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Precaution Reporter

Rachel's Precaution Reporter #130 "Foresight and Precaution, in the News and in the World" Wednesday, February 20, 2008printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

Policy, Persuasion, Possibilities: Wingspread Plus Ten
The simple idea of protecting people and the environment despite scientific uncertainty was really the gateway for a whole complex of ideas that could set a new track for environmental policy in this country and in the world.
Green Economics and New Thinking
Ordinary risk analysis asks, "How much environmental damage will be allowed?" But the precautionary principle asks, "How little damage is possible?" Today we're seeing the principle adopted more and more widely.
The Doctors Are In. the Jury Is Out.
It is "very unwise to wait until we have complete scientific truth" and the "prudent judgment is to protect human health."
Wingspread Takes Flight
Over ten years of promoting the precautionary principle as a helpful tool for creating healthier communities, one of the joys of doing this work has been hearing the stories of communities all over the country who have made the principle their own.
Policy, Persuasion, Possibilities: Wingspread Plus Ten
The simple idea of protecting people and the environment despite scientific uncertainty was really the gateway for a whole complex of ideas that could set a new track for environmental policy in this country and in the world.
Learning and Teaching Precaution
"It is the work of the next ten years to transform teaching precaution from mention in the text to the foundation of our thinking."
Evidence Gathers on Health Hazards of Power Lines
"The fact that the evidence has amalgamated over the last three or four years has certainly shifted my view to see there is sufficient evidence now to say we should probably apply the precautionary principle in order to save lives."
Zones for Scam
"We must respect the "precautionary principle" and not resort to land acquisition unless it can be demonstrated to increase welfare. We must invest real content in the right to life."

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From: The Networker
[Printer-friendly version]

POLICY, PERSUASION, POSSIBILITIES: WINGSPREAD PLUS TEN

By Nancy Myers

Just over ten years ago a friend roped me into what we both thought was a short-term freelance writing assignment. Could I please help with a conference she was planning? Grant proposals, a press release after the conference, and maybe some follow-up fact sheets and articles.

I was available but a little reluctant because I'd just left a job that required me to do a lot of that kind of policy-and-persuasion writing and I was ready to do something entirely different. But my friend, Carolyn Raffensperger, is a very persuasive person. I asked what the conference was about. She said it was about the precautionary principle.

I don't remember what Carolyn told me about the precautionary principle then but I remember thinking: This idea sounds simple and obvious. What's the catch? I had just come from a policy arena of big, intractable problems in which simple ideas competed with hugely complicated approaches. The simple ideas galvanized public attention but when it came down to making actual changes in policy, things inevitably got complicated.

The intractable problem I'd been working on was the nuclear arms race, attacking it from all angles including the simple idea of a nuclear freeze and the complicated warhead counts of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. The SALT II negotiations took so long they were obsolete by the time an agreement was reached and the US Senate never ratified the treaty. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of hopeful Americans rallied for a few years around the simple idea of "the freeze"--never making any more nukes. But the decision makers were never persuaded.

Instead, actual disarmament began in a way no one could have predicted, with the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire--Mikhail Gorbachev and all that followed, with Ronald Reagan playing a surprising part. When that happened, the "nuclear freeze" movement fizzled because that simple idea, too, had become obsolete. It was too narrow to meet the new possibilities.

We need the persuasive power of ideas but they must also work in the nitty-gritty grind of policy and the unpredictable shifts of history. And this was the possibility I saw unfolding in the January 1998 Wingspread conference on the precautionary principle. Soon after the conference I joined the staff of the Science and Environmental Health Network and kept writing about the precautionary principle, including Precautionary Tools for Environmental Policy (Myers and Raffensperger, MIT Press, 2006).

The simple idea of protecting people and the environment despite scientific uncertainty was really the gateway for a whole complex of ideas that could set a new track for environmental policy in this country and in the world. The Wingspread conference laid down the first and still most important lines of that policy track: heeding early warnings, shifting the burden of proof, examining and choosing better alternatives, and making decisions democratically when they affect people and the environment.

At the same time, the idea of precaution made sense on an intuitive level--look before you leap, better safe than sorry. Just apply these maxims to our policies on environmental health. It seemed to be the kind of simple, big idea that might generate a movement.

What actually happened was both more complicated and interesting than either of those two possibilities alone--the policy implementation or the popular movement--or even the combination of policy and persuasion that evolved after Wingspread. Here are some things I and others have discovered about the precautionary principle over the last decade:

The precautionary principle changes the way we think. Most big problems start in the human mind. As Albert Einstein famously said about nuclear weapons, "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our way of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." Einstein made that statement in a telegram he sent in 1947 to raise money to launch the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the magazine where I was working 50 years later. That is great policy-persuasion writing!

The precautionary principle has shifted our way of thinking so that we at least know what we must do to stop the drift toward environmental catastrophe. We start by not waiting for reductionist science to give us all the answers. We start by acting on what we see, know, and can intelligently guess about the consequences of our actions.

