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[Topics under debate]: Free Citizen, Long Term Vision, Preamble
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In response to Prof Guptara's post on genetically engineered crops, i
would like the members to consider the following article in the Reason
magazine.
parth-

http://www.reason.com/9904/fe.rb.precautionary.html

REASON * April 1999

               Precautionary Tale
               The latest environmentalist concept--the Precautionary
               Principle--seeks to stop innovation before it happens.
Very
               bad idea.

               By Ronald Bailey

               Look before you leap.

               Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But how reasonable would
it
               be to take such proverbial wisdom and turn it into a
               Federal Leaping Commission? The environmentalist
               movement is seeking to create the moral equivalent of
just
               that. In effect, before you or anybody else can leap, you
will
               not only have to look beforehand in the prescribed
manner,
               you will have to prove that if you leap, you won't be
hurt,
               nor will any other living thing be hurt, now and for all
               time. And if you can't prove all of that, the commission
will
               refuse to grant you a leaping license.

               At this year's annual meeting of the prestigious American

               Association for the Advancement of Science in Anaheim,
               California, in a symposium titled "The Precautionary
               Principle: A Revolution in Environmental Policymaking?",
               environmentalist advocates and academics insisted that a
               principle of ultimate precaution should trump all other
               considerations in future environmental and technological
               policy making. They pointed out that the Principle has
               already been incorporated into several international
               treaties, including the Framework Convention on Climate
               Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which require developed
               nations to cut back dramatically on the burning of fossil

               fuels to reduce the putative threat of global warming.
The
               U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is already using it
to
               help guide its promulgation of new regulations on
synthetic
               chemicals.

               Jeff Howard, a panel member who once worked on
               Greenpeace's International Toxics Campaign and now has a
               gig at the Center for Science and Technology Policy and
               Ethics at Texas A&M University, defined the Principle: It

               calls for precaution in the face of any actions that may
affect
               people or the environment, no matter what science is
               able--or unable--to say about that action.

               Before examining this concept, it's worth pausing to see
               where it came from. Howard's version of the Principle was

               formalized last year by environmentalist advocates who
               convened at the Wingspread Conference Center in
               Wisconsin. Gathering in such a place allowed them to give

               their ruminations a sonorous title: "The Wingspread
               Consensus Statement." (After all, you wouldn't want to
call
               such a document "The Bronx Consensus Statement.")

               That the Wingspread delegates achieved "consensus" on
               precaution might imply to some that their meeting was a
               strenuous, perhaps even contentious, effort by experts of

               diverse views to find a balance between the demands of
               scientific inquiry and the well-being of nature. That's
               certainly how the AAAS meeting treated this "consensus":
               as though it had arisen from a symposium presenting
               peer-reviewed scientific data.

               But Wingspread's delegates were not exactly diverse;
               rather, they were a panel of activists with an agenda.
They
               included representatives from an array of like-minded
               groups, including Green-peace, Physicians for Social
               Responsibility, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute in
               Massachusetts, Britain's Centre for Social and Economic
               Research on the Global Environment, the Environmental
               Research Foundation, the Science and Environmental
               Health Network, the Environmental Network, the Silicon
               Valley Toxics Coalition, the Environmental Health
               Coalition, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the
               Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. It's not
hard to
               reach "consensus" when you gather a group of people who
               all share your values and views. If I hand-pick my
               delegates, I can achieve a consensus on just about
anything.
               (How about the "Miami Beach Consensus Statement on
               Abolishing Social Security"?)

               What did the Wingspread activists finally recommend? The
               actual text of the Principle that Howard offered at the
               AAAS meeting reads: "When an activity raises threats of
               harm to human health or environment, precautionary
               measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect
               relationships are not fully established scientifically."

               The Wingspreaders and their followers on the AAAS panel
               want to apply the Principle solely to environmentalist
               concerns, but, in fact, their formula is essentially an
empty
               vessel into which anyone can pour whatever values they
               prefer. It simply codifies a very risk-averse version of
               standard cost-benefit analysis; the Wingspread
participants
               think that certain activities, such as manufacturing
plastics
               or burning fossil fuels, are unacceptably risky. In other

               words, very conservative environmentalist values are
being
               privileged over what, to other people, may be equally or
               more compelling values.

               The formula can be adapted to fit many different agendas.

