Table of Contents...
The Rise of the Precautionary Principle
In Denton, Texas, residents want to protect the future of their
town by adopting precautionary policies. A social movement is
gathering strength, based on foresight and forecaring...
The Precautionary Principle: Answering the Critics
Opponents trot out a series of misleading claims to contest the
precautionary principle. A careful look shows how these claims
misrepresent basic Precautionary Principle precepts.
Finland Takes a Precautionary Approach to Social Well-Being
An editor of the Washington Post visits Finland and observes the
use of foresight and forecaring to improve social well-being -- trying
to do the least harm to the common good. In this view, even taxes are
Commentary: Unprincipled Precaution
Professor Gary Marchant seems to be making a career out of trashing
foresight and forecaring.
From: Multinational Monitor (Vol. 25, No. 9), Sept. 15, 2004
THE RISE OF THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE
A Social Movement Gathers Strength.
By Nancy Myers
Ed Soph is a jazz musician and professor at the University of North
Texas in Denton, a growing town of about 100,000 just outside Dallas,
Texas. In 1997, Ed and his wife Carol founded Citizens for Healthy
Growth, a Denton group concerned about the environment and future of
their town. The Sophs and their colleagues -- the group now numbers
about 400 -- are among the innovative pioneers who are implementing
the Precautionary Principle in the United States.
The Sophs first came across the Precautionary Principle in 1998, in
the early days of the group's campaign to prevent a local copper wire
manufacturer, United Copper Industries, from obtaining an air permit
that would have allowed lead emissions. Ed remembers the discovery of
the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle -- a 1998
environmental health declaration holding that "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 "truly a life-changing
experience." Using the Precautionary Principle as a guide, the
citizens refused to be drawn into debates on what levels of lead, a
known toxicant, might constitute a danger to people's health. Instead,
they pointed out that a safer process was available and insisted that
the wise course was not to issue the permit. The citizens prevailed.
The principle helped again in 2001, when a citizen learned that the
pesticides 2,4-D, simazine, Dicamba and MCPP were being sprayed in the
city parks. "The question was, given the 'suspected' dangers of these
chemicals, should the city regard those suspicions as a reassurance of
the chemicals' safety or as a warning of their potential dangers?" Ed
recalls. "Should the city act out of ignorance or out of common sense
Soph learned that the Greater Los Angeles School District had written
the Precautionary Principle into its policy on pesticide use and had
turned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a system aimed at
controlling pests without the use of toxic chemicals. The Denton group
decided to advocate for a similar policy. They persuaded the city's
park district to form a focus group of park users and organic
gardening experts. The city stopped spraying the four problem
chemicals and initiated a pilot IPM program.
The campaign brought an unexpected economic bonus to the city. In the
course of their research, parks department staff discovered that corn
gluten was a good turf builder and natural broadleaf herbicide. But
the nearest supplier of corn gluten was in the Midwest, and that meant
high shipping costs for the city. Meanwhile, a corn processing
facility in Denton was throwing away the corn gluten it produced as a
byproduct. The parks department made the link, and everyone was
pleased. The local corn company was happy to add a new product line;
the city was happy about the expanded local business and the lower
price for a local product; and the environmental group chalked up
The citizens of Denton, Texas, did not stop there. They began an
effort to improve the community's air pollution standards. They got
arsenic-treated wood products removed from school playgrounds and
parks and replaced with nontoxic facilities. "The Precautionary
Principle helped us define the problems and find the solutions," Ed
But, as he wrote in an editorial for the local paper, "The piecemeal
approach is slow, costly and often more concerned with mitigation than
prevention." Taking a cue from Precautionary Principle pioneers in San
Francisco, they also began lobbying for a comprehensive new
environmental code for the community, based on the Precautionary
In June 2003, San Francisco's board of supervisors had become the
first government in the United States to embrace the Precautionary
Principle. A new environmental code drafted by the city's environment
commission put the Precautionary Principle at the top, as Article One.
Step one in implementing the code was a new set of guidelines for city
purchasing, pointing the way toward "environmentally preferable"
purchases by careful analysis and choice of the best alternatives. The
White Paper accompanying the ordinance pointed out that most of the
city's progressive environmental policies were already in line with
the Precautionary Principle, and that the new code provided unity and
focus to the policies rather than a radically new direction.
That focus is important; too often, environmental matters seem like a
long, miscellaneous and confusing list of problems and solutions.
Likewise in Denton, the Precautionary Principle has not been a magic
wand for transforming policy, but it has put backbone into efforts to
enact truly protective and far-sighted environmental policies. Ed Soph
points out that, in his community as in others, growth had often been
dictated by special interests in the name of economic development, and
the environment got short shrift.
