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.

Really? Two hundred years ago, drinking from any stream, well, or spring could expose one to typhoid, typhus, cholera, and other diseases. In fact, chlorination has so improved drinking water quality with regard to health that people in the West no longer even think twice about drinking tap water. Unfortunately, more than a billion people in the developing world can't say the same; millions still die of water-borne diseases each year.

Proponents of the Precautionary Principle are trying to smuggle in a default position: The environment trumps all other values. Yet the panelists all pretended that the Principle is a value-neutral scientific procedure for determining which policies humanity should pursue. The fact is that the Precautionary Principle incorporates the values of the most extreme versions of know-nothing environmentalism. When challenged from the audience on this point, Breyman fumed, "We're talking about the survival of the planet and the human race here."

Breyman sees the Precautionary Principle as an essential part of a radical agenda to reshape human culture. He writes in his AAAS presentation, "Introduced as part of an overall green plan that included conservation and renewable energy, grass roots democracy, green taxes, defense conversion, deep cuts in military spending, bioregionalism, full cost accounting, the cessation of perverse subsidies, the adoption of green materials, designs and codes, green purchasing, pollution prevention, industrial ecology and zero emissions, etc., the PP could be an essential element of the transition to sustainability."

Jeff Howard later offered some corollaries to the Precautionary Principle that reveal just how sweeping a proposal it is.

The first corollary is that "the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof (reverse onus)." This means that "proponents would have to demonstrate through an open process that a technology is safe or necessary and that no better alternatives were available." Unlike the members of the AAAS panel, Boston University law professor George Annas, a prominent bioethicist who favors the Precautionary Principle, clearly understands that it is not a value-neutral concept. He gleefully told me, "The truth of the matter is that whoever has the burden of proof loses."

The result: Anything new is guilty until proven innocent. It's like demanding that a newborn baby prove that it will never grow up to be a serial killer, or even just a schoolyard bully, before the baby is allowed to leave the hospital. Under this corollary, inventors, scientists, and manufacturers would have to prove that their creations wouldn't cause harm–ever–to the environment or human health before they would be allowed to offer them to the public. This is asking them to prove a negative. How can someone prove that a new plastic will never, ever interact with any metabolic pathway in any plant, animal, microbe, or person? There is simply no way to test for all possible effects given the millions of different species living on the earth.

But is this inability to test for everything really dangerous? Howard thinks it's murderous. He warned the audience that humanity has been engaged in a "great global experiment since the dawn of the chemical age" and predicted that "death and disease will increase as a result."

The plain fact is that the introduction of thousands of synthetic chemicals has not resulted in increased levels of death and disease but has resulted in substantial health benefits and greater convenience and efficiency. Life expectancy has never been higher and, as just reported by the National Cancer Institute, even cancer incidence rates are going down. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that less than 2 percent of cancers are the result of exposure to man-made substances. Finally, the few bad actors, like some organochlorine compounds, have been replaced.

Under the "reverse onus" corollary, would-be innovators would have to demonstrate that a technology was "necessary" because no alternatives were available. Necessary? Like air, water, and food? This is potentially a very high threshold. Are antibiotics necessary? Computers? Microwave ovens? What makes something "necessary" or not depends on the goals that individuals are trying to achieve. Necessity is the mother of invention only to the degree that it is in the eye of the inventor.

This requirement of demonstrable necessity ignores a vital fact about progress: All technologies serve as bridges to other technologies, to ever-better alternatives. For example, without the production of fossil fuels, humanity would not be in the position to make the costly, knowledge-intensive transition to the solar/hydrogen future that environmentalists wish to subsidize into existence. One technology leads to another. As dirty as burning fossil fuels may be, they aren't a tenth as dirty as burning wood.

Embedded in the Precautionary Principle is the notion that we can anticipate all of the ramifications of a technology in advance and can tell whether on balance it will be a net benefit or cost to humanity and the environment. That's complete nonsense. To cite a single example, when the optical laser was invented in 1960, it was dismissed as "an invention looking for a job." No one could imagine of what possible use this interesting phenomenon might be. Of course, now it is integral to the operation of hundreds of everyday products: It runs our printers, runs our optical telephone networks, performs laser surgery to correct myopia, removes tattoos, plays our CDs, opens clogged arteries, helps level our crop fields, etc. It's ubiquitous. Yet no one anticipated–no one could have anticipated–how incredibly useful lasers would turn out to be, not even the wisest tribunal of environmentalist seers or panel of Federal Leaping Commissioners.

The same thing goes for items which eventually turned up on the environmentalist hit list: organochlorine pesticides. After all, it is not as though evil chemical corporations invented pesticides for the purpose of polluting the environment. When these compounds were introduced they were a genuine miracle; they saved millions of lives that would have been lost to malaria and malnutrition. No one could have anticipated that their persistence in the environment would allow them to accumulate in animal fat, leading to some reproductive problems in eagles and falcons. The data simply weren't there. Indeed, there was not even a theory of bioaccumulation. Only by gaining experience with these substances were we able to learn about their downside and eventually decide that other, less persistent pesticides achieved a better tradeoff between human benefits and harm to the natural environment.