               Try this, for example: "When an activity (say, employment

               tests) raises threats of harm to equality and equal
access,
               precautionary measures should be taken even if some
               cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established
               sociologically." Or this: "When an activity (say, higher
               taxes) raises threats of harm to private property or
economic
               growth, precautionary measures should be taken even if
               some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully
established
               economically." We could do this all day.

               The heart of the Principle, of course, is the admonition
that
               "precautionary measures should be taken even if some
               cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established
               scientifically." As one biomedical researcher in the
audience
               objected, all scientific conclusions are subject to
revision,
               and none is ever "fully established." Since that is the
case,
               the researcher pointed out, the Precautionary Principle
               could logically apply to every conceivable activity,
since
               their outcomes are always in some sense uncertain.
               Furthermore, David Murray, the director of the
Statistical
               Assessment Service in Washington D.C., points out another

               possible--and disquieting--interpretation of the
Principle.
               Anyone who merely raises "threats of harm" with no more
               evidence than their fearful imagination gets to invoke
               precautionary measures. Precautionists would not need to
               establish any empirical basis for their fears; they may
               simply posit that something might go wrong and thus
               stymie any proposed action.

               Ah, so. Just what these activists had in mind all along,
as
               we shall see.

               But let's parse the Principle a bit more. One troublesome

               issue is that some activities that promote human health
               might "raise threats of harm to the environment," and
some
               activities that might be thought of as promoting the
               environment might "raise threats of harm to human
health."

               Take the use of pesticides. Humanity has used them to
               better control disease-carrying insects like flies,
mosquitoes,
               and cockroaches, and to protect crops. Clearly, pesticide
use
               has significantly improved the health of scores of
millions
               of people. But some pesticides have had side effects on
the
               environment, such as harming nontargeted species. The
               Precautionary Principle gives no guidance on how to make
               this tradeoff between human health and the protection of
               nonpest species (though I suspect I know how the panel
               members would choose).

               During the discussion period, another audience member
               asked panelist Steve Breyman, a professor in the
               Department of Science and Technology Studies at
               Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, if he thought the last
200
               years had been all bad. Breyman revealingly responded
               with something like, Oh sure, some things like life
               expectancy and living standards have improved, but there
               have been losses too. The quality of drinking water,
               Breyman asserted, has gone down.

               Really? Two hundred years ago, drinking from any stream,
               well, or spring could expose one to typhoid, typhus,
               cholera, and other diseases. In fact, chlorination has so

               improved drinking water quality with regard to health
that
               people in the West no longer even think twice about
               drinking tap water. Unfortunately, more than a billion
               people in the developing world can't say the same;
millions
               still die of water-borne diseases each year.

               Proponents of the Precautionary Principle are trying to
               smuggle in a default position: The environment trumps all

               other values. Yet the panelists all pretended that the
               Principle is a value-neutral scientific procedure for
               determining which policies humanity should pursue. The
               fact is that the Precautionary Principle incorporates the

               values of the most extreme versions of know-nothing
               environmentalism. When challenged from the audience on
               this point, Breyman fumed, "We're talking about the
               survival of the planet and the human race here."

               Breyman sees the Precautionary Principle as an essential
               part of a radical agenda to reshape human culture. He
               writes in his AAAS presentation, "Introduced as part of
an
               overall green plan that included conservation and
               renewable energy, grass roots democracy, green taxes,
               defense conversion, deep cuts in military spending,
               bioregionalism, full cost accounting, the cessation of
               perverse subsidies, the adoption of green materials,
designs
               and codes, green purchasing, pollution prevention,
               industrial ecology and zero emissions, etc., the PP could
be
               an essential element of the transition to
sustainability."

               Jeff Howard later offered some corollaries to the
               Precautionary Principle that reveal just how sweeping a
               proposal it is.

               The first corollary is that "the proponent of an
activity,
               rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof
               (reverse onus)." This means that "proponents would have
to
               demonstrate through an open process that a technology is
               safe or necessary and that no better alternatives were
               available." Unlike the members of the AAAS panel, Boston
               University law professor George Annas, a prominent
               bioethicist who favors the Precautionary Principle,
clearly
               understands that it is not a value-neutral concept. He
               gleefully told me, "The truth of the matter is that
whoever
               has the burden of proof loses."

               The result: Anything new is guilty until proven innocent.

