THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE for Protecting
the Environment - and Human Health !
On January 15, 1998 the precautionary principle was defined at a weekend meeting at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin. Subsequently known as the Wingspread Statement, the precautionary principle was defined as follows :
"The release and use of toxic substances, the exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions ; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials
We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to adequately protect human health and the environment - the larger system of which humans are but a part
We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary
While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors
Therefore, it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle : 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
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 roots of the precautionary principle can be traced to statements by Aldo Leopold (1949) and Sir Austin Bradford Hill (1965). It's also addressed in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992. The term itself arose from the German "Vorsorgesprinzip", when in 1988, Konrad von Moltke described this for a British audience, and translated it to English as "the precautionary principle"
The Rio Declaration of 1992 states that "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
The precautionary principle is increasingly recognized as a foundation for decision making to protect human heath and the environment. Its five key elements are to :
1. Take anticipatory action to prevent harm in the face of scientific uncertainty
2. Explore alternatives, including the alternative of "no action"
3. Consider the full cost of environmental and health impacts over time
4. Increase public participation in decision making
5. Shifting the responsibility for providing evidence to the proponents of an activity
Since 1992, many countries have struggled to turn these principles into policies. There
has also been intense resistance from industries potentially affected by such policies, encompassing the academic and legal worlds, and the lobbying of governments to block possible restrictions on products or practices
Among the larger countries and economies, the United States has been among the least receptive to the precautionary principle, on the levels both of policies and action. The
result is a true paradox of our times - one rarely brought to full consciousness, but still
highly characteristic : namely, the unequivocally harmful technology or practice that can almost literally not be stopped
To see the pattern this represents in our times, take a few minutes to list as many technologies, products and practices as you can think of that match this description - and
write them down for yourself
Those who seek to protect themselves or the environment today experience a virtual wall of obstacles and resistance. Rather than a precautionary approach, they hear demands for an exclusive single cause of harm, before action can be taken. Given the complexity of the physical and biological world, this is extremely difficult. The status of a product or practice under law is thus raised to that of a human being : "innocent, until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt"
Under this standard, products like tobacco, alcohol and fossil fuels, agricultural products like Monsanto's glyphosate escape regulation for four, five, six decades or more before limits are set. In these lengths of time colossal damage can occur in the natural world , and immense loss of human life and health
For those who insist on safety, the face of science and research, of medical experts, of governments ostensibly "there for our protection", may at first be concerned and
benign ; but when challenged, turn more stern and defensive, standing on their authority. If seen objectively, the results and actions of science, medicine, government in fact amount to indifference, as risks rise unabated
There's of course no going back on technology, which serves us in many ways, and on which
we also in many ways depend. Gratefulness is in order - but technology cannot be allowed
to destroy us
Economic life, for its part, also serves us, and has clear benefits to unfold. But economic
life can also not freely harm people or the environment. Society has a need, right and responsibility to set limits to harmful products and practices
Protections of this kind are the rightful task of government - among roles governments
may take, there's in fact none more appropriate. Yet in many cases today, government turns this role upside down, soto speak ; so that instead of protecting citizens from harm, it protects products and practices that do the harm. As noted, this is a pattern across many industries
From the viewpoint of policies and results thus far, the precautionary principle has been effectively blocked and frustrated. In the meantime consequences accumulate, not just
from one, but from many sides. Exposures are most often not single events, but continuous. Harm is often not transient, with a recovery, but cumulative. Effects of harmful influences
are now often found to be not discrete or isolated, but to combine with effects from other harmful influences