Precautionary Principle vs Risk Management
- The article copied below is the best explanation I have seen of a way of
approaching a lot of problems that have bothered me for a long time, such as
global warming, genetically altered food, "safe" levels of poisons in our
food and water, and even the defense budget.
For instance, the EPA establishes allowable (presumably safe) levels of
poisons in our water - so many ppm of arsenic, so much heavy metals, etc, but
I kind of wonder if there really is a non-zero limit that is "safe." Frankly,
I doubt it. They have a bad habit of saying "uh oh" from time to time and
revising these numbers downward by several orders of magnitude. The same
reasoning applies to a lot of things.
Here is the article:
What do you do when you want to move fast but the way ahead is dark, possibly
dangerous and almost entirely unknown? Accelerate? Proceed with moderation?
Slow way down? Stop?
That question underlies most environmental regulations. We are not sure what
pesticides are doing to soils, waters, other creatures, or ourselves. We have
only a vague idea what our rising greenhouse gas output will do to the
climate. We're in the dark about the consequences of genetic engineering. So
should we go ahead? How fast?
U.S. policy, and that of most other countries, has ranged from acceleration
to moderation. Often the cost has been revealed only decades later, in the
form of poisoned wells, sickened rivers, unhealthy air, dying wildlife,
deformed babies. Now some governments are saying it makes more sense to slow
down or stop.
The go-slow policy is hotly discussed in Europe and in the United Nations,
but it is rarely mentioned in the U.S. news. It is called the "precautionary
principle." The basic idea is familiar to everyone. An ounce of prevention is
worth a pound of cure. Look before you leap. If you can't afford to lose,
Or as a scientific gathering in 1998 put it: "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
Or as Christine Todd Whitman put it, two months before George W. Bush
appointed her to head the Environmental Protection Agency: "We must
acknowledge that uncertainty is inherent in managing natural resources,
recognize it is usually easier to prevent environmental damage than to repair
it later, and shift the burden of proof away from those advocating protection
toward those proposing an action that may be harmful."
If she meant that, she may be a historic EPA director.
U.S. environmental policy is based not on the precautionary principle, but on
"risk management." That means balancing risks against benefits. If the
benefits seem to outweigh the risks, full steam ahead. If a pesticide will
give cancer to only one person in a million, but make a corporation a hundred
million bucks, go for it.
It is astonishing how much we don't know about what we are doing.
There are two big problems with risk/benefit policy. The first is that those
who bear the risk are rarely the ones who get the benefits. The second
problem is that the benefits are usually much better known than the risks. It
is astonishing how much we don't know about what we are doing.
For example, an article by seventeen scientists from six countries in a
recent Science magazine summarizes the literature on climate change. It cites
facts like this: in the past 100 years human fossil fuel burning has raised
the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide higher than it has been for
the previous 420,000 years -- and we're still accelerating.
The article repeats over and over that we do not know what that means for the
planet. "As we drift further away from the domain that characterized the
preindustrial Earth system, we severely test the limits of our understanding
of how the Earth system will respond," say the authors. And "humans have
affected virtually every major biogeochemical cycle, but the effects of these
impacts on the interactions between these elemental cycles are poorly
So, push the accelerator pedal to the floor?
Another Science article in December surveys what we know about the effects of
genetically engineered organisms (GEOs). This article is another ode to
uncertainty. "Neither the risks nor the benefits of GEOs are certain or
universal." "Our ability to accurately predict ecological consequences,
especially long-term higher-order interactions, increases the uncertainty
associated with risk assessment." "Additional or unidentified benefits and
risks may exist that published data do not yet address."
Should we turn hundreds of GEOs out of our labs and plant them on millions of
acres of land?
Yet another recent Science article summarizes the findings of an expert panel
on endocrine disrupters -- hormone-mimicking chemicals, including many
pesticides and plasticizers. The panel concluded that incredibly tiny
concentrations of these chemicals -- concentrations virtually all of us are
exposed to -- can cause development problems in rat and mouse embryos. The
findings are especially disturbing, because they contradict the basic
assumption underlying all toxics policy: that a low enough dose of any poison
is essentially harmless.
But the studies were done on lab animals. "How these results may relate to
disease late in life in animals, let alone humans, is uncertain," says the
Shall we go on cranking out the chemicals?
Yes, say those who make money from them. No, says the precautionary
principle. Plastics, pesticides, fossil fuels, gene-modified crops may make
someone money and may save us all time or increase our convenience. But there
are ways to proceed, probably more slowly, without them or with much less of
them. It's not worth risking human health or the planetary functions that
sustain us, just to keep going fast.