               It's like demanding that a newborn baby prove that it
will
               never grow up to be a serial killer, or even just a
schoolyard
               bully, before the baby is allowed to leave the hospital.
               Under this corollary, inventors, scientists, and
               manufacturers would have to prove that their creations
               wouldn't cause harm--ever--to the environment or human
               health before they would be allowed to offer them to the
               public. This is asking them to prove a negative. How can
               someone prove that a new plastic will never, ever
interact
               with any metabolic pathway in any plant, animal, microbe,

               or person? There is simply no way to test for all
possible
               effects given the millions of different species living on
the
               earth.

               But is this inability to test for everything really
dangerous?
               Howard thinks it's murderous. He warned the audience
               that humanity has been engaged in a "great global
               experiment since the dawn of the chemical age" and
               predicted that "death and disease will increase as a
result."

               The plain fact is that the introduction of thousands of
               synthetic chemicals has not resulted in increased levels
of
               death and disease but has resulted in substantial health
               benefits and greater convenience and efficiency. Life
               expectancy has never been higher and, as just reported by

               the National Cancer Institute, even cancer incidence
rates
               are going down. In addition, the Food and Drug
               Administration estimates that less than 2 percent of
cancers
               are the result of exposure to man-made substances.
Finally,
               the few bad actors, like some organochlorine compounds,
               have been replaced.

               Under the "reverse onus" corollary, would-be innovators
               would have to demonstrate that a technology was
               "necessary" because no alternatives were available.
               Necessary? Like air, water, and food? This is potentially
a
               very high threshold. Are antibiotics necessary?
Computers?
               Microwave ovens? What makes something "necessary" or
               not depends on the goals that individuals are trying to
               achieve. Necessity is the mother of invention only to the

               degree that it is in the eye of the inventor.

               This requirement of demonstrable necessity ignores a
vital
               fact about progress: All technologies serve as bridges to

               other technologies, to ever-better alternatives. For
example,
               without the production of fossil fuels, humanity would
not
               be in the position to make the costly,
knowledge-intensive
               transition to the solar/hydrogen future that
               environmentalists wish to subsidize into existence. One
               technology leads to another. As dirty as burning fossil
fuels
               may be, they aren't a tenth as dirty as burning wood.

               Embedded in the Precautionary Principle is the notion
that
               we can anticipate all of the ramifications of a
technology in
               advance and can tell whether on balance it will be a net
               benefit or cost to humanity and the environment. That's
               complete nonsense. To cite a single example, when the
               optical laser was invented in 1960, it was dismissed as
"an
               invention looking for a job." No one could imagine of
what
               possible use this interesting phenomenon might be. Of
               course, now it is integral to the operation of hundreds
of
               everyday products: It runs our printers, runs our optical

               telephone networks, performs laser surgery to correct
               myopia, removes tattoos, plays our CDs, opens clogged
               arteries, helps level our crop fields, etc. It's
ubiquitous. Yet
               no one anticipated--no one could have anticipated--how
               incredibly useful lasers would turn out to be, not even
the
               wisest tribunal of environmentalist seers or panel of
Federal
               Leaping Commissioners.

               The same thing goes for items which eventually turned up
               on the environmentalist hit list: organochlorine
pesticides.
               After all, it is not as though evil chemical corporations

               invented pesticides for the purpose of polluting the
               environment. When these compounds were introduced they
               were a genuine miracle; they saved millions of lives that

               would have been lost to malaria and malnutrition. No one
               could have anticipated that their persistence in the
               environment would allow them to accumulate in animal fat,

               leading to some reproductive problems in eagles and
               falcons. The data simply weren't there. Indeed, there was

               not even a theory of bioaccumulation. Only by gaining
               experience with these substances were we able to learn
               about their downside and eventually decide that other,
less
               persistent pesticides achieved a better tradeoff between
               human benefits and harm to the natural environment.

               A second vexed corollary is that "the process of applying

               the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and
               democratic and must include potentially affected
parties."
               At one point, panel member Breyman declared that we had
               to get environmental decisions out of the hands of EPA
               regulators. Sounds good, right? But what if the open,
               democratic process ended with a choice to exploit a
natural
               resource in ways that environmentalists don't like?

               The deputy administrator for the National Marine
Fisheries
               Service, Andy Rosenberg, happened to be in the audience
               and offered an illustration of realpolitik to the panel's

               starry-eyed egalitarians. Rosenberg pointed out that if
you
               allowed New England fishermen to vote on whether or not
               to keep the cod fishery open, they would fish it until
the last
               fish was gone. Breyman responded lamely that if the
               fishermen did that, they didn't have enough information.

