Precautionary Precepts: The Power and Potential of the Precautionary Principle

Multinational Monitor, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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Precautionary Precepts: The Power and Potential of the Precautionary Principle

Carolyn Raffensperger is the founding executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. An environmental lawyer, she specializes in the fundamental changes in law and policy necessary for the protection and restoration of public health and the environment. Raffensperger is co-editor of Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle, the most comprehensive exploration to date of the history, theory and implementation of the Precautionary Principle.

Multinational Monitor: What is the Precautionary Principle?

Carolyn Raffensperger: it is quite simple. It has three building blocks. One is scientific uncertainty. The second is the likelihood or the plausibility of harm. The third element is precautionary action. The mandate of the Precautionary Principle is to take preventive action in the thee of uncertainty to prevent harm. The focus is no longer on measuring and managing harm, but preventing harm.

Critics of the Precautionary Principle say that it is going to stop all action or stop all progress, and vet the Precautionary Principle invites action: it says you've got to take action. That has in many ways galvanized us; it gives us a way of operationalizing environmental protection.

MM: What are some of those actions? What are the policy tools to operationalize the Precautionary Principle?

Raffensperger: There are four ways of implementing the Precautionary Principle.

First is to set goals: Where do you want to go? What do you want the world to look like? In the United States, we gather a lot of statistics, but we don't say, "Here's where we want to go, here's what the world should look like." We don't say, for example, "Let's prevent all preventable asthmas," and then figure out how we're going to reach that goal.

The Precautionary Principle says set your goals and you'll find ways to meet those goals. It really is a way to spur innovation and progress by setting those kinds of goals rather than just letting whatever happens happen.

The second mode of implementation is to reverse the burden of proof, especially for chemicals, and other emerging and novel technologies. For so long, industry has received the benefit of the doubt; if regulation is going to threaten business, then regulation should be sacrificed. But what that has meant is that we have sacrificed our children's brains, our women's breasts, our men's prostrates on that alter of economic development.

The Precautionary Principle says, no, public health and the environment get the benefit of the doubt, not the almighty dollar. And there are a lot of ways to do that. The Precautionary Principle asserts a responsibility, on the part of industry or the proponents of a technology or activity, to test that technology, or activity. So for instance, the REACH program proposed in Europe for chemicals says, if you don't test your chemicals, you can't market in Europe.

What a good idea! That's reversing the burden of proof It says if you haven't even tested your chemical, don't try and sell it to us, and then, if we're injured, make us go to court and test the chemical to show it is unsafe. The REACH program says to industry, you've got the obligation; this is your responsibility. This is a complete turn around compared to what is typical in the United States.

The third element of the Precautionary Principle is looking for the safest alternative. If you've set a goal to achieve some end, which alternative gets you to the goal? This approach means you're going to find much better ways to do things; it drives innovation.

Pursuit of the safest alternative is creating whole new fields like green chemistry and green engineering. They are taking the dirtiest chemicals, throwing them out and changing policy and industry in some really wonderful ways. Choosing the safest alternative is in many ways the heartbeat of the Precautionary Principle.

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