(Published October 9, 2003)
The purpose of this week's newsletter is to identify (and make
available to you) the best sources of information about the
What is the Precautionary Principle?
The good news is that the precautionary principle is steadily
replacing old-style risk assessment as a way of making
environmental decisions. The risk-based approach asks, "How
much damage is acceptable?" In other words, "How much damage
can we get away with?" Then the system sets numerical limits to
allow precisely that amount of damage to occur. As you might
expect, the numerical limits are often wrong, so more than
"acceptable" damage occurs. This is why the entire planet is
now contaminated and chronic disease is increasing.
The precaution-based decision-making system asks a different
question. Under precaution, we examine all reasonable
alternatives and ask, "How little damage is possible?" In the
face of scientific uncertainty, the precautionary system urges
a "better safe than sorry" approach to decisions, instead of
the old approach, "I'm barging ahead until you can line up the
Corporate Attack on Precaution
The bad news is that the precautionary principle is now under
sustained corporate attack. For example, with corporate
funding, the Keystone Center in Keystone, Colorado and
Washington, D.C., in September tried to pull off one of its
"mediation" meetings where extreme corporate bad actors (like
International Paper, Georgia Pacific, ExxonMobil, General
Electric, DuPont, and Kodak, among others) hold a series of
meetings with "big green" environmental groups like the
Environmental Working Group, Environmental Defense, the World
Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Defenders of Wildlife, hoping to reach
a new "consensus" about the precautionary principle on behalf
of the rest of us. ( href="http://www.keystone.org/" target="_blank">http://www.keystone.org/ )
The Keystone method is to invite 20 or 30 carefully-chosen
"experts" to sit together and bargain with each other,
pretending that they democratically represent everyone in
America. They then publish a "consensus" statement that the
corporate polluters can claim they worked out with full
participation from the environmental community. The statement
circulates in Congress and sometimes influences federal policy.
For example, Congress authorized the flawed Yucca Mountain
nuclear waste dump in Nevada partly because of a Keystone
mediation intended to "solve" the nuclear waste problem for the
nuclear power industry.
In September, a few principled environmentalists refused
Keystone's invitation to sit with International Paper and
Georgia Pacific to discuss precaution -- a subject entirely
foreign to the ethic of these particular corporations -- and
Keystone had to cancel the meeting. But Keystone has promised
to try again. Keystone's letter canceling the meeting suggested
that they may use a "divide and conquer" strategy to try to
force the environmental community to the table next time.
Environmentalists invited to participate in Keystone's next
corporate-funded assault on precaution need to ask themselves,
"Why would corporations spend tens of thousands of dollars on
such an event?" They must think they have little to lose and
perhaps something important to gain. And of course that's
exactly right. The environmental community, on the other hand,
has nothing to gain and runs the risk of undermining years of
work spent patiently building the case for precaution
Keystone's clumsy assault on precaution is not the only
evidence of a coordinated corporate campaign against
Recently in California I heard four corporate speakers attack
the precautionary principle using a remarkably consistent
"party line." The party line goes something like this:
1) What's the problem? We don't need precaution because the
system is working just fine. There is no harm being done to
humans or the environment.
2) OK, maybe there's a teensy bit of harm being done but
adopting a precautionary approach won't help anything because
the chemical industry (for example) is already fully
precautionary. They have been behaving in a precautionary way
for decades and couldn't do any better even if they wanted to.
3) OK, maybe corporations could do a little bit better, but
risk assessment uses "conservative" assumptions and therefore
is fully precautionary. What we need is more and better risk
assessments. To fix risk assessments, we can always just plug
in another "safety factor" of 3 or 6 or 10. Risk assessment IS
4) OK, risk assessment may never be able to protect workers,
the environment or public health, but the risk-based regulatory
system itself is basically sound and can be tweaked to remedy
any problems after "sound science" proves beyond a doubt that
harm is occurring.
5) OK, the regulatory system does allow some major harms to
occur and tens of thousands of real people get killed or maimed
when risk assessments tell us that something dangerous (like
the air in Los Angeles) is "safe." Nevertheless, precaution is
bad for everyone because it will destroy jobs.
6) OK, if you must know, adopting precaution will not only
destroy jobs, it will take down the entire economy of our
state, and then our nation.