"Environmental protection and pollution prevention in our city have
been a matter, not of proactive policy, but of reaction to federal and
state mandates, to the threat of citizens' lawsuits, and to civic
embarrassment. Little thought is given to future environmental
impacts," he told the city council when he argued for a new
He added, "The toxic chemical pollution emitted by area industries has
been ignored or accepted for all the ill-informed or selfish reasons
that we are too familiar with. The Precautionary Principle dispels
that ignorance and empowers concerned citizens with the means to
ensure a healthier future."
The Precautionary Principle has leavened the discussion of
environmental and human health policy on many fronts -- in
international treaty negotiations and global trade forums, in city
resolutions and national policies, among conservationists and
toxicologists, and even in corporate decision making.
Two treaties negotiated in 2000 incorporated the principle for the
first time as an enforceable measure. The Cartagena Protocol on
Biosafety allows countries to invoke the Precautionary Principle in
decisions on admitting imports of genetically modified organisms. It
became operative in June 2003. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent
Organic Pollutants prescribes the Precautionary Principle as a
standard for adding chemicals to the original list of 12 that are
banned by the treaty. This treaty went into force in February 2004.
Making Sense of Uncertainty
Understanding the need for the Precautionary Principle requires some
scientific sophistication. Ecologists say that changes in ecological
systems may be incremental and gradual, or surprisingly large and
sudden. When change is large enough to cause a system to cross a
threshold, it creates a new dynamic equilibrium that has its own
stability and does not change back easily. These new interactions
become the norm and create new realities.
Something of this new reality is evident in recently observed changes
in patterns of human disease:
Chronic diseases and conditions affect more than 100 million men,
women, and children in the United States -- more than a third of the
population. Cancer, asthma, Alzheimer's disease, autism, birth
defects, developmental disabilities, diabetes, endometriosis,
infertility, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease are becoming
Nearly 12 million children in the United States (17 percent) suffer
from one or more developmental disabilities. Learning disabilities
alone affect at least 5 to 10 percent of children in public schools,
and these numbers are increasing. Attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder conservatively affects 3 to 6 percent of all school children.
The incidence of autism appears to be increasing.
Asthma prevalence has doubled in the last 20 years.
Incidence of certain types of cancer has increased. The age-adjusted
incidence of melanoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and cancers of the
prostate, liver, testis, thyroid, kidney, breast, brain, esophagus and
bladder has risen over the past 25 years. Breast cancer, for example,
now strikes more women worldwide than any other type of cancer, with
rates increasing 50 percent during the past half century. In the
1940s, the lifetime risk of breast cancer was one in 22. Today's risk
is one in eight and rising.
In the United States, the incidence of some birth defects, including
male genital disorders, some forms of congenital heart disease and
obstructive disorders of the urinary tract, is increasing. Sperm
density is declining in some parts of the United States and elsewhere
in the world.
These changes in human health are well documented. But proving direct
links with environmental causative factors is more complicated.
Here is how the scientific reasoning might go: Smoking and diet
explain few of the health trends listed above. Genetic factors explain
up to half the population variance for several of these conditions --
but far less for the majority of them -- and in any case do not
explain the changes in disease incidence rates. This suggests that
other environmental factors play a role. Emerging science suggests
this as well. In laboratory animals, wildlife and humans, considerable
evidence documents a link between environmental contamination and
malignancies, birth defects, reproductive disorders, impaired behavior
and immune system dysfunction. Scientists' growing understanding of
how biological systems develop and function leads to similar
But serious, evident effects such as these can seldom be linked
decisively to a single cause. Scientific standards of certainty (or
"proof") about cause and effect are high. These standards may never be
satisfied when many different factors are working together, producing
many different results. Sometimes the period of time between
particular causes and particular results is so long, with so many
intervening factors, that it is impossible to make a definitive link.
Sometimes the timing of exposure is crucial -- a trace of the wrong
chemical at the wrong time in pregnancy, for example, may trigger
problems in the child's brain or endocrine system, but the child's
mother might never know she was exposed.
In the real world, there is no way of knowing for sure how much
healthier people might be if they did not live in the modern chemical
stew, because the chemicals are everywhere -- in babies' first bowel
movement, in the blood of U.S. teenagers and in the breastmilk of
Inuit mothers. No unexposed "control" population exists. But clearly,
significant numbers of birth defects, cancers and learning
disabilities are preventable.
Scientific uncertainty is a fact of life even when it comes to the
most obvious environmental problems, such as the disappearance of
species, and the most potentially devastating trends, such as climate
change. Scientists seldom know for sure what will happen until it
happens, and seldom have all the answers about causes until well after
the fact, if ever. Nevertheless, scientific knowledge, as incomplete
as it may be, provides important clues to all of these conditions and
what to do about them.
The essence of the Precautionary Principle is that when lives and the
future of the planet are at stake, people must act on these clues and
prevent as much harm as possible, despite imperfect knowledge and even
A premise of Precautionary Principle advocates is that environmental
policies to date have largely not met this challenge. Part of the
explanation for why they have not is that the dimensions of the
emerging problems are only now becoming apparent. The limits of the
earth's assimilative capacity are much clearer now than they were when
the first modern environmental legislation was enacted 30 years ago.