               Other panelists suggested that the "affected parties"
aren't
               just fishermen, but all of us. If we don't get the result
we like
               at one democratic level, these panelists implied, we'll
just
               keep shifting the definition of "affected parties" until
we do
               get the result we like. But wait a minute. Does this mean

               that when one of us wants to engage in an activity that
               someone thinks may result in harm, we all get to vote on
it?

               This problem--deciding who gets to decide what--is just
one
               of many slippery slopes that the Precautionary Principle
               teeters over. Of course, it quickly became apparent that,
for
               the AAAS panel, the only democratic decisions that are
               acceptable are those consistent with environmentalist
goals.
               But other obvious problems were never acknowledged.

               For example, democratic decision making concerning any
               and all environment-affecting actions could have the
effect
               of ratifying extraordinarily conservative choices. That
is, a
               community could use its environmental veto to say, No, we

               don't want a new store, a new housing development, a new
               factory, a new road. Basically, it means that the vested
               interests of the present can strangle the future. After
all, as
               one wag noted, an environmentalist is somebody who
               already owns his second home in the woods.

               Of course, neither the regulators at the meeting nor the
               environmental activists on the AAAS panel considered a
               real solution: removing the decisions about resources
from
               the political process entirely. Politics is always
win/lose,
               while market decisions are generally win/win. Give
               fishermen, loggers, and cattlemen secure property rights
to
               the resources, and that shifts their incentives toward
trying
               to protect and enhance their resource, rather than merely

               plundering somebody else's resource.

               Draconian as the Wingspread proposals are, Jeff Howard
               doesn't think they are strong enough. He fears that wily
               capitalists and innovators will find ways around them, so

               he suggests five additional tenets:

               n Precaution must become the default mode of all
               technological decision making.

               n Even the most fundamental of past decisions must be
               subject to re-examination and precautionary reform.

               n The primary mode of regulation and regulatory science
               should be at the macroscale.

               n Knowledge of broad patterns trumps ignorance of detail.

               n Human society must identify and accommodate itself to
               broad patterns in natural processes.

               Consider for a moment the tenet that "even the most
               fundamental of past decisions must be subject to
               re-examination and precautionary reform." Actually, the
               process of technological innovation constantly
"re-examines"
               past decisions, but that's not what Howard has in mind.
He
               wants to create a political process, which he naturally
               insists would be open, that would eliminate technologies
of
               which he disapproves: nuclear power plants,
               organochlorines, most plastics, etc. But what I find
               intriguing is the idea that "even the most fundamental of

               past decisions" could be "reformed."

               How fundamental is fundamental? Decisions like the
               invention of the automobile? The use of fossil fuels? The

               development of agriculture? Fire? Look at Howard's last
               tenet, that society must accommodate itself "to broad
               patterns in natural processes." What violates the broad
               patterns in natural processes? Medicine? City building?
               Farming?

               Before the AAAS session ended, Howard offered a third
               corollary to the Principle: "Precaution requires
               consideration of the full range of social and
technological
               alternatives" to what is being proposed. It is very much
in
               line with the Wingspread Consensus Statement, which
               declares that precaution "must also involve an
examination
               of the full range of alternatives, including no action."

               Environmentalists often liken technology and economic
               growth to a car careening down a foggy road. They suggest

               that it would be better if we slowed before we crashed
into
               a wall hidden in the fog. The Precautionary Principle,
its
               champions believe, "would serve as a `speed bump' in the
               development of technologies and enterprises."

               Unfortunately, these principles and tenets may sound
               sensible to many people, especially those who live in
               societies already replete with technology. These people
               already have their centrally heated house in the woods;
               they already enjoy the freedom from want, disease, and
               ignorance that technology can provide. They may think
               they can afford the luxury of ultimate precaution. But
there
               are billions of people who still yearn to have their
lives
               transformed. For them, the Precautionary Principle
               represents not a speed bump but a wall.

               Should we look before we leap? Sure we should. But every
               utterance of proverbial wisdom has its counterpart,
               reflecting both the complexity and the variety of life's
               situations and the foolishness involved in applying a
short
               list of hard rules to them. For some people in some
               situations, "Look before you leap" is good advice. Others

               might be wiser to heed the equally proverbial, "He who
               hesitates is lost."