The precautionary principle has layers. The more we looked into this simple idea, the more implications we saw. The implications introduced at that Wingspread conference radiated out into others: In order to do these things we should set goals. We have to learn how to handle scientific uncertainty both in the law and science and in making decisions. We need to prevent harm upstream through inherently safe and sustainable technologies and approaches.

The precautionary approach begins to open our minds to the endless possibility of things we can and must do, in a way that shows that all these actions are related. On top of that, the precautionary set of ideas works on every level, from daily life to business and agriculture, from city council planning decisions to international treaties.

The precautionary principle has spiritual power. This has been the most surprising and engaging discovery, and it is the real reason I am still writing about the precautionary principle a decade after taking on this temporary assignment.

First, some of us noticed that the precautionary principle made a statement about values, giving priority and the benefit of the doubt to the health of people and the planet. Health ahead of free enterprise? What a subversive idea! What kind of economy, then, would support this set of values? How can we shore up these values in our legal system, our way of practicing medicine, our food systems? And on and on... These values have endless, exciting implications that bring heart as well as mind to the way we shape our social systems.

And then we combined these ideas with what our Native American allies in the precaution movement were saying, that the precautionary principle was really the Seventh Generation principle laid down by the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy 500 years ago: Make your decisions with the wellbeing of the seventh future generation in mind.

If you do not think people care about future generations, watch the movie Children of Men (or read the book). It's about a world in which people have stopped having babies. From the opening scenes you understand what that means. Even individuals lose their will to live and live well when there is no future for the species.

Translating our instinctive stake in the future of humanity into law, policy, and practice is no simple matter. But the idea that we can and must do that, raising our sights to the long term and drawing on our love for our children's children's children, taps into our deepest capacities. It is a spiritual commitment that engages art and dreams as much as science and the law. It opens a new gateway of ideas and possibilities.

In the next Networker we'll report new developments in SEHN's work with the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic, and others on law and guardianship for future generations.

Meanwhile, times have changed since 1998. The precautionary principle has fueled a movement, but it is not a movement of big mass marches and the precautionary principle is not this movement's single rallying cry. Events like Katrina and the Iraq war have also fueled this movement. It is a movement for complex, multifaceted, revolutionary change in the way we do business, produce and consume food, earn our livings, and treat our neighbors, both human and nonhuman, both present and future. It is a movement to learn our place on the web of life and act accordingly.

It is not easy to explain what this movement is, but each of us is learning what we must do. The precautionary principle has helped us know what to do. It will continue to do so. It's one of the truly big ideas.

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From: WorldChanging
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GREEN ECONOMICS AND NEW THINKING

By Tom Prugh

A few years ago, a homeowner in Las Vegas -- a place that gets maybe five inches of rainfall a year -- was confronted by a water district inspector for running an illegal sprinkler in the middle of the day. The man became very angry. He said, "You people and all your stupid rules -- you're trying to turn this place into a desert!"

Ideas about how the world works that don't accord with reality can be unhelpful. That's especially true about mainstream economics, which is based in part on ideas that made a lot of sense at some point in the last 250 years but that have outlived their time and usefulness. These ideas -- such as the reliance on GDP as the key index of general wellbeing -- still dominate assumptions and thinking about economic matters in the media, governments, businesses, and popular consciousness.

But in recent decades, economics theoreticians and researchers have suggested a variety of reforms that would make economics truer, greener, and more sustainable. My colleague Gary Gardner and I describe seven of these in Chapter 1 of the Worldwatch Institute's latest report, State of the World 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy:

1) Scale. How big is the global economy relative to the global ecosystem? This is crucial, because the economy resides totally inside the global ecosystem -- the ecosystem gives the economy a place to operate, supplies all of its raw materials, and supports it with many critical services. In physical terms, economic activity is basically converting bits and pieces of the ecosystem to human uses: trees and forests into lumber and houses, grasslands and other habitats into farms to feed the billions of humans, and so on.

We've gotten really good at economic growth. Since Adam Smith's time, the number of people in the world has exploded from about 1 billion to nearly 7 billion. And in the last 200 years, Gross World Product has risen by nearly a factor of 60. The ecosystem has suffered as a result, hence the headlines we see every day: climate change, species extinctions, dwindling rainforests, water shortages, and all the rest.

Piecemeal, we're starting to get the message about the economy's scale. For instance, we know that there's too much carbon floating around for the system to handle benignly. Last year, more than 90 major corporations, including General Electric, Volvo, and Air France, called on governments to set goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the European Union has set up a carbon cap-and-trade system.

Waste minimization is another way to reduce scale. Every year we dig up and process more than half a trillion tons of raw materials -- and six months later more than 99 percent of it is waste. That can be fixed too: Ray Anderson's Interface carpet company is a leader in this area, reducing manufacturing waste by 70 percent since the mid-1990s and saving over $300 million while doing it.

2) Stress development over growth. That is, make the economy better at satisfying human needs, not simply bigger.

This is partly about eco-efficiency. It's now cost-effective to boost resource efficiency by at least a factor of four -- and possibly by a factor of 20. And given the need for billions of people to grow their way out of dire poverty, we have to pursue these gains.

