by environmentalist advocates who convened at the Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin. Gathering in such a place allowed them to give their ruminations a sonorous title: "The Wingspread Consensus Statement." (After all, you wouldn't want to call such a document "The Bronx Consensus Statement.")

That the Wingspread delegates achieved "consensus" on precaution might imply to some that their meeting was a strenuous, perhaps even contentious, effort by experts of diverse views to find a balance between the demands of scientific inquiry and the well-being of nature. That's certainly how the AAAS meeting treated this "consensus": as though it had arisen from a symposium presenting peer-reviewed scientific data.

But Wingspread's delegates were not exactly diverse; rather, they were a panel of activists with an agenda. They included representatives from an array of like-minded groups, including Greenpeace, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute in Massachusetts, Britain's Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, the Environmental Research Foundation, the Science and Environmental Health Network, the Environmental Network, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the Environmental Health Coalition, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. It's not hard to reach "consensus" when you gather a group of people who all share your values and views. If I hand-pick my delegates, I can achieve a consensus on just about anything. (How about the "Miami Beach Consensus Statement on Abolishing Social Security"?)

What did the Wingspread activists finally recommend? The actual text of the Principle that Howard offered at the AAAS meeting reads: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

The Wingspreaders and their followers on the AAAS panel want to apply the Principle solely to environmentalist concerns, but, in fact, their formula is essentially an empty vessel into which anyone can pour whatever values they prefer. It simply codifies a very risk-averse version of standard cost-benefit analysis; the Wingspread participants think that certain activities, such as manufacturing plastics or burning fossil fuels, are unacceptably risky. In other words, very conservative environmentalist values are being privileged over what, to other people, may be equally or more compelling values.

The formula can be adapted to fit many different agendas. Try this, for example: "When an activity (say, employment tests) raises threats of harm to equality and equal access, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established sociologically." Or this: "When an activity (say, higher taxes) raises threats of harm to private property or economic growth, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established economically." We could do this all day.

The heart of the Principle, of course, is the admonition that "precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." As one biomedical researcher in the audience objected, all scientific conclusions are subject to revision, and none is ever "fully established." Since that is the case, the researcher pointed out, the Precautionary Principle could logically apply to every conceivable activity, since their outcomes are always in some sense uncertain. Furthermore, David Murray, the director of the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington D.C., points out another possible--and disquieting--interpretation of the Principle. Anyone who merely raises "threats of harm" with no more evidence than their fearful imagination gets to invoke precautionary measures. Precautionists would not need to establish any empirical basis for their fears; they may simply posit that something might go wrong and thus stymie any proposed action.

Ah, so. Just what these activists had in mind all along, as we shall see.

But let's parse the Principle a bit more. One troublesome issue is that some activities that promote human health might "raise threats of harm to the environment," and some activities that might be thought of as promoting the environment might "raise threats of harm to human health."

Take the use of pesticides. Humanity has used them to better control disease-carrying insects like flies, mosquitoes, and cockroaches, and to protect crops. Clearly, pesticide use has significantly improved the health of scores of millions of people. But some pesticides have had side effects on the environment, such as harming nontargeted species. The Precautionary Principle gives no guidance on how to make this tradeoff between human health and the protection of nonpest species (though I suspect I know how the panel members would choose).

During the discussion period, another audience member asked panelist Steve Breyman, a professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, if he thought the last 200 years had been all bad. Breyman revealingly responded with something like, Oh sure, some things like life expectancy and living standards have improved, but there have been losses too. The quality of drinking water, Breyman asserted, has gone down.

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