               People have understood this maxim for millennia, and the
               chances are that its message will eventually reach even
               Wisconsin's Wingspread Conference Center. And when it
               does, I want the Wingspreaders to understand that the
               moral equivalent of a Federal Anti-Hesitation Commission
               isn't such a good idea, either.

               Ronald Bailey is REASON's science correspondent.
--
******************
Dr. Parth J. Shah                        From Jan-April 1999
President                                Department of Social Sciences
Centre for Civil Society                 University of Michigan
B-12 Kailash Colony                      Dearborn, MI 48128
New Delhi 110048                         Voice:  (313) 593-5147 (O)
India                                            (810) 731-3898 (H)
Voice:  (91-11) 646-8282                 Email: pjshah@umich.edu
Fax:    (91-11) 646-2453
Email:  pjshah@del2.vsnl.net.in
Webpage: www.siliconindia.com/civil/


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<P ALIGN=RIGHT><U><FONT SIZE="+1">R</FONT>EASON * April 1999</U>


<P><STRONG><FONT SIZE=+1>Precautionary Tale</FONT></STRONG>
<br>The latest environmentalist concept--the Precautionary Principle--seeks to stop innovation before it happens. Very bad idea.

<P>By <A HREF="mailto:rbailey@reason.com">Ronald Bailey</A><p>

Look before you leap.<b> </b><p>
Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But how reasonable would it be to take such
proverbial wisdom and turn it into a Federal Leaping Commission? The
environmentalist movement is seeking to create the moral equivalent of just
that. In effect, before you or anybody else can leap, you will not only have to
look beforehand in the prescribed manner, you will have to prove that if you
leap, you won't be hurt, nor will any other living thing be hurt, now and for
all time. And if you can't prove all of that, the commission will refuse to
grant you a leaping license.  <p>
At this year's annual meeting of the prestigious American Association for the
Advancement of Science in Anaheim, California, in a symposium titled "The
Precautionary Principle: A Revolution in Environmental Policymaking?",
environmentalist advocates and academics insisted that a principle of ultimate
precaution should trump all other considerations in future environmental and
technological policy making. They pointed out that the Principle has already
been incorporated into several international treaties, including the Framework
Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which require developed
nations to cut back dramatically on the burning of fossil fuels to reduce the
putative threat of global warming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is
already using it to help guide its promulgation of new regulations on synthetic
chemicals.  <p>
Jeff Howard, a panel member who once worked on Greenpeace's International
Toxics Campaign and now has a gig at the Center for Science and Technology
Policy and Ethics at Texas A&amp;M University, defined the Principle: It calls
for precaution in the face of any actions that may affect people or the
environment, no matter what science is able--or unable--to say about that
action.  <p>
Before examining this concept, it's worth pausing to see where it came from.
Howard's version of the Principle was formalized last year by environmentalist
advocates who convened at the Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin.
Gathering in such a place allowed them to give their ruminations a sonorous
title: "The Wingspread Consensus Statement." (After all, you wouldn't want to
call such a document "The Bronx Consensus Statement.")  <p>
That the Wingspread delegates achieved "consensus" on precaution might imply to
some that their meeting was a strenuous, perhaps even contentious, effort by
experts of diverse views to find a balance between the demands of scientific
inquiry and the well-being of nature. That's certainly how the AAAS meeting
treated this "consensus": as though it had arisen from a symposium presenting
peer-reviewed scientific data. <p>
But Wingspread's delegates were not exactly diverse; rather, they were a panel
of activists with an agenda. They included representatives from an array of
like-minded groups, including Green-peace, Physicians for Social
Responsibility, the Toxics Use Reduction Institute in Massachusetts, Britain's
Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, the
Environmental Research Foundation, the Science and Environmental Health
Network, the Environmental Network, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, the
Environmental Health Coalition, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the
Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. It's not hard to reach "consensus"
when you gather a group of people who all share your values and views. If I
hand-pick my delegates, I can achieve a consensus on just about anything. (How
about the "Miami Beach Consensus Statement on Abolishing Social Security"?) <p>
What did the Wingspread activists finally recommend? The actual text of the
Principle that Howard offered at the AAAS meeting reads: "When an activity
raises threats of harm to human health or environment, precautionary measures
should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully
established scientifically." <p>
The Wingspreaders and their followers on the AAAS panel want to apply the
Principle solely to environmentalist concerns, but, in fact, their formula is