7) OK, if you insist, adopting precaution will undermine
8) OK, everyone can now see that people who advocate precaution
are extremists. In fact, precaution is an extremist doctrine
INTENDED to destroy western civilization. Rejecting precaution
is therefore the backbone of homeland security. God bless
One excellent response to this corporate campaign against
precaution would be more people learning to think and speak in
precautionary terms, until old-style risk-based thinking just
One way to do this would be to join Lois Gibbs's nationwide
precaution campaign. Check it out at href="http://www.besafenet.com/" target="_blank">http://www.besafenet.com/
. To learn how to get involved, send E-mail to
To inform yourself about precaution in depth -- so that you can
begin to THINK and SPEAK precaution -- you might take a look at
some of these resources:
Good Readings on Precaution
I. Overviews of the Precautionary Principle
1. Ted Schettler, Katherine Barrett, and Carolyn Raffensperger,
"The Precautionary Principle: Protecting Public Health and the
Environment." In my opinion, this is the best short summary of
the precautionary principle. Available at:
2. Nancy Myers, "The Precautionary Principle Puts Values
First." This paper describes how the precautionary principle
invites decision-makers and citizens to bring their ethical
values into matters of science and policy. Available at:
3. The Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle.
This is a consensus statement by participants in a conference
on precaution convened by the Science and Environmental Health
Network in 1998. The statement is named after the Wingspread
Center in Racine, Wisconsin where the conference took place.
Available at: http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=189
. It is this statement of the precautionary principle that
corporations are trying to label "extreme" and perhaps replace
with a new "Keystone" version of precaution. Take a look for
4. Jared Blumenfeld, "New approaches to safeguarding the earth;
An environmental version of the Hippocratic oath," San
Francisco Chronicle August 4, 2003. Blumenfeld is director of
the Department of the Environment for the City and County of
San Francisco, California. He wrote this op-ed shortly after
the City and County adopted precaution as basic policy in the
summer of 2003.
5. Three good books: Carolyn Raffensperger and Joel Tickner,
editors, Protecting Public Health & the Environment;
Implementing the Precautionary Principle (Washington, D.C.:
Island Press, 1999). ISBN 1-55963-688-2.
And: Joel Tickner, editor, Precaution, Environmental Science
and Preventive Public Policy (Washington, D.C.: Island Press,
2002). Paperback: ISBN 1-55963-332-8.
To buy these two books from a unionized book store, go to
and search the store for Joel
A third good book: Mary O'Brien, Making Better Environmental
Decisions; An Alternative to Risk Assessment (Cambridge, Mass.:
MIT Press, 2000). ISBN 0-262-65053-3. Go to
and search the store for ISBN #
II. Precaution and Government's Duty to Protect the Public
6. The public trust doctrine dates back to ancient Rome and
defines the role of government in protecting our common
heritage (air, water, and more). As we learned in Rachel's
Environment & Health News #775, the government's trust
responsibility implies a precautionary approach to protect the
Indeed, the Supreme Court of Hawaii has held that the public
trust doctrine REQUIRES government to take a precautionary
And see item 17, below.
III. Precaution and Religious Organizations
7. Dorothy Anderson, "A Religious Denomination [Methodist]
Speaks on Precaution," The Networker, Summer, 2000. The
Networker is the newsletter of the Science and Environmental
Health Network. Available at:
8. In response to the trend toward genetic modification of
living organisms, the North Dakota Conference of Churches in
March, 2003 adopted a statement embracing the precautionary
principle: "A Response To Issues And Values Related To
Genetically Modified Organisms."
The statement was affirmed by the following organizations:
American Baptist Churches of the Dakotas; Northern Plains
District of the Church of the Brethren; North Dakota Mission of
the Church Of God (Anderson); Episcopal Diocese Of North
Dakota; Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America; Moravian Church (Northern Province, Western
District); Northern Plains Presbytery of the Presbyterian
Church, USA; Religious Society Of Friends (Quaker); Roman
Catholic Diocese of Bismarck; Roman Catholic Diocese of Fargo;
Northern Plains Conference of the United Church Of Christ;
Dakotas Area of the United Methodist Church. Available at:
IV. Precaution in the Workplace:
9. Eileen Senn, "Playing Industrial Hygiene to Win." This 2003
update of Senn's 1991 article in New Solutions describes the
urgent need for precautionary action to protect workers. Eileen
Senn has retired from the New Jersey Department of Health and
now serves as a consultant to the New Jersey Work Environment
Council. See http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=198
10. Frank Ackerman and Rachel Massey, "Prospering With
Precaution." This short report, published during 2002 by the
Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts
University, argues that precautionary policies promote
industrial innovation and create jobs.
11. Resolution 9606, adopted by the American Public Health
Association in 1996, recommended a precautionary approach to
12. Eileen Senn Tarlau, "Industrial Hygiene with No Limits,"
American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal Vol. 51
(January 1990), pgs. A9-A10. This pioneering paper argues that
numerical exposure limits have failed to prevent death and
injury on the job and recommends a precautionary approach
(without using the term precautionary). See also item 9, above.