But it's also about asking the question, what is an economy is really for? Not only can the global economy not keep growing forever, growth isn't even working for many of us in wealthy nations anymore: U.S. per-capita income has tripled since 1950, for instance, but the share of Americans who say they're very happy has dropped over the last 30 years. Studies in hedonic psychology reveal that higher incomes only improve life satisfaction up to a point. The research also says that the more materialistic people are, the lower levels of happiness they report. And it says that there appears to be a correlation between rising consumption and the erosion of the things that do make people happy, especially social relationships, family life, and a sense of community.

In response, a lot of people are rejecting the competition and get- ahead mentality of consumerism. They're downshifting and pursuing voluntary simplicity all over the globe, and they're taking collective action via campaigns for healthy eating, work leave for new parents, and shortened workweeks. The governments of Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have made wellbeing a national policy goal, and there is a lot of interest in indicators that measure wellbeing more directly than GNP.

3) Make prices tell the ecological truth. Cheating a bit here -- this isn't really a conceptual reform. Every economist knows that markets fail when prices don't reflect actual costs. The reform would be actually applying this rule to the ecosystem. For instance, climate change is arguably the result of failing to charge for dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Another example is human-caused species extinction. We're basically dismantling our life-support machinery, and by and large until recently nobody paid for it. Fortunately, governments and business are beginning to experiment with carbon markets, water pricing mechanisms, and conservation banking. Carbon market trading was worth $59 billion in 2007, and there are now several hundred wetlands and species banks in the United States alone.

4) Account for nature's services.This is closely related to #3. In the United States, the pollination performed by honeybees is worth about $19 billion per year. There's also air and water purification, soil generation, pest control, seed dispersal, and nutrient recycling, among the many other services that nature provides. Tearing up ecosystems undermines these services, so some countries have begun trying to value them properly. Costa Rica, for example, pays landowners to preserve forests and their biodiversity, with the money coming from fuel taxes and sale of environmental credits to businesses. Mexico and Victoria, Australia, have also set up systems to assign values to formerly free services.

5) The precautionary principle. This is just the age-old wisdom of "first, do no harm" and "look before you leap," but applied to public policy toward new products (like chemicals) and technologies that could pose serious risk. Ordinary risk analysis asks, "How much environmental damage will be allowed?" But the precautionary principle asks, "How little damage is possible?" Today we're seeing the principle adopted more and more widely. The Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union in 1991 puts the principle at the center of its environmental policy, and San Francisco made precaution official policy in 2003.

6) Commons management. People generally believe that there are only two workable regimes for managing resources: private property or government control. But commons management regimes are a third way, one that taps the strong human impulse toward cooperation and the common good. Commons management has proven itself over centuries of experience -- there are collectively managed irrigation systems in Spain that were begun in the 15th century, for instance, and other commonly managed forests and pastures in Switzerland, Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia that are centuries old. Commons management lives and thrives today in such things as Wikipedia, community gardens, and farmers markets everywhere. The writer and entrepreneur Peter Barnes has suggested that the atmosphere, which everyone ought to own, could be successfully managed and protected via a commons regime. Ocean fisheries might be as well.

7) Value women. Economic systems ought to be gender-blind but they're not. A UN report in the 1990s noted that "most poor people are women, and most women are poor." All over the world, women earn less than men for equivalent work, they lack access to land and credit, and they do more than their share of child- and elder care, volunteer work, and other unpaid labor. There is evidence that this gender bias actually suppresses economic activity. In response, a few governments in industrial countries are trying to develop policies that take unpaid work into account. Muhammad Yunus's Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is using the terms of its loans to help to ensure that wives are legally entitled to their share of a couple's assets. And the microfinance movement appears to have given millions of women a valuable economic boost.

These seven ideas are hardly the only changes brewing in economics, but the innovations described in State of the World 2008 can generally be traced to one or more of them. Hopefully, they are on the way to transforming economics from "the dismal science" into more of a delightful one -- or, to paraphrase E.F. Schumacher, into an economics as if people and the planet mattered.

Tom Prugh is editor of the Worldwatch Institute's bimonthly magazine, World Watch, and co-director, with Gary Gardner, of State of the World 2008.

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From: New York Times
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THE DOCTORS ARE IN. THE JURY IS OUT.

By Clark Hoyt

Philippe Grandjean is adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard University's School of Public Health and chairman of the department of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark. Dariush Mozaffarian is assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Both agree that fish -- the right kind in the right amounts -- is good for you. Both agree that mercury is harmful to the neurological development of unborn and young children, and both support the government's 2004 recommendation that pregnant women, women who might get pregnant, nursing mothers and young children limit their consumption of fish and avoid certain types known to be high in mercury.

But they come at the issue with a strikingly different emphasis.

Each was quoted in a January 23 New York Times article about mercury in tuna sushi, and I thought it would be useful to readers to hear what they have to say at greater length.

What follows is a link to an interview Mozaffarian gave to Time.com on the day after the Times article and answers that Grandjean sent to questions I asked after reading Mozaffarian's interview with Time and talking with him.