Another part of the explanation is that, although some environmental
policies are preventive, most have focused on cleaning up messes after
the fact -- what environmentalists call "end of pipe" solutions.
Scrubbers on power plant stacks, catalytic converters on tailpipes,
recycling and super-sized funds dedicated to detoxifying the worst
dumps have not been enough. The Precautionary Principle holds that
earlier, more comprehensive and preventive approaches are necessary.
Nor is it enough to address problems only after they have become so
obvious that they cannot be ignored -- often, literally waiting for
the dead bodies to appear or for coastlines to disappear under rising
The third factor in the failure of environmental policies is
political, say Precautionary Principle proponents. After responding to
the initial burst of concern for the environment, the U.S. regulatory
system and others like it were subverted by commercial interests, with
the encouragement of political leaders and, increasingly, the
complicity of the court system. Environmental laws have been subjected
to an onslaught of challenges since the 1980s; many have been modified
or gutted, and all are enforced by regulators who have been chastened
by increasing challenges to their authority by industry and the
The courts, and now increasingly international trade organizations and
agreements like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have institutionalized an anti-
precautionary approach to environmental controls. They have demanded
the kinds of proof and certainty of harms and efficacy of regulation
that science often cannot provide.
Ironically, one tool that has proved highly effective in the battle
against environmental regulations was one that was meant to strengthen
the enforcement of such laws: quantitative risk assessment. Risk
assessment was developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a systematic way to
evaluate the degree and likelihood of harmful side effects from
products and technologies. With precise, quantitative risk assessments
in hand, regulators could more convincingly demonstrate the need for
action. Risk assessments would stand up in court. Risk assessments
could "prove" that a product was dangerous, would cause a certain
number of deaths per million, and should be taken off the market.
Or not. Quantitative risk assessment, which became standard practice
in the United States in the mid-1980s and was institutionalized in the
global trade agreements of the 1990s, turned out to be most useful in
"proving" that a product or technology was not inordinately dangerous.
More precisely, risk assessments presented sets of numbers that
purported to state definitively how much harm might occur. The next
question for policymakers then became: How much harm is acceptable?
Quantitative risk assessment not only provided the answers; it
dictated the questions.
As quantitative risk assessment became the norm, commercial and
industrial interests were increasingly able to insist that harm must
be proven "scientifically" -- in the form of a quantitative risk
assessment demonstrating harm in excess of acceptable limits -- before
action was taken to stop a process or product. These exercises were
often linked with cost-benefit assessments that heavily weighted the
immediate monetary costs of regulations and gave little, if any,
weight to costs to the environment or future generations.
Although risk assessments tried to account for uncertainties, those
projections were necessarily subject to assumptions and
simplifications. Quantitative risk assessments usually addressed a
limited number of potential harms, often missing social, cultural or
broader environmental factors. These risk assessments have consumed
enormous resources in strapped regulatory agencies and have slowed the
regulatory process. They have diverted attention from questions that
could be answered: Do better alternatives exist? Can harm be
The slow pace of regulation, the insistence on "scientific certainty,"
and the weighting toward immediate monetary costs often give the
benefit of doubt to products and technologies, even when harmful side
effects are suspected. One result is that neither international
environmental agreements nor national regulatory systems have kept up
with the increasing pace and cumulative effects of environmental
A report by the European Environment Agency in 2001 tallied the great
costs to society of some of the most egregious failures to heed early
warnings of harm. Radiation, ozone depletion, asbestos, Mad Cow
disease and other case studies show a familiar pattern: "Misplaced
'certainty' about the absence of harm played a key role in delaying
preventive actions," the authors conclude.
They add, "The costs of preventive actions are usually tangible,
clearly allocated and often short term, whereas the costs of failing
to act are less tangible, less clearly distributed and usually longer
term, posing particular problems of governance. Weighing up the
overall pros and cons of action, or inaction, is therefore very
difficult, involving ethical as well as economic considerations."
The Precautionary Approach
As environmentalists looked at looming problems such as global
warming, they were appalled at the inadequacy of policies based on
quantitative risk assessment. Although evidence was piling up rapidly
that human activities were having an unprecedented effect on global
climate, for example, it was difficult to say when the threshold of
scientific certainty would be crossed. Good science demanded caution
about drawing hard and fast conclusions. Yet, the longer humanity
waited to take action, the harder it would be to reverse any effect.
Perhaps it was already too late. Moreover, action would have to take
the form of widespread changes not only in human behavior but also in
technological development. The massive shift away from fossil fuels
that might yet mitigate the effects of global warming would require
rethinking the way humans produce and use energy. Nothing in the risk-
assessment-based approach to policy prepared society to do that.