13. Anne Stijkel and Lucas Reijnders, "Implementation of the
precautionary principle in standards for the workplace,"
Occupational and Environmental Medicine Vol. 52 (1995), pgs.
V. Precaution and Environmental Justice
14. In June, 2003, the California Environmental Protection
Agency (Cal/EPA) Advisory Committee on Environmental Justice
issued its 45-page DRAFT report, recommending steps that
Cal/EPA could take to ensure environmental justice in all its
programs, policies, and regulations.
The Committee saw precaution as fundamental to environmental
justice. The DRAFT document was subsequently strengthened and
adopted in September, though the FINAL document has not yet
been published. When it is published, the FINAL report will be
15. Rachel's Environment & Health News #770 summarized some of
the recommendations of the Cal/EPA Advisory Committee on
Environmental Justice. See item 14, above.
16. Peter Montague, "Environmental Justice Requires
Precautionary Action," testimony Jan. 28, 2003 before the
Cal/EPA Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. See also
items 14 and 15, above.
17. Peter Montague, "Government has a Public Trust
Responsibility to Take Precautionary Action to Achieve
Environmental Justice." Paper presented Aug. 21, 2003 at a
conference convened by the South Coast Air Quality Management
District in Diamond Bar, California. See also item 6, above.
VI. Precaution and Local Government
18. In June, 2003, the City and County of San Francisco,
California, adopted the precautionary principle as basic
policy. Note that the San Francisco policy begins with a
statement about justice: "Every San Franciscan has a right to a
healthy, safe environment." And the law says, "The City sees
the Precautionary Principle approach as its policy framework to
develop laws for a healthier and more just San Francisco." A
more JUST San Francisco.
19. A short history of San Francisco's adoption of the
precautionary principle can be found here:
20. As background for its adoption of the precautionary
principle, the City and County of San Francisco published a
White Paper on precaution in March, 2003. This is the best full
discussion of the precautionary principle that I know of.
VII. Precaution and Environmental Science:
21. David Kriebel, Joel Tickner and others, "The Precautionary
Principle in Environmental Science," Environmental Health
Perspectives Vol. 109, No. 9 (Sept. 2001), pgs. 871-876. The
authors describe the relationship between science and public
policy and argue that a precautionary approach to public policy
demands some new thinking by scientists.
VIII. Precaution and Children's Health:
22. In 2001, the American Public Health Association adopted
resolution 200011, "The Precautionary Principle and Children's
IX. Precaution and Public Health:
23. Joel A. Tickner and others, "A Compass for Health:
Rethinking Precaution and Its Role in Science and Public
Health," International Journal of Epidemiology Vol. 32 (2003)
pgs. 489-492. Argues that the precautionary principle "becomes
a compass to guide decisions under uncertainty rather than a
hammer to force a specific action when a pre-specified level of
evidence has been met. It encourages changes in the research
agenda to support examination of broader hypotheses, expanded
characterization of uncertainties, the study of cumulative and
interactive effects as well as risks to vulnerable
sub-populations and preventive interventions."
X. What Happens When Precaution is Not Used?
24. The European Environment Agency's report, Late Lessons from
Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle, 1896-2000 offers
detailed case studies of major failures of the old risk-based
approach. Available at
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=301 but be
that the file is 2 megabytes in size.
There are many other very useful documents on precaution
available on the web site of the Science and Environmental
Health Network, so take a look at href="http://www.sehn.org" target="_blank">http://www.sehn.org .
Finally, the Science and Environmental Health Network and
Environmental Research Foundation may be planning a day-long
workshop on precaution in your region of the country. To
explore this possibility, send E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good reading! --Peter Montague
 Americans are living longer but chronic diseases are
increasing: http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=316 .
For 417 pages of details on health in the U.S., see:
s/data/hus/hus03.pdf . For even more
details about the relationship of environment to health, go to
ngourhealth.org/newest.htm and look at the
topics listed on the left side of the screen -- asthma, etc.
For case studies of the failure of the risk-based
decision-making system, see the European Environment Agency's
report, Late Lessons From Early Warnings, available at
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=301 (but be
that the file is 2 megabytes in size).
 See Luther J. Carter, Nuclear Imperatives and Public Trust:
Dealing With Radioactive Waste (Washington, D.C.: Resources for
the Future, 1989).
see the corporate attacks on precaution by
Michael de Alessi, Jim Solyst, Henry Miller, and Cindy Tuck.
The speeches of de Alessi and Miller, as delivered, were even
more fanciful and rabid than their handouts and slides depict.