Q and A with Philippe Grandjean:

Q: You told The Times that, "The current advice from the F.D.A. is insufficient." Would you elaborate? In what way is it insufficient?

What advice do you believe the government should give consumers regarding tuna and/or the consumption of fish in general?

A: I support the recommendation to eat fish for dinner once or twice per week for the sake of important nutrients. However, I would advise against eating seafood high in mercury due to the risk of toxicity. At best, the mercury may cancel out the benefits from fish. If you eat fish high in mercury and low in n-3 fatty acids -- such as bluefin tuna -- then the balance has tilted, because bluefin tuna has a very high mercury concentration and only little n-3.

International and national agencies have examined the mercury literature and reached the conclusion that mercury in seafood represents a risk, especially to pregnant women and children. They have therefore recommended to keep mercury intakes at safe levels, i.e. below the US EPA's reference dose or some other value like that.

Although recent research has shown that these limits may be too high and do not provide the protection originally stated, I would support the EPA limit as appropriate and well documented. The trouble is that it can be difficult to respect this limit while also eating fish dinners and trying to get enough n-3 (without taking fish oil caps). As a rough calculation, if you want to respect the EPA mercury limit and still want to eat 400-500 grams of fish per week, then the mercury concentration in the fish should average no more than 0.1 ppm.

The FDA has many years ago fixed a limit for mercury in fish at 0.5 ppm. This limit was essentially based on what was achievable, and for large (predator) fish, a limit of 1 ppm was decided, simply to avoid having to reject too much fish from the market. The limit is not based on health risks. The problem is that eating fish for dinner at high but legal levels can exceed the EPA limit.

The two agencies have worked out a compromise recommendation of limits to how much fish one can eat of one kind or another. This advice is complicated for the average consumer, and the EPA limit will easily be exceeded anyway. My advice is simple: Eat smaller fish (sardines!) that are low in the food chain (avoid those that eat other fish) and have been caught in unpolluted waters (respect the state fishing advisories).

I would have preferred if the FDA would tell the consumers which fish contain very little mercury and can be eaten for dinner twice per week or even more. Salmon is such a fish that contains very little mercury and has a high content of n-3, and it is superb for sushi in my opinion. I would emphasize the positive aspects and point to the kinds of fish that are safe.

Q: Your Harvard colleague, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, told Time magazine that the E.P.A.'s acceptable limit for mercury includes a 10-fold safety factor, so that, for example, if six pieces of tuna sushi a week put you at the limit, you would have to eat 60 a week to get to a level where the E.P.A. determined that risk was occurring. Do you agree with that characterization? If not, how would you characterize the limit?

A: This is a misunderstanding. The EPA reference dose (as approved by experts of the National Academy of Sciences) was arrived at by first calculating a so called benchmark dose that statistically is associated with a small, but detectable adverse effect. Dr. Mozaffarian is assuming that the benchmark dose is "safe," but is not. Research has clearly showed adverse effects below this level. According to EPA's procedures, this benchmark dose is then divided by 10 to arrive at a limit that can be considered safe. This factor of 10 is also meant to take into account differences in sensitivity (because the statistical calculation of the benchmark dose assumes that all people are equally sensitive, which they are not). WHO used a similar procedure but reached a limit that is twice as high. More recent research suggests that both limits are too optimistic and that mercury is more toxic that previously thought. The WHO limit is for weekly intakes, which I think is better than having a limit for daily intake, since the critical factor is the long-term exposure.

Q: Dr. Mozaffarian said that the dangers of not eating fish, including tuna, outweigh what he called "the small possible dangers from mercury." What would you say?

A: I agree that there are nutritional advantages of eating fish, but tuna is not a good source of essential nutrients such as n-3 fatty acids. The mercury content can easily outweigh the advantages. I would not call the dangers from mercury small. Mercury is toxic to brain development and is therefore a danger to pregnant women and children. In non-pregnant adults, mercury very likely contributes to the development of heart disease.

Q: Is it correct that the existing government limits were determined with women of child-bearing age, pregnant women, nursing women and young children in mind? Does that mean that others are at less and perhaps little or no risk when mercury levels are higher than the government standard?

A: Yes, the existing limits were developed to protect the most sensitive populations you mention. In addition, we are all at risk of developing heart disease, and current evidence suggests that it would be wise to limit our mercury intake at a similar level.

Q: You told The Times that it is "very unwise to wait until we have complete scientific truth" and that the "prudent judgment is to protect human health." For a lay audience, how would you characterize the state of science with regard to the health effects of mercury at levels such as those found in the samples of tuna tested for The Times?