The global meetings called to address the coming calamity were not
helping much. Politicians fiddled with blame and with protecting
national economic interests while the globe heated up. Hard-won and
heavily compromised agreements such as the 1997 Kyoto agreement on
climate change were quickly mired in national politics, especially in
the United States, the heaviest fossil-fuel user of all.
In the United States and around the globe, a different kind of
struggle had been going on for decades: the fight for attention to
industrial pollution in communities. From childhood lead poisoning in
the 1930s to Love Canal in the 1970s, communities had always faced an
uphill battle in proving that pollution and toxic products were making
them sick. Risk assessments often made the case that particular
hazardous waste dumps were safe, or that a single polluting industry
could not possibly have caused the rash of illnesses a community
claimed. But these risk assessments missed the obvious fact that many
communities suffered multiple environmental assaults, compounded by
other effects of poverty. A landmark 1987 report by the United Church
of Christ coined the term "environmental racism" and confirmed that
the worst environmental abuses were visited on communities of color.
This growing awareness generated the international environmental
In early 1998, a small conference at Wingspread, the Johnson
Foundation's conference center in Racine, Wisconsin, addressed these
dilemmas head-on. Participants groped for a better approach to
protecting the environment and human health. At that time, the
Precautionary Principle, which had been named in Germany in the 1970s,
was an emerging precept of international law. It had begun to appear
in international environmental agreements, gaining reference in a
series of protocols, starting in 1984, to reduce pollution in the
North Sea; the 1987 Ozone Layer Protocol; and the Second World Climate
Conference in 1990.
At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, precaution was enshrined as Principle
15 in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: "In order to
protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely
applied by states according to their capabilities. 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."
In the decade after Rio, the Precautionary Principle began to appear
in national constitutions and environmental policies worldwide and was
occasionally invoked in legal battles. For example:
The Maastricht Treaty of 1994, establishing the European Union, named
the Precautionary Principle as a guide to EU environment and health
The Precautionary Principle was the basis for arguments in a 1995
International Court of Justice case on French nuclear testing. Judges
cited the "consensus flowing from Rio" and the fact that the
Precautionary Principle was "gaining increasing support as part of the
international law of the environment."
At the World Trade Organization in the mid-1990s, the European Union
invoked the Precautionary Principle in a case involving a ban on
imports of hormone-fed beef.
The Wingspread participants believed the Precautionary Principle was
not just another weak and limited fix for environmental problems. They
believed it could bring far-reaching changes to the way those policies
were formed and implemented. But action to prevent harm in the face of
scientific uncertainty alone did not translate into sound policies
protective of the environment and human health. Other norms would have
to be honored simultaneously and as an integral part of a
precautionary decision-making process.
Several other principles had often been linked with the Precautionary
Principle in various statements of the principle or in connection with
precautionary policies operating in Northern European countries. The
statement released at the end of the meeting, the Wingspread Statement
on the Precautionary Principle, was the first to put four of these
primary elements on the same page -- acting upon early evidence of
harm, shifting the burden of proof, exercising democracy and
transparency, and assessing alternatives. These standards form the
basis of what has come to be known as the overarching or comprehensive
Precautionary Principle or approach:
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.
In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public,
should bear the burden of proof.
The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open,
informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties.
It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives,
including no action.
The conference generated widespread enthusiasm for the principle among
U.S. environmentalists and academics as well as among some
policymakers. That was complemented by continuing and growing support
for the principle among Europeans as well as ready adoption of the
concept in much of the developing world. And in the years following
Wingspread, the Precautionary Principle has gained new international
Nancy Myers is communications director for the Science and
Environmental Health Network. This article is based on a chapter in a
the new book, Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental
Policy, edited by Nancy Myers and Carolyn Raffensperger (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 2005); ISBN 0-262-63323-X.
Return to Table of Contents
From: Multinational Monitor, Sept. 15, 2004
THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE: ANSWERING THE CRITICS
By Nancy Myers
Opponents trot out a series of misleading claims to contest the
precautionary principle. A careful look shows how these claims
misrepresent basic Precautionary Principle precepts:
Claim: "If precaution applies to everything, it would stop all
technology in its tracks."
Response: Precautionary action usually means adopting safer
alternatives. A broad precautionary approach will encourage the
development of better technologies. Using this approach, society will
say "yes" to some technologies while it says "no" to others. Making
uncertainty explicit, considering alternatives, and increasing
transparency and the responsibility of proponents and manufacturers to
demonstrate safety should lead to cleaner products and production
methods. It can also mean imposing a moratorium while further research
is conducted, calling for monitoring of technologies and products
already in use, and so forth.
Claim: "Precaution calls for zero risk, which is impossible to
Response: Any debate over the possibility of "zero risk" is pointless.
