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Policy, Persuasion, Possibilities: Wingspread Plus Ten
[Rachel's Introduction: The simple idea of protecting people and the environment despite scientific uncertainty was really the gateway for a whole complex of ideas that could set a new track for environmental policy in this country and in the world.]
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By Nancy Myers
Just over ten years ago a friend roped me into what we both thought was a short-term freelance writing assignment. Could I please help with a conference she was planning? Grant proposals, a press release after the conference, and maybe some follow-up fact sheets and articles.

I was available but a little reluctant because I'd just left a job that required me to do a lot of that kind of policy-and-persuasion writing and I was ready to do something entirely different. But my friend, Carolyn Raffensperger, is a very persuasive person. I asked what the conference was about. She said it was about the precautionary principle.

I don't remember what Carolyn told me about the precautionary principle then but I remember thinking: This idea sounds simple and obvious. What's the catch? I had just come from a policy arena of big, intractable problems in which simple ideas competed with hugely complicated approaches. The simple ideas galvanized public attention but when it came down to making actual changes in policy, things inevitably got complicated.

The intractable problem I'd been working on was the nuclear arms race, attacking it from all angles including the simple idea of a nuclear freeze and the complicated warhead counts of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. The SALT II negotiations took so long they were obsolete by the time an agreement was reached and the US Senate never ratified the treaty. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of hopeful Americans rallied for a few years around the simple idea of "the freeze"--never making any more nukes. But the decision makers were never persuaded.

Instead, actual disarmament began in a way no one could have predicted, with the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire--Mikhail Gorbachev and all that followed, with Ronald Reagan playing a surprising part. When that happened, the "nuclear freeze" movement fizzled because that simple idea, too, had become obsolete. It was too narrow to meet the new possibilities.

We need the persuasive power of ideas but they must also work in the nitty-gritty grind of policy and the unpredictable shifts of history. And this was the possibility I saw unfolding in the January 1998 Wingspread conference on the precautionary principle. Soon after the conference I joined the staff of the Science and Environmental Health Network and kept writing about the precautionary principle, including Precautionary Tools for Environmental Policy (Myers and Raffensperger, MIT Press, 2006).

The simple idea of protecting people and the environment despite scientific uncertainty was really the gateway for a whole complex of ideas that could set a new track for environmental policy in this country and in the world. The Wingspread conference laid down the first and still most important lines of that policy track: heeding early warnings, shifting the burden of proof, examining and choosing better alternatives, and making decisions democratically when they affect people and the environment.

At the same time, the idea of precaution made sense on an intuitive level--look before you leap, better safe than sorry. Just apply these maxims to our policies on environmental health. It seemed to be the kind of simple, big idea that might generate a movement.

What actually happened was both more complicated and interesting than either of those two possibilities alone--the policy implementation or the popular movement--or even the combination of policy and persuasion that evolved after Wingspread. Here are some things I and others have discovered about the precautionary principle over the last decade:

The precautionary principle changes the way we think. Most big problems start in the human mind. As Albert Einstein famously said about nuclear weapons, "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our way of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." Einstein made that statement in a telegram he sent in 1947 to raise money to launch the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the magazine where I was working 50 years later. That is great policy-persuasion writing!

The precautionary principle has shifted our way of thinking so that we at least know what we must do to stop the drift toward environmental catastrophe. We start by not waiting for reductionist science to give us all the answers. We start by acting on what we see, know, and can intelligently guess about the consequences of our actions.

The precautionary principle has layers. The more we looked into this simple idea, the more implications we saw. The implications introduced at that Wingspread conference radiated out into others: In order to do these things we should set goals. We have to learn how to handle scientific uncertainty both in the law and science and in making decisions. We need to prevent harm upstream through inherently safe and sustainable technologies and approaches.

The precautionary approach begins to open our minds to the endless possibility of things we can and must do, in a way that shows that all these actions are related. On top of that, the precautionary set of ideas works on every level, from daily life to business and agriculture, from city council planning decisions to international treaties.

The precautionary principle has spiritual power. This has been the most surprising and engaging discovery, and it is the real reason I am still writing about the precautionary principle a decade after taking on this temporary assignment.

First, some of us noticed that the precautionary principle made a statement about values, giving priority and the benefit of the doubt to the health of people and the planet. Health ahead of free enterprise? What a subversive idea! What kind of economy, then, would support this set of values? How can we shore up these values in our legal system, our way of practicing medicine, our food systems? And on and on... These values have endless, exciting implications that bring heart as well as mind to the way we shape our social systems.

And then we combined these ideas with what our Native American allies in the precaution movement were saying, that the precautionary principle was really the Seventh Generation principle laid down by the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy 500 years ago: Make your decisions with the wellbeing of the seventh future generation in mind.

If you do not think people care about future generations, watch the movie Children of Men (or read the book). It's about a world in which people have stopped having babies. From the opening scenes you understand what that means. Even individuals lose their will to live and live well when there is no future for the species.

Translating our instinctive stake in the future of humanity into law, policy, and practice is no simple matter. But the idea that we can and must do that, raising our sights to the long term and drawing on our love for our children's children's children, taps into our deepest capacities. It is a spiritual commitment that engages art and dreams as much as science and the law. It opens a new gateway of ideas and possibilities.

In the next Networker we'll report new developments in SEHN's work with the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic, and others on law and guardianship for future generations.

Meanwhile, times have changed since 1998. The precautionary principle has fueled a movement, but it is not a movement of big mass marches and the precautionary principle is not this movement's single rallying cry. Events like Katrina and the Iraq war have also fueled this movement. It is a movement for complex, multifaceted, revolutionary change in the way we do business, produce and consume food, earn our livings, and treat our neighbors, both human and nonhuman, both present and future. It is a movement to learn our place on the web of life and act accordingly.

It is not easy to explain what this movement is, but each of us is learning what we must do. The precautionary principle has helped us know what to do. It will continue to do so. It's one of the truly big ideas.

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