A: In science, we like to have our hypotheses verified by repeated studies and replications, before we can say that we have the proof. In regard to a public health hazard, we rarely have the luxury of time. It would be unethical for us to allow an almost certain toxic hazard, while we study how it impacts on brain development in children or causes heart disease in adults. We therefore have to strike a balance, where we protect public health but don't overreact to the smallest warning signals. In the EU, this is called the "precautionary principle." In regard to mercury, decades of research have documented adverse effects even at very low exposures. This is now widely accepted, and the UN Environment Program obtained consensus between 140 countries that mercury pollution is an international problem that must be combatted. In regard to the mercury in tuna tested by the NYT, I would say that there is little hazard if you do this once or on a very rare occasion. But if you include tuna sushi in your diet on a regular basis, say once a week, then we have ample scientific support to say that can result in adverse effects. Tuna is low in n-3 fatty acids, so there is no nutritional advantage, thus emphasizing the toxic risk.

Q: I am struck by the apparent differences in how two highly respected medical researchers see this issue, and I think it presents an interesting challenge for a general circulation newspaper like The Times. The broad question is what should a newspaper say to properly inform its readers so they can make intelligent decisions?

A: I think the contrast appears because Dr. Mozaffarian and other respected colleagues speak from a nutrition standpoint. I certainly agree that fish can be a healthy component of a balanced diet. Just like water or vegetables. But that does not mean that we should favor contaminated water or vegetables, or fish for that matter. I think the misunderstanding comes from the failure to recognize that fish and seafood constitute a highly varied food source. Some types are high in nutrients while low in mercury, and they should be favored. FDA and the nutritionists should help us making the wise choice instead of trying to explain away a toxic pollutant. In plain terms, switch to salmon sushi and serve sardines as hors d'oeuvre.

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From: The Networker
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WINGSPREAD TAKES FLIGHT

By Katie Silberman

The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle, the first major gathering of American advocates to define the principle and dream of its possibilities, was held in January 1998. In the ten years since, we wonder, what ripples have flowed outward from that pebble in that pond? How has Wingspread actually changed the direction of public health and environmental decisionmaking in the face of uncertainty? What happens in the next ten years, and the ten after that?

At Wingspread, participants drafted a statement defining the precautionary principle that has since become standard fare:

"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."

Sounds good on paper. But what has this meant to real communities in 10 years? In Los Angeles, it meant replacing pesticides in school with safer alternatives. In San Francisco, it meant looking at the $600 million the City spent every year on goods and services, and choosing more sustainable options. In Atlanta, it meant demanding more health and more justice for a community already burdened unfairly with threats to their well-being.

In fact, over ten years of promoting the precautionary principle as a helpful tool for creating healthier communities, one of the joys of doing this work has been hearing the stories of communities all over the country who have made the principle their own.

In 2008, the Networker will be devoted to looking back at the ten years since Wingspread, as well as looking forward: to the next ten years of "Wingspread Taking Flight." As such, in this issue you will find reflections on Wingspread from SEHN Communications Director Nancy Myers, who's been along for the ride for all ten years, as well as SEHN Board Member Madeleine Kangsen Scammell, whose career has been shaped by Wingspread's afterglow.

Do you have a story about how Wingspread has affected your work or your life? We'd love to hear it at info@sehn.org. Onward and upward!

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From: The Networker
[Printer-friendly version]

POLICY, PERSUASION, POSSIBILITIES: WINGSPREAD PLUS TEN

By Nancy Myers

Just over ten years ago a friend roped me into what we both thought was a short-term freelance writing assignment. Could I please help with a conference she was planning? Grant proposals, a press release after the conference, and maybe some follow-up fact sheets and articles.

I was available but a little reluctant because I'd just left a job that required me to do a lot of that kind of policy-and-persuasion writing and I was ready to do something entirely different. But my friend, Carolyn Raffensperger, is a very persuasive person. I asked what the conference was about. She said it was about the precautionary principle.

I don't remember what Carolyn told me about the precautionary principle then but I remember thinking: This idea sounds simple and obvious. What's the catch? I had just come from a policy arena of big, intractable problems in which simple ideas competed with hugely complicated approaches. The simple ideas galvanized public attention but when it came down to making actual changes in policy, things inevitably got complicated.

The intractable problem I'd been working on was the nuclear arms race, attacking it from all angles including the simple idea of a nuclear freeze and the complicated warhead counts of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. The SALT II negotiations took so long they were obsolete by the time an agreement was reached and the US Senate never ratified the treaty. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of hopeful Americans rallied for a few years around the simple idea of "the freeze"--never making any more nukes. But the decision makers were never persuaded.

Instead, actual disarmament began in a way no one could have predicted, with the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire--Mikhail Gorbachev and all that followed, with Ronald Reagan playing a surprising part. When that happened, the "nuclear freeze" movement fizzled because that simple idea, too, had become obsolete. It was too narrow to meet the new possibilities.

We need the persuasive power of ideas but they must also work in the nitty-gritty grind of policy and the unpredictable shifts of history. And this was the possibility I saw unfolding in the January 1998 Wingspread conference on the precautionary principle. Soon after the conference I joined the staff of the Science and Environmental Health Network and kept writing about the precautionary principle, including Precautionary Tools for Environmental Policy (Myers and Raffensperger, MIT Press, 2006).