Our real goal must be to impose far less risk and harm on the
environment and on human health than we have in the past. We must
harness human ingenuity to reduce the harmful effects of our
The real question is who or what gets the benefit of the doubt. The
Precautionary Principle is based on the assumption that people have
the right to know as much as possible about risks they are taking on,
in exchange for what benefits, and to make choices accordingly. With
food and other products, such choices are often played out in the
marketplace. Increasingly, manufacturers are choosing to reduce risk
themselves by substituting safer alternatives in response to consumer
uneasiness, the threat of liability and market pressures.
A key to making those choices is transparency -- about what products
contain, and about the testing and monitoring of those ingredients.
Another is support, by government and industry, for the exploration of
-- and rigorous research on -- alternatives.
Market and voluntary action is not enough, especially on issues that
go beyond individual and corporate choice. It is the responsibility of
communities, governments, and international bodies to make far-
reaching decisions that greatly reduce the risks we now impose on the
earth and all its inhabitants.
Claim: "We don't need the Precautionary Principle; we have risk
Response: Risk assessment is the prevalent tool used to justify
decisions about technologies and products. Its proponents argue that
because conservative assumptions are built into these assessments,
they are sufficiently precautionary.
Too often, however, risk assessment has been used to delay
precautionary action: decision-makers wait to get enough information
and then attempt to "manage" rather than prevent risks. Risk
assessment is not necessarily inconsistent with the Precautionary
Principle, but because it omits certain basic requirements of the
decision-making process, the current type of risk assessment is only
helpful at a narrow stage of the process, when the product, technology
or activity and alternatives have been well developed and tested and a
great deal of information has already been gathered about them.
Standard risk assessment, in other words, is only useful in conditions
of relatively high certainty, and generally only to help evaluate
alternatives to damaging technologies.
Under the Precautionary Principle, uncertainty is also given due
weight. The Precautionary Principle calls for the examination of a
wider range of harms -- including social and economic ones -- than
traditional risk analysis provides. It points to the need to examine
not only single, linear risks but also complex interactions among
multiple factors, and the broadest possible range of harmful effects.
This broad, probing consideration of harm -- including the
identification of uncertainty -- should begin as early as possible in
the conception of a technology and should continue through its release
and use. That is, a precautionary approach should begin before the
regulatory phase of decision-making and should be built into the
What is not consistent with the Precautionary Principle is the
misleading certainty often implied by quantitative risk assessments --
that precise numbers can be assigned to the possibility of harm or
level of safety, that these numbers are usually a sufficient basis for
deciding whether the substance or technology is "safe," and that lack
of numbers means there is no reason to take action. The assumptions
behind risk assessments -- what "risks" are evaluated and how
comparisons are made -- are easily manipulated by those with a stake
in their outcome.
Claim: "Precaution itself is risky: it will prevent us from
adopting technologies that are actually safer."
Response: This is not true. Precaution suggests two approaches to new
Greater vigilance about possible harmful side effects of all
innovations. Alternatives to harmful technologies (such as genetic
modification to reduce pesticide use) must be scrutinized as carefully
as the technologies they replace. It does not make sense to replace
one set of harms with another. Brand-new technologies must receive
much greater scrutiny than they have in the past. Redirection of
research and ingenuity toward inherently safer, more harmonious, more
sustainable technologies, products, and processes.
Claim: "Implementing the Precautionary Principle will be too
expensive. We can't afford it."
Response: If a cost-benefit analysis indicates that a precautionary
approach is too expensive, that analysis is probably incomplete. Does
it consider long-term costs? The costs to society? The costs of
harmful side effects -- monetary and nonmonetary? The costs spread
over a product's entire lifecycle -- including disposal? The pricetags
of most products and developments do not reflect their real costs.
Like precautionary science, precautionary economics operates in the
real world, in which connections, costs and benefits are complex and
surrounded by uncertainty -- but they cannot be ignored. Tallying the
"cost" of precaution requires making true value judgments, which can
only partially be expressed by money. But in the 21st Century,
precaution is essential to a healthy, sustainable economy.
Claim: "The Precautionary Principle is anti-science."
Response: On the contrary, the Precautionary Principle calls for more
and better science, especially investigations of complex interactions
over longer periods of time and development of more harmonious
technologies. It calls for scientific monitoring after the approval of
products. The assertion that the principle is "anti-science" is based
on any or all of the following faulty assumptions:
1) Those who advocate precaution urge action on the basis of vague
fears, regardless of whether there is scientific evidence to support
Most statements of the Precautionary Principle say it applies when
there is reason to believe serious or irreversible harm may occur.
Those reasons are based on scientific evidence of various kinds:
studies, observations, precedents, experience, professional judgment.
They are based on what we know about how processes work and might be
affected by a technology.
However, precautionary decisions also take into account what we know
we do not know. The more we know, scientifically, the greater will be
our ability to prevent disasters based on ignorance. But we must be
much more cautious than we have been in the past about moving forward
2) Taking action in advance of scientific certainty undermines
Scientific standards of certainty are high in experimental science or
for accepting or refuting a hypothesis, and well they should be.
