The Networker

Volume 5, No. 3 (Summer, 2000)

Publication of the Science and Environmental Health Network



by Dorothy Anderson

(Dorothy Anderson is a child psychiatrist in private practice in Mason City, Illinois. She serves on the national boards of Physicians for Social Responsibility and Methodist Federation for Social Action. Phone: (217) 482-3014; Email:

On May 10, 2000, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted 679 - 11 to pass a resolution explaining and affirming the precautionary principle (see below).

The General Conference, which meets every four years, consists of about a thousand elected delegates from United Methodist conferences around the world. This year the delegates considered over 2,000 resolutions and had, for instance, the option to "commend Dr. Laura Schlesinger " (No), "begin discussion of including evolution and creationism in school textbooks" (also No), and ban handguns and human cloning (Yes).

The process is highly democratic. Any United Methodist can submit a resolution by getting it to the proper person at the proper time. If passed, it becomes part of "The Book of Resolutions," which states the position of the church on current social issues and concerns.

United Methodists are to find guidance in the "Wesleyan Quadrilareral- Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason." And so, if resolutions stand the test of time, they become part of the guiding ethic for the actions of church members - in theory, at least. The fact is that most church members are blissfully unaware of the existence of this book or willfully ignore its precepts, for example, by using styrofoam dishes at potlucks.

Nevertheless, having the precautionary principle on the books is helpful in engaging the church in environmental advocacy on the local, national, and international levels. A pronouncement by an entire church body carries some weight in political decision making.

I decided to seek the blessing of the church on the precautionary principle because I was disturbed by the chronic roadblock to action posed by the lack of scientific certainty on many issues. If a scientist anywhere disputed, say, global warming, that was the end of the discussion. Nothing could be done until all scientists agreed. The notion that in these times we must consider who is paying the scientist, or that there are vast PR campaigns to obfuscate the truth, is received dubiously. Any discussion of actual science causes instant glazing of eyes.

And so, while churches endorse the idea that "as God's people we are called to stewardship of the earth and all that dwells therein," they are highly timid about taking more specific stands on issues of environmental justice and safety.

The purpose of passing this resolution is to enable boldness on issues that are relatively clear to an educated onlooker. Staff at the national office of Church and Society can use it in educational materials and as support for taking stands on issues. Individuals and grassroots organizations can use this resolution for backing in a fight against siting a toxic facility or in letters to their elected officials.

The process of passing the resolution on the precautionary principle exposed the delegates and onlookers at the United Methodist General Conference to the idea. The act of affirming the principle gives all of these leaders ownership of the concept and a responsibility to take appropriate action when life calls upon them to do so.

Working through religious organizations may not be as vital to those who function outside the Bible Belt. Here it is the most efficient way to get the word out. I would encourage those who have access to other religious systems to give it a try.

In many churches there are increasing numbers of socially and theologically conservative folk, but many of those people still see themselves as environmentalists. It can actually be an issue that causes people on opposing sides of controversial church battles to work together.


United Methodist Church Statement On The Precautionary Principle

As God's people we are called to stewardship of the earth and all that dwells therein. At this point in human history, the human race is experiencing warning signs that our bodies and the natural environment have limits to their abilities to absorb and overcome the harm from some of our actions, technologies and substances. These warning signs include the dying off of plant and animal species, the depletion of stratospheric ozone, global climate instability and increased rates of some learning disabilities, reproductive disorders, cancers, respiratory diseases including asthma, and other environmentally related illnesses.

In addition to the issue of pollution, the earth is experiencing environmental problems such as global climate instability, the loss of biodiversity, and the destruction of marine fisheries, which may threaten food supplies and lead to disastrous human health consequences.

There is continuing controversy in the promotion of world trade regarding the appropriate level of caution and protection of the environment. Where the preponderance of evidence would indicate that an activity will be harmful to the earth's environment, producers of pollution have insisted that there be "scientific certainty" on each point in question before caution is exercised. This policy results in very substantial harm occurring to the earth and its creatures in order to prove that an activity is dangerous.

Current environmental regulations are aimed primarily at controlling pollution rather than taking the preventive approach of limiting the use, production or release of toxic materials in the first place. Under the current system, enterprises, projects, technologies and substances are in effect "innocent until proved guilty," and the vast majority of chemicals in production have not been adequately tested for their effects on humans and ecosystems.

Producers of pollution have repeatedly used their influence to delay preventive action, arguing that the immediate expense of redesign to achieve pollution prevention is unwarranted in the face of any uncertainty about eventual harmful health effects.

The Precautionary Principle is considered to be an emerging general principle of international environmental law. The United States signed and ratified the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development which states: "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 to prevent environmental degradation." (Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, June 14, 1992, 31 ILM 874).

Likewise the International Joint Commission in 1994 stated that" the burden of proof concerning the safety of chemicals should lie with the proponent for the manufacture, import or use of at least substances new to commerce in Canada and the United States, rather than with society as a whole to provide absolute proof of adverse impacts...The onus should be on the producers and users of any suspected toxic substance to prove that it is, in fact, both 'safe' and necessary, even if it is already in commerce." (International Joint Commission, Seventh Biennial Report Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978 to the Governments of the United States and Canada, 1994)

Likewise the Wingspread Statement of January 1998, formulated by prominent members of the environmental community, states: "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. 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 involve potentially affected parties. The process must include a comprehensive, systematic examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action."

We urge all United Methodists in their daily lives and official capacities to hold society to this higher standard of care for God's creation; that where the preponderance of evidence indicates the probability of harm from some action, even in the absence of full scientific certainty, an alternative path must be found.

In this context we advocate for significant increases in efforts toward pollution prevention, for identifying goals for reducing exposure to toxic chemicals, for incentives to replace known toxic chemicals with the least toxic alternatives, and we support the practice of organic farming methods in order to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture.

We encourage government at all levels to promote and abide by the Precautionary Principle in order to protect human health and the environment.

We urge the United States to honor the Precautionary Principle during the negotiations of international agreements and to work toward the establishment of the Precautionary Principle as a guiding principle of international law.