The simple idea of protecting people and the environment despite scientific uncertainty was really the gateway for a whole complex of ideas that could set a new track for environmental policy in this country and in the world. The Wingspread conference laid down the first and still most important lines of that policy track: heeding early warnings, shifting the burden of proof, examining and choosing better alternatives, and making decisions democratically when they affect people and the environment.

At the same time, the idea of precaution made sense on an intuitive level--look before you leap, better safe than sorry. Just apply these maxims to our policies on environmental health. It seemed to be the kind of simple, big idea that might generate a movement.

What actually happened was both more complicated and interesting than either of those two possibilities alone--the policy implementation or the popular movement--or even the combination of policy and persuasion that evolved after Wingspread. Here are some things I and others have discovered about the precautionary principle over the last decade:

The precautionary principle changes the way we think. Most big problems start in the human mind. As Albert Einstein famously said about nuclear weapons, "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our way of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." Einstein made that statement in a telegram he sent in 1947 to raise money to launch the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the magazine where I was working 50 years later. That is great policy-persuasion writing!

The precautionary principle has shifted our way of thinking so that we at least know what we must do to stop the drift toward environmental catastrophe. We start by not waiting for reductionist science to give us all the answers. We start by acting on what we see, know, and can intelligently guess about the consequences of our actions.

The precautionary principle has layers. The more we looked into this simple idea, the more implications we saw. The implications introduced at that Wingspread conference radiated out into others: In order to do these things we should set goals. We have to learn how to handle scientific uncertainty both in the law and science and in making decisions. We need to prevent harm upstream through inherently safe and sustainable technologies and approaches.

The precautionary approach begins to open our minds to the endless possibility of things we can and must do, in a way that shows that all these actions are related. On top of that, the precautionary set of ideas works on every level, from daily life to business and agriculture, from city council planning decisions to international treaties.

The precautionary principle has spiritual power. This has been the most surprising and engaging discovery, and it is the real reason I am still writing about the precautionary principle a decade after taking on this temporary assignment.

First, some of us noticed that the precautionary principle made a statement about values, giving priority and the benefit of the doubt to the health of people and the planet. Health ahead of free enterprise? What a subversive idea! What kind of economy, then, would support this set of values? How can we shore up these values in our legal system, our way of practicing medicine, our food systems? And on and on... These values have endless, exciting implications that bring heart as well as mind to the way we shape our social systems.

And then we combined these ideas with what our Native American allies in the precaution movement were saying, that the precautionary principle was really the Seventh Generation principle laid down by the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy 500 years ago: Make your decisions with the wellbeing of the seventh future generation in mind.

If you do not think people care about future generations, watch the movie Children of Men (or read the book). It's about a world in which people have stopped having babies. From the opening scenes you understand what that means. Even individuals lose their will to live and live well when there is no future for the species.

Translating our instinctive stake in the future of humanity into law, policy, and practice is no simple matter. But the idea that we can and must do that, raising our sights to the long term and drawing on our love for our children's children's children, taps into our deepest capacities. It is a spiritual commitment that engages art and dreams as much as science and the law. It opens a new gateway of ideas and possibilities.

In the next Networker we'll report new developments in SEHN's work with the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic, and others on law and guardianship for future generations.

Meanwhile, times have changed since 1998. The precautionary principle has fueled a movement, but it is not a movement of big mass marches and the precautionary principle is not this movement's single rallying cry. Events like Katrina and the Iraq war have also fueled this movement. It is a movement for complex, multifaceted, revolutionary change in the way we do business, produce and consume food, earn our livings, and treat our neighbors, both human and nonhuman, both present and future. It is a movement to learn our place on the web of life and act accordingly.

It is not easy to explain what this movement is, but each of us is learning what we must do. The precautionary principle has helped us know what to do. It will continue to do so. It's one of the truly big ideas.

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From: The Networker
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LEARNING AND TEACHING PRECAUTION

By Madeleine Kangsen Scammell

My father, who had the IQ to make such claims, once told me that genius is found in the obvious. This made me feel better when a family friend said, as I explained the findings of my dissertation research, "Well, that seems kind of obvious, don't you think?" She caught me off guard. Obvious findings are not exactly the stuff scientific credentials are made of, but she was right. My findings made sense. They highlighted issues that a layperson might consider "obvious" but are rarely discussed among environmental health scientists. In fact, by virtue of their absence in scholarly texts, one might believe them to be unimportant.

We sometimes mistake obvious for simple, and therefore unworthy of rigorous consideration by great minds, kind of like the precautionary principle. I actually think it will take many great minds to realize this particular, perhaps obvious, big idea.

Personally, it is hard but not impossible to imagine life without the precautionary principle. I was in my early twenties when I began working at the Loka Institute where I met Carolyn Raffensperger, who would become our board chair, and Joel Tickner, who was a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. When they began planning the Wingspread conference in 1997, I knew something big was happening but I had no idea Wingspread participants would write a chapter of my own history.

As a college undergraduate I was attracted by Loka's mission to "democratize science and technology" because I understood lay access to scientific expertise and resources was unequal among communities in the US. From my own experience I understood that research agendas were driven by people with specialized knowledge and decision-making power. Democratizing science and technology was as important to me as making education and healthcare accessible to all.