Waiting to take action before a substance or technology is proven
harmful, or even until plausible cause-and-effect relationships can be
established, may mean allowing irreversible harm to occur -- deaths,
extinctions, poisoning, and the like. Humans and the environment
become the unwitting testing grounds for these technologies. This is
no longer acceptable. Moreover, science should serve society, not vice
versa. Any decision to take action -- before or after scientific proof
-- is a decision of society, not science.
3) Quantitative risk assessment is more scientific than other kinds of
Risk assessment is only one evaluation method and provides only
partial answers. It does not take into account many unknowns and
seldom accounts for complex interactions -- nor does it raise our
sights to better alternatives.
Claim: "The Precautionary Principle is a cover for trade
Response: The Precautionary Principle was created to protect public
health and the environment, not to restrict valid trade. North
American, Argentinean and other representatives in trade talks have
leveled this accusation against the European Union in response to EU
action on beef containing growth hormones and on genetically modified
foods and crops. Recent EU statements on the Precautionary Principle
have emphasized that the principle should be applied fairly and
However, the real issue is not protectionism but whether a nation has
the sovereign right to impose standards that exceed the standards of
international regimes. The 2000 European Commission statement on the
Precautionary Principle and Cartagena Biosafety Protocol both
assert that right.
Nancy Myers is communications director for the Science and
Environmental Health Network.
Return to Table of Contents
From: The Providence (R.I.) Journal, Aug. 29, 2005
WHY CAN'T WE BE LIKE THE FINNS?
By Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor, Washington Post
Finland is a leading example of the northern European view that a
successful, competitive society should provide basic social services
to all its citizens at affordable prices or at no cost. This isn't
controversial in Finland; it's taken for granted. For a patriotic
American like me, the Finns present a difficult challenge: If we
Americans are so rich and so smart, why can't we treat our citizens as
well as the Finns do?
Finns have one of the world's most generous systems of state-funded
educational, medical and welfare services. They pay nothing for
education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their
medical care, which contributes to an infant-mortality rate that is
half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively
little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health
care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared
for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another,
On the other hand, Finns live in smaller homes than Americans and
consume a lot less. They spend relatively little on national defense,
although they still have universal male conscription, and it is
popular. Their per-capita national income is about 30 percent lower
than ours. Private consumption of goods and services represents about
52 percent of Finland's economy, and 71 percent of the United States'.
Finns pay considerably higher taxes -- nearly half their income --
while Americans pay about 30 percent on average to federal, state and
Should we be learning from Finland?
The question occurred to me repeatedly as I traveled around Finland
this summer. Americans could easily get used to the sense of well-
being that Finns get from their welfare state, which has effectively
removed many of the sources of anxiety that beset our society.
But the United States could not simply turn itself into another
Finland. Too much of Finnish reality depends on uniquely Finnish
circumstances. Finland is as big in acreage as two Missouris, but with
just 5.2 million residents. It's ethnically and religiously
homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful
sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to
consensus: Every significant Finnish political party supports the
welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes it
possible. And Finns have extraordinary confidence in their political
class and public officials. Corruption is extremely rare.
One fundamental Finnish value sounds a lot like an American principle
-- "to provide equal opportunities in life for everyone," as Pekka
Himanen, 31, an intellectual wunderkind in Helsinki, put it. Himanen,
a product of Finnish schools who got his Ph.D. in philosophy at 21,
argues that Finland now does this much better than the United States,
where he lived for several years while associated with the University
of California, Berkeley.
Finns are enormously proud of their egalitarian tradition. They are
the only country in Europe that has never had a king or a homegrown
aristocracy. Finland has no private schools or universities, no snooty
clubs, no gated communities or compounds where the rich can cut
themselves off from everyday life. I repeatedly saw signs of a class
structure based on economics and educational attainment, but was also
impressed by the life stories of Finns I met in prominent positions,
or who had made a lot of money.
One of the richest Finns is Risto Siilasmaa, 39, founder and chief
executive of F-Secure, an Internet-security firm that competes
successfully with American giants Symantec and McAfee. Siilasmaa, a
teenage nerd turned self-made tycoon, is worth several hundred million
dollars. His wife, Kaisu, the mother of their three children, has a
decidedly un-tycoonish career: She teaches first and second grade in
an ordinary school. Like every Finn I spoke to about money, Siilasmaa
would not acknowledge any interest in personal wealth. "I'm a
competitive person, I like to win," he said, "but I've had enough
money since I was 15."
This too seems to be part of Finnish egalitarianism; most Finns don't
boast or conspicuously consume (except perhaps when they buy fancy
cars). Finnish authorities know how much everyone earns, and they pro-
rate traffic fines depending on the wealth of the malefactor. Last
year, the 27-year-old heir to a local sausage fortune was fined
170,000 euros, about $204,000 at the time of the fine, for driving at
50 miles an hour in a 25-mph zone in downtown Helsinki.