A second vexed corollary is that "the process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties." At one point, panel member Breyman declared that we had to get environmental decisions out of the hands of EPA regulators. Sounds good, right? But what if the open, democratic process ended with a choice to exploit a natural resource in ways that environmentalists don't like?

The deputy administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, Andy Rosenberg, happened to be in the audience and offered an illustration of realpolitik to the panel's starry-eyed egalitarians. Rosenberg pointed out that if you allowed New England fishermen to vote on whether or not to keep the cod fishery open, they would fish it until the last fish was gone. Breyman responded lamely that if the fishermen did that, they didn't have enough information.

Other panelists suggested that the "affected parties" aren't just fishermen, but all of us. If we don't get the result we like at one democratic level, these panelists implied, we'll just keep shifting the definition of "affected parties" until we do get the result we like. But wait a minute. Does this mean that when one of us wants to engage in an activity that someone thinks may result in harm, we all get to vote on it?

This problem–deciding who gets to decide what–is just one of many slippery slopes that the Precautionary Principle teeters over. Of course, it quickly became apparent that, for the AAAS panel, the only democratic decisions that are acceptable are those consistent with environmentalist goals. But other obvious problems were never acknowledged.

For example, democratic decision making concerning any and all environment-affecting actions could have the effect of ratifying extraordinarily conservative choices. That is, a community could use its environmental veto to say, No, we don't want a new store, a new housing development, a new factory, a new road. Basically, it means that the vested interests of the present can strangle the future. After all, as one wag noted, an environmentalist is somebody who already owns his second home in the woods.

Of course, neither the regulators at the meeting nor the environmental activists on the AAAS panel considered a real solution: removing the decisions about resources from the political process entirely. Politics is always win/lose, while market decisions are generally win/win. Give fishermen, loggers, and cattlemen secure property rights to the resources, and that shifts their incentives toward trying to protect and enhance their resource, rather than merely plundering somebody else's resource.

Draconian as the Wingspread proposals are, Jeff Howard doesn't think they are strong enough. He fears that wily capitalists and innovators will find ways around them, so he suggests five additional tenets:

• Precaution must become the default mode of all technological decision making.

• Even the most fundamental of past decisions must be subject to re-examination and precautionary reform.

• The primary mode of regulation and regulatory science should be at the macroscale.

• Knowledge of broad patterns trumps ignorance of detail.

• Human society must identify and accommodate itself to broad patterns in natural processes.

Consider for a moment the tenet that "even the most fundamental of past decisions must be subject to re-examination and precautionary reform." Actually, the process of technological innovation constantly "re-examines" past decisions, but that's not what Howard has in mind. He wants to create a political process, which he naturally insists would be open, that would eliminate technologies of which he disapproves: nuclear power plants, organochlorines, most plastics, etc. But what I find intriguing is the idea that "even the most fundamental of past decisions" could be "reformed."

How fundamental is fundamental? Decisions like the invention of the automobile? The use of fossil fuels? The development of agriculture? Fire? Look at Howard's last tenet, that society must accommodate itself "to broad patterns in natural processes." What violates the broad patterns in natural processes? Medicine? City building? Farming?

Before the AAAS session ended, Howard offered a third corollary to the Principle: "Precaution requires consideration of the full range of social and technological alternatives" to what is being proposed. It is very much in line with the Wingspread Consensus Statement, which declares that precaution "must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action."

Environmentalists often liken technology and economic growth to a car careening down a foggy road. They suggest that it would be better if we slowed before we crashed into a wall hidden in the fog. The Precautionary Principle, its champions believe, "would serve as a `speed bump' in the development of technologies and enterprises."

Unfortunately, these principles and tenets may sound sensible to many people, especially those who live in societies already replete with technology. These people already have their centrally heated house in the woods; they already enjoy the freedom from want, disease, and ignorance that technology can provide. They may think they can afford the luxury of ultimate precaution. But there are billions of people who still yearn to have their lives transformed. For them, the Precautionary Principle represents not a speed bump but a wall.

Should we look before we leap? Sure we should. But every utterance of proverbial wisdom has its counterpart, reflecting both the complexity and the variety of life's situations and the foolishness involved in applying a short list of hard rules to them. For some people in some situations, "Look before you leap" is good advice. Others might be wiser to heed the equally proverbial, "He who hesitates is lost."

People have understood this maxim for millennia, and the chances are that its message will eventually reach even Wisconsin's Wingspread Conference Center. And when it does, I want the Wingspreaders to understand that the moral equivalent of a Federal Anti-Hesitation Commission isn't such a good idea, either.