What I did not appreciate at the time of the Wingspread conference was that decisions affecting environmental health policies and standards are not as deeply rooted in science as I would have liked to believe. And that in the face of inconclusive science, pressing economic and political considerations often outweigh concerns regarding environmental health outcomes. Since I had no reason to believe otherwise, I watched Wingspread unfold not as an active participant, but as a naive supporter.

After five years at the Loka Institute I decided to move on, with no plans for exactly where. It was a strange series of events that landed me in the office of David Ozonoff at the Boston University School of Public Health. Someone suggested I talk with him about the graduate program in environmental health, and I recognized his name among the Wingspread participants. Probably with no effort on his part, Dr. Ozonoff convinced me to apply to the doctoral program.

In 2001, a few months into my career as a graduate student, I joined Dave and Prof. Dick Clapp at the International Summit on Science and the Precautionary Principle at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Studying environmental health, I began to understand what had attracted Carolyn and Joel to the precautionary principle in the first place. The textbook that was used in my environmental health course, for example, did not mention the precautionary principle nor did it discuss the need for creative decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty. I began, finally, to understand the need for the movement toward precautionary decisions. At the Lowell conference were many familiar faces, including Carolyn's and Joel's, as well as new faces and names that would become familiar over the coming years. The more I began to participate in discussions about precaution, no longer watching from the sidelines, the more I was challenged. The precautionary principle is anything but simple.

My biggest challenge is making the precautionary principle more than a sentiment, and realizing it in my work. The difference between now and ten or even five years ago is that it isn't just a small group of people grappling with this challenge. The precautionary principle is a topic at the meetings of professional societies, including the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology. At the same time communities around the country are putting the principle to practice.

Now, as a teacher of environmental health, I use a new textbook, written by my own colleague in the Environmental Health department, Nancy Maxwell. A section is devoted to the precautionary principle and democratic science. Now when students learn about chemicals policies and evidence-based standards, they have a name for what has been missing and examples of what it looks like. They get it, too. Precaution isn't simple, but it is valued. It is the work of the next ten years to transform teaching precaution from mention in the text to the foundation of our thinking.

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From: The Press and Journal (Aberdeen, Scotland)
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EVIDENCE GATHERS ON HEALTH HAZARDS OF POWER LINES

An influential Holyrood committee is urging a precautionary approach towards possible health hazards caused by long-term exposure to high- voltage electricity lines.

The long-term dangers of exposure to electromagnetic fields generated by overhead power lines was compared to passive smoking.

Richard Simpson, Labour MSP [Member of the Scottish Parliament] for Mid Scotland and Fife, said when he and SNP [Scottish National Party] MSP Kenny Gibson moved a member's bill to ban smoking in 2001, the evidence about the dangers of passive smoking was not at all great. But that changed and the Scottish Parliament banned smoking in enclosed public places.

Mr Simpson told the public petitions committee that a Commons cross- party inquiry into childhood leukaemia has found that children living within 200 metres of overhead power lines had an increased risk of getting the disease.

Recently there has been anecdotal evidence of a link to Alzheimer's, he said.

Mr Simpson conceded that the numbers were small and the condition rare, but added: "The fact that the evidence has amalgamated over the last three or four years has certainly shifted my view to see there is sufficient evidence now to say we should probably apply the precautionary principle in order to save lives."

Mr Simpson made his claim in support of an ongoing petition from Stirling Before Pylons, urging the Scottish Government to introduce planning regulations to safeguard public health.

The committee heard that the government should take into account the very latest scientific evidence when it considers the reporter's recommendation on the public inquiry into whether the Beauly-Denny power line should be upgraded.

It was claimed 14,000 people signed a petition against the upgrade of the line on health grounds alone.

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From: Transnational Institute
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ZONES FOR SCAM

By Praful Bidwai

GOING by the number and intensity of protests against displacement under way in numerous States, land acquisition for industrial, mining and infrastructure projects has become India's single most contentious issue. Land is now the main site of struggle as popular movements confront predatory capital, which can only accumulate through dispossession.

At stake are thousands of square kilometres of land on which at least a few million livelihoods depend. For instance, the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) which have received formal or "in-principle" approval will alone need over 2,000 square kilometre. If the even larger swathes typically involved in mining leases, plots earmarked for industry, and areas claimed by highway development, and above all, by suburban housing -- now witnessing an unprecedented boom -- are added, the acreage would be huge.

Uprooting or displacing (usually vulnerable) people is nothing new in India. Thirty-five to 40 million -- half the population of Germany, France or Britain -- people suffered that cruel fate during the first 50 years of Independence under "development" schemes, including large dams, and mining, metallurgical, chemical and power projects. The bulk of the uprooted were rural people, a large number of them being Adivasis.