essentially an empty vessel into which anyone can pour whatever values they
prefer. It simply codifies a very risk-averse version of standard cost-benefit
analysis; the Wingspread participants think that certain activities, such as
manufacturing plastics or burning fossil fuels, are unacceptably risky. In
other words, very conservative environmentalist values are being privileged
over what, to other people, may be equally or more compelling values. <p>
The formula can be adapted to fit many different agendas. Try this, for
example: "When an activity (say, employment tests) raises threats of harm to
equality and equal access, precautionary measures should be taken even if some
cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established sociologically." Or
this: "When an activity (say, higher taxes) raises threats of harm to private
property or economic growth, precautionary measures should be taken even if
some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established economically." We
could do this all day.<p>
The heart of the Principle, of course, is the admonition that "precautionary
measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not
fully established scientifically." As one biomedical researcher in the audience
objected, <i>all</i> scientific conclusions are subject to revision, and none
is ever "fully established." Since that is the case, the researcher pointed
out, the Precautionary Principle could logically apply to every conceivable
activity, since their outcomes are always in some sense uncertain. Furthermore,
David Murray, the director of the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington
D.C., points out another possible--and disquieting--interpretation of the
Principle. Anyone who merely raises "threats of harm" with no more evidence
than their fearful imagination gets to invoke precautionary measures.
Precautionists would not need to establish any empirical basis for their fears;
they may simply posit that something might go wrong and thus stymie any
proposed action.<p>
Ah, so. Just what these activists had in mind all along, as we shall see.<p>
But let's parse the Principle a bit more. One troublesome issue is that some
activities that promote human health might "raise threats of harm to the
environment," and some activities that might be thought of as promoting the
environment might "raise threats of harm to human health." <p>
Take the use of pesticides. Humanity has used them to better control
disease-carrying insects like flies, mosquitoes, and cockroaches, and to
protect crops. Clearly, pesticide use has significantly improved the health of
scores of millions of people. But some pesticides have had side effects on the
environment, such as harming nontargeted species. The Precautionary Principle
gives no guidance on how to make this tradeoff between human health and the
protection of nonpest species (though I suspect I know how the panel members
would choose).   <p>
During the discussion period, another audience member asked panelist Steve
Breyman, a professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, if he thought the last 200 years had been all
bad. Breyman revealingly responded with something like, Oh sure, some things
like life expectancy and living standards have improved, but there have been
losses too. The quality of drinking water, Breyman asserted, has gone down.  <p>
Really? Two hundred years ago, drinking from any stream, well, or spring could
expose one to typhoid, typhus, cholera, and other diseases. In fact,
chlorination has so improved drinking water quality with regard to health that
people in the West no longer even think twice about drinking tap water.
Unfortunately, more than a billion people in the developing world can't say the
same;  millions still die of water-borne diseases each year.    <p>
Proponents of the Precautionary Principle are trying to smuggle in a default
position: The environment trumps all other values. Yet the panelists all
pretended that the Principle is a value-neutral scientific procedure for
determining which policies humanity should pursue. The fact is that the
Precautionary Principle incorporates the values of the most extreme versions of
know-nothing environmentalism. When challenged from the audience<b> </b>on this
point, Breyman fumed, "We're talking about the survival of the planet and the
human race here." <p>
Breyman sees the Precautionary Principle as an essential part of a radical
agenda to reshape human culture. He writes in his AAAS presentation,<b>
</b>"Introduced as part of an overall green plan that included conservation and
renewable energy, grass roots democracy, green taxes, defense conversion, deep
cuts in military spending, bioregionalism, full cost accounting, the cessation
of perverse subsidies, the adoption of green materials, designs and codes,
green purchasing, pollution prevention, industrial ecology and zero emissions,
etc., the PP could be an essential element of the transition to
sustainability." <p>
Jeff Howard later offered some corollaries to the Precautionary Principle that
reveal just how sweeping a proposal it is. <p>
The first corollary is that "the proponent of an activity, rather than the
public, should bear the burden of proof (reverse onus)." This means that
"proponents would have to demonstrate through an open process that a technology
is safe or necessary and that no better alternatives were available." Unlike
the members of the AAAS panel, Boston University law professor George Annas, a