The Finnish education system is also a manifestation of
egalitarianism. Surprisingly, it is a new system, created over the
last generation by a collective act of will. The individual most
responsible for it was Erkki Aho, director general of the National
Board of Education from 1972 to 1992. Aho, now 68, was "a little bit
of a radical," he told me with a smile -- a Finnish Social Democrat
who believed in trying to make his country more fair.
For reformers, education was the principal arena. The traditional
Finnish system was conservative and divisive: Kids were selected for
an academic track at the end of fourth grade. Those not chosen had no
chance at higher education. Universities were relatively few, and
Aho and his colleagues thought schooling should be "comprehensive,"
keeping all kids together in the same schools for nine years without
tracking them by ability. Only for "upper secondary," or high school,
would academic students be separated from those with vocational
The key to reform, Aho and others believed, was teacher training.
Teaching had always been a high-status profession in Finland, but now
it would become even more prestigious. (Today there are 10 applicants
for every place in the universities that train teachers.) Teachers
would be required to complete master's degrees, six years of
preparation that combined education courses with substantive work in
subject areas. "Of course, I faced much criticism," Aho recalled.
"Upper secondary-school teachers were very skeptical. Many parents
were critical. The cultural elite said this would mean catastrophe for
Finnish schools. The right thought the comprehensive schools smacked
But by the end of the 1980s, the new system was broadly popular. It
was strengthened by a reform of higher education that gave Finland
numerous new, high-quality universities. A grave economic recession in
the early '90s was a key test, Aho said. "It was wonderful to see how
strong the consensus was," even in dire economic straits, he said.
By the '90s, Finland had became a high-tech powerhouse, led by Nokia,
now the world's largest maker of cell phones. Finnish students have
become the best in the world, as measured by an international exam of
In the end, I concluded that Finnish society could not serve as a
blueprint for the United States. National differences matter. Ours is
a society driven by money, blessed by huge private philanthropy,
cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of
government and other public institutions. Finns have none of those
Nor do they tune in to American individualism. Groupthink seems to be
fine with most Finns; conformity is the norm, risk taking is avoided
-- a problem now, when entrepreneurs are so needed. I was bothered by
a sense of entitlement among many Finns, especially younger people.
Sirpa Jalkanen, a microbiologist and biotech entrepreneur affiliated
with Turku University, in that ancient Finnish port city, told me she
was discouraged by "this new generation we have now who love
entertainment, the easy life." She said she wished that the government
would require every university student to pay a "significant but
affordable" part of the cost of their education, "just so they'd
But if Finland can't be a blueprint for us, it can be an inspiration.
Education struck me as the area where Americans could most profit by
learning from Finland. Nothing achieved by Aho's reforms would be
beyond the reach of American schools if we really wanted them to
Finns speak of the Finnish National Project, an effort involving much
of the country, and nearly all of its elites, to make the country more
educated, more agile and adaptive, greener, fairer and more
competitive in a fast-changing global economy. Manuel Castells, the
renowned Spanish sociologist who teaches at the University of Southern
California and has been writing about Finland for nearly a decade,
argues that Finland's ability to remake itself followed from its
success in creating a welfare state that made Finns feel secure. "If
you provide security and it is felt, then you can make reforms," he
The complicated Finnish language includes the word talkoot, which
means, roughly, "doing work together." It's a powerful Finnish
tradition, and reflects a national sense that "we're all in the same
boat," as numerous Finns said to me. This idea has always appealed to
Americans, but in this country it has nearly always been an
abstraction. Finns seem to make it real.
TODAY, Finland is regularly cited as among the world's best in a
variety of indexes and comparisons.
The World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, ranks Finland's the
most competitive economy in the world.
Yale and Columbia universities rank nations in a "sustainability
index," which measures a country's ability to "protect the natural
environment over the next several decades." Finland ranks first.
Statistics of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development show that Finland invests more of its gross domestic
product in research and development than any other country but Sweden.
Finnish 15-year-olds score first in the industrial world on tests of
their academic abilities.
According to a global survey by Transparency International, Finland is
perceived as the least corrupt country. (The United States is tied for
Finns read newspapers and take books out of libraries at rates as high
as or higher than all other countries.
Finland trains more musicians, per capita, than any other country.
* Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, recently
returned from a three-week trip to Finland.
Copyright 2005 Projo.com
Return to Table of Contents
From: The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 13, 2005
COMMENTARY: UNPRINCIPLED PRECAUTION
By Gary Marchant
[RPR introduction: Professor Gary Marchant of Arizona State University
seems to be making a career out of trashing the precautionary
principle. We last saw his work in RPR #1. His latest book
attacking foresight and forecaring can be purchased here. --RPR
Last year, the European Union slipped through a little-known law --
the Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive -- which
regulates exposure to electromagnetic fields, including those used for
medical diagnostic purposes such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
European bureaucrats claim that, because not everything is known about
such technologies, their use must be restricted. In Britain, 12
leading scientists and doctors appealed to the Department of Trade and
Industry, stating that such restrictions will actually cause more harm
than good by exposing patients to X-rays, a relatively more dangerous
This quandary -- saving many human lives today with a well-studied
technology, versus possibly saving hypothetical future lives because
not all risks of the technology are understood -- demonstrates an
increasingly contentious issue in the European Union known as the
In its most basic form, the principle suggests that because we don't
know everything about a technology, product or process, it is better
for regulators and legislators to "err on the side of caution" -- to
regulate, restrict or even prohibit technologies, substances and
processes unless they are proven "safe."