What is new about displacement today is its increasingly urban location, growing absence of resettlement sites and alternative livelihoods, the changed role of the state -- which acts as a gendarme on behalf of private business -- and the furious pace of construction. Take SEZs for which a special Act was passed in 2005. As many as 195 SEZs have been approved and notified by the Commerce Ministry, covering 22,800 hectares (ha). It is well-established that the scrutiny process is arbitrary, even cavalier.

A detailed analysis of 154 SEZs (Seminar, January) shows that the promoters do not furnish the requisite numbers for direct and indirect jobs, and for investment. Direct employment figures are provided in just 110 applications, indirect employment figures in 82 and investment figures in 109 of the 154 applications.

The 154 SEZs are located in only 53 of India's 600 districts. These have a relatively high level of literacy and industrialisation. Just 20, mostly urban, districts -- including the metropolises and major cities such as Pune, Ahmedabad, Coimbatore, Indore, Nagpur and Visakhapatnam -- account for 71 per cent of all SEZs and an even higher 82 per cent of their land area.

This at once multiplies the displacement quotient. Many Indian cities have population densities that are 20 to 40 times higher than the national average (330). For instance, Mumbai has about 22,000 people per sq km. Delhi and Bangalore about half that. Even smaller cities such as Patna and Visakhapatnam have very high population densities - 13,700 and 8,800. The urban plan areas of Indore, no aspiring metropolis, tops with a density of 1,02,800.

The fact that two-thirds of all SEZs are in information technology/information technology-enabled services further magnifies the multiplier effect. Such enterprises, almost invariably abut well- developed urban centres, and are hard to distinguish from, and easily assimilated/converted to, high-value real estate.

Thus, a large proportion of SEZs might just be plain land scams, with many more billions involved in property values than in investment in plant and machinery, which is minimal in IT.

Even on the conservative assumption that the already notified SEZ areas have a population density of 5,000 (when 10,000 seems a more reasonable estimate), the number of people liable to be displaced by them works out to 1.14 million. This is a frightening figure, considering that the process of displacement was compressed into just over a year.

More important, this is more than 18 times higher than the number of people officially claimed to have been directly employed in the notified zones: 61,015. Even going by the Commerce Ministry's estimate that 14 persons get indirect employment when 10 new direct jobs are created, the total employment gain (1,45,335) from the SEZs would be just about one-eighth of the loss represented by displacement. This is an obnoxiously, repugnantly, unequal bargain.

However, in the present climate, unequal bargains which destroy livelihoods have become the norm. There is even talk of Special Education Zones, presumably modelled after the Vedanta University project promoted by Anil Agarwal's United Kingdom-based group, now under way in Orissa.

This campus is being built close to the Konarak-Puri Marine Drive, less than 60 km from Bhubaneswar on 6,270 acres of land. It will be connected "by a dedicated railway station and an expressway directly to the new Bhubaneswar International Airport", which almost seems designed to enhance its real estate value. To comprehend what 6,270 acres means, just recall that the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai campus, considered big, even lavish, is 550 acres in area.

The destructive potential of such land-based and -intensive "development" will not remain confined to the wiping out of the poor or middle peasant whose land is acquired, usually compulsorily under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. It will unfold fully as property values get grossly inflated in and around city after Indian city to a point when even the salaried middle and upper-middle class finds it impossible to buy modest housing with its savings.

A particularly obnoxious emerging phenomenon is the occurrence of irrational SEZs along with other extravagant infrastructure projects. A case in point is Nagpur's Rs.2,581-crore project called Mihan (Maharashtra Multi-Modal International Hub Airport at Nagpur), being promoted by the State-sponsored Maharashtra Airport Development Company (MADC). Mihan was explicitly floated to "firmly put India on the fast track to economic superstardom", no less.

Under Mihan, the MADC will acquire a total of 4,354 ha, of which 1,278 ha will be earmarked for the airport, and 2,086 for an SEZ, termed "the free trade paradise". This includes 500 ha for IT parks, 955 ha for manufacturing units, 60 ha for a "health city", and 200 ha for a rail-cum-road terminal.

This new city will have numerous residential complexes, hotels, entertainment facilities, its own power plant, water supply, sewerage, and even a posh "international" school. The idea is to create an entirely new entity, Mihanpur, which with its "twin" Nagpur, will become "India's fastest growing cosmopolitan city". Resistance in Maharashtra

Last fortnight, I visited Shivangaon, one of the 13 villages affected by Mihan, which falls within Nagpur's municipal limits. Shivangaon's people have been protesting peacefully against forcible land acquisition at rates that are only 100th of the market value. On each day of the past eight months, 20 to 50 people have conducted a relay dawn-to-dusk hunger-strike.

Sadly, that has had no effect on the Maharashtra government. Nor has their recent novel protest under which all the male adults and then the boys shaved their heads. Later, 90 women got tonsured -- signifying widowhood in a traditional Hindu family.

Shivangaon is in Nagpur's prosperous orange belt. Most of its land is irrigated. It cultivates vegetables for the urban market and also supplies it 30,000 litres of milk. Shivangaon's literacy exceeds 95 per cent. Its inhabitants include many educated professionals.

"We have been repeatedly forced to surrender our land at throwaway prices -- for