prominent bioethicist who favors the Precautionary Principle, clearly
understands that it is not a value-neutral concept. He gleefully told me, "The
truth of the matter is that whoever has the burden of proof loses."<p>
The result: Anything new is guilty until proven innocent. It's like demanding
that a newborn baby prove that it will never grow up to be a serial killer, or
even just a schoolyard bully, before the baby is allowed to leave the hospital.
Under this corollary, inventors, scientists, and manufacturers would have to
prove that their creations wouldn't cause harm--ever--to the environment or
human health before they would be allowed to offer them to the public. This is
asking them to prove a negative. How can someone prove that a new plastic will
never, ever interact with any metabolic pathway in any plant, animal, microbe,
or person? There is simply no way to test for all possible effects given the
millions of different species living on the earth.<p>
But is this inability to test for everything really dangerous? Howard thinks
it's murderous. He warned the audience that humanity has been engaged in a
"great global experiment since the dawn of the chemical age" and predicted that
"death and disease will increase as a result."<p>
The plain fact is that the introduction of thousands of synthetic chemicals has
not resulted in increased levels of death and disease but <i>has</i> resulted
in substantial health benefits and greater convenience and efficiency. Life
expectancy has never been higher and, as just reported by the National Cancer
Institute, even cancer incidence rates are going down. In addition, the Food
and Drug Administration estimates that less than 2 percent of cancers are the
result of exposure to man-made substances. Finally, the few bad actors, like
some organochlorine compounds, have been replaced.<p>
Under the "reverse onus" corollary, would-be innovators would  have to
demonstrate that a technology was "necessary" because no alternatives were
available. Necessary? Like air, water, and food? This is potentially a
<i>very</i> high threshold. Are antibiotics necessary? Computers? Microwave
ovens? What makes something "necessary" or not depends on the goals that
individuals are trying to achieve. Necessity is the mother of invention only to
the degree that it is in the eye of the inventor.<p>
This requirement of demonstrable necessity ignores a vital fact about progress:
All technologies serve as bridges to other technologies, to ever-better
alternatives. For example, without the production of fossil fuels, humanity
would not be in the position to make the costly, knowledge-intensive transition
to the solar/hydrogen future that environmentalists wish to subsidize into
existence. One technology leads to another. As dirty as burning fossil fuels
may be, they aren't a tenth as dirty as burning wood.<p>
Embedded in the Precautionary Principle is the notion that we can anticipate
all of the ramifications of a technology in advance and can tell whether on
balance it will be a net benefit or cost to humanity and the environment.
That's complete nonsense. To cite a single example, when the optical laser was
invented in 1960, it was dismissed as "an invention looking for a job." No one
could imagine of what possible use this interesting phenomenon might be. Of
course, now it is integral to the operation of hundreds of everyday products:
It runs our printers, runs our optical telephone networks, performs laser
surgery to correct myopia, removes tattoos, plays our CDs, opens clogged
arteries, helps level our crop fields, etc. It's ubiquitous. Yet no one
anticipated--no one could have anticipated--how incredibly useful lasers would
turn out to be, not even the wisest tribunal of environmentalist seers or panel
of Federal Leaping Commissioners.<p>
The same thing goes for items which eventually turned up on the
environmentalist hit list: organochlorine pesticides. After all, it is not as
though evil chemical corporations invented pesticides for the purpose of
polluting the environment. When these compounds were introduced they were a
genuine miracle; they saved millions of lives that would have been lost to
malaria and malnutrition. No one could have anticipated that their persistence
in the environment would allow them to accumulate in animal fat, leading to
some reproductive problems in eagles and falcons. The data simply weren't
there. Indeed, there was not even a theory of bioaccumulation. Only by gaining
experience with these substances were we able to learn about their downside and
eventually decide that other, less persistent pesticides achieved a better
tradeoff between human benefits and harm to the natural environment.<p>
A second vexed corollary is that "the process of applying the Precautionary
Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially
affected parties."  At one point, panel member Breyman declared that we had to
get environmental decisions out of the hands of EPA regulators. Sounds good,
right? But what if the open, democratic process ended with a choice to exploit
a natural resource in ways that environmentalists don't like?<p>
The deputy administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, Andy
Rosenberg, happened to be in the audience and offered an illustration of
realpolitik to the panel's starry-eyed egalitarians. Rosenberg pointed out that
if you allowed New England fishermen to vote on whether or not to keep the cod
fishery open, they would fish it until the last fish was gone. Breyman
responded lamely that if the fishermen did that, they didn't have enough