The principle's strongest advocates include EU bureaucrats, academics,
NGOs and even some businesses. They tout the fact that Europe leads
the world in employing the precautionary principle in policy making.
Citing a litany of cases where regulators did not act quickly enough
to prevent tragic unexpected consequences, these advocates herald the
principle as an innovation in regulatory decision-making.
In the coming weeks, the European Parliament will vote on new
legislation -- the Reach Directive -- which seeks to register and
control at least 30,000 manmade chemical substances. Again driven by
the precautionary principle, these substances are presumed guilty
until proven innocent. The producer must prove that they are harmless
to consumers. Yet it is impossible to prove that a substance,
technology or process is "harmless" -- for this is a relative concept.
While the notion that it is better to be safe than sorry is
intuitively appealing, any rational regulatory decision should take
into account the costs of taking action. It certainly makes sense to
foresee and avoid harm when the benefits of so doing outweigh the
costs, but not when the costs outweigh the benefits. Many modern risk-
management systems make great efforts to achieve this balance -- but
increasingly this is no longer the case in the EU.
The problem with the principle is that it is not actually a principle.
There is no single or official version. Swedish philosopher Per Sandin
collected 19 varieties. These formulations differ in important
details, such as whether and how costs should be considered, whether
all risks or only "serious and irreversible" risks raise concerns, and
how a product manufacturer can comply with the principle.
The principle is inherently imprecise. Precisely because it is so
difficult to pin down, it can hardly be used as a coherent basis for
laws and regulations, whether in the EU or elsewhere.
It is flawed in theory, and it is also flawed in practice. Nowhere is
this more evident than in more than 60 legal cases heard in the EU's
court system over the past decade. The cases leave little doubt that
the principle has become a binding rule of law in the EU -- but judges
disagree broadly on its importance and significance. This has led to
its selective use, producing extreme, inconsistent and irreconcilable
In only one of the 60 cases -- Artegodan GmbH vs. Commission (which
concerned the withdrawal of marketing authorization for certain
obesity drugs) -- did a European court attempt to define the
precautionary principle and its requirements. The resulting definition
seemingly gives regulators carte blanche as to when to deploy, and
when to disregard, the principle.
The Commission often appears to use the principle where science runs
at odds with irrational public fears. Its own Scientific Committee for
Animal Nutrition (SCAN) advised that a ban on certain animal
antibiotics was not necessary during a period in which further tests
were being conducted. Yet, while the tests were occurring, the
Commission moved forward and banned the antibiotics.
In a truly Orwellian twist, the Court of First Instance primarily
relied on SCAN's scientific opinion -- which concluded that there was
little or no risk from the antibiotic in question -- to nevertheless
ban a product that had been used safely for decades. Recent studies
suggest that this use of the precautionary principle may have had the
net effect of increasing rather than decreasing human health risks.
Judging by these and countless other examples, the power of the
precautionary principle lies in its ambiguity: It is politically
viable only while it remains nebulous. Nevertheless, the EU courts'
advocate general warned in one opinion that, "The precautionary
principle has a future only to the extent that, far from opening the
door wide to irrationality, it establishes itself as an aspect of the
rational management of risks, designed not to achieve zero risk, which
everything suggests does not exist."
Still, most attempts to pin it down will be met with disdain by vested
bureaucratic, ideological, commercial and political interests who
benefit from the principle.
A reasonable risk-management system prevents unreasonable risks to
human health and the environment before they occur. It also recognizes
the inherent uncertainty in predicting risks, and the potentially
burdensome economic, social and health trade-offs which result from
overregulating nonexistent or insignificant risks. It should also be
transparent in its methods, and accountable to those who must comply
with its demands.
Put on trial in Europe's courts, the precautionary principle is guilty
of affording discretionary power to regulators, eliminating
transparency amongst regulators and undermining some of the most
fundamental tenets of democratic decision making. Put into practice
widely, its knock-on effects will result in stagnation -- hardly
needed in an already ailing Europe.
The experience of Europe's courts have demonstrated that its
"enlightened" reliance on the precautionary principle is no model for
the rest of the world: Put into practice, it causes more harm than
Return to Table of Contents
Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical
examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in
action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making
decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to
answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary
principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?
We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we
believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what
their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed
to know the arguments used by slaveholders.
Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to
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As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary
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