information.<p>
Other panelists suggested that the "affected parties" aren't just fishermen,
but all of us. If we don't get the result we like at one democratic level,
these panelists implied, we'll just keep shifting the definition of "affected
parties" until we do get the result we like. But wait a minute. Does this mean
that when one of us wants to engage in an activity that someone thinks may
result in harm, we <i>all</i> get to vote on it?<p>
This problem--deciding who gets to decide what--is just one of many slippery
slopes that the Precautionary Principle teeters over. Of course, it quickly
became apparent that, for the AAAS panel, the only democratic decisions that
are acceptable are those consistent with environmentalist goals. But other
obvious problems were never acknowledged.<p>
For example, democratic decision making concerning any and all
environment-affecting actions could have the effect of ratifying
extraordinarily conservative choices. That is, a community could use its
environmental veto to say, No, we don't want a new store, a new housing
development, a new factory, a new road. Basically, it means that the vested
interests of the present can strangle the future. After all, as one wag noted,
an environmentalist is somebody who already owns his second home in the
woods.<p>
Of course, neither the regulators at the meeting nor the environmental
activists on the AAAS panel considered a real solution: removing the decisions
about resources from the political process entirely. Politics is always
win/lose, while market decisions are generally win/win. Give fishermen,
loggers, and cattlemen secure property rights to the resources, and that shifts
their incentives toward trying to protect and enhance <i>their</i> resource,
rather than merely plundering somebody else's resource.<p>
Draconian as the Wingspread proposals are, Jeff Howard doesn't think they are
strong enough. He fears that wily capitalists and innovators will find ways
around them, so he suggests five additional tenets:<p>
n Precaution must become the default mode of all technological decision
making.<p>
n Even the most fundamental of past decisions must be subject to re-examination
and precautionary reform.<p>
n The primary mode of regulation and regulatory science should be at the
macroscale.<p>
n Knowledge of broad patterns trumps ignorance of detail.<p>
n Human society must identify and accommodate itself to broad patterns in
natural processes. <p>
 Consider for a moment the tenet that "even the most fundamental of past
decisions must be subject to re-examination and precautionary reform."
Actually, the process of technological innovation constantly "re-examines" past
decisions, but that's not what Howard has in mind. He wants to create a
political process, which he naturally insists would be open, that would
eliminate technologies of which he disapproves: nuclear power plants,
organochlorines, most plastics, etc. But what I find intriguing is the idea
that "even the most fundamental of past decisions" could be "reformed."<p>
How fundamental is fundamental? Decisions like the invention of the automobile?
The use of fossil fuels? The development of agriculture? Fire? Look at Howard's
last tenet, that society must accommodate itself "to broad patterns in natural
processes." What violates the broad patterns in natural processes? Medicine?
City building? Farming?<p>
Before the AAAS session ended, Howard offered a third corollary to the
Principle: "Precaution requires consideration of the full range of social and
technological alternatives" to what is being proposed. It is very much in line
with the Wingspread Consensus Statement, which declares that precaution "must
also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no
action."<p>
Environmentalists often liken technology and economic growth to a car careening
down a foggy road. They suggest that it would be better if we slowed before we
crashed into a wall hidden in the fog. The Precautionary Principle, its
champions believe, "would serve as a `speed bump' in the development of
technologies and enterprises."<p>
Unfortunately, these principles and tenets may sound sensible to many people,
especially those who live in societies already replete with technology. These
people already have their centrally heated house in the woods; they already
enjoy the freedom from want, disease, and ignorance that technology can
provide. They may think they can afford the luxury of ultimate precaution. But
there are billions of people who still yearn to have their lives transformed.
For them, the Precautionary Principle represents not a speed bump but a wall.<p>
Should we look before we leap? Sure we should. But every utterance of
proverbial wisdom has its counterpart, reflecting both the complexity and the
variety of life's situations and the foolishness involved in applying a short
list of hard rules to them. For some people in some situations, "Look before
you leap" is good advice. Others might be wiser to heed the equally proverbial,
"He who hesitates is lost."<p>
People have understood this maxim for millennia, and the chances are that its
message will eventually reach even Wisconsin's Wingspread Conference Center.
And when it does, I want the Wingspreaders to understand that the moral
equivalent of a Federal Anti-Hesitation Commission isn't such a good idea,
either.<p>
<p>
<i><A HREF="mailto:rbailey@reason.com">Ronald Bailey</A> is </i>REASON's<i> science
correspondent.</i><p>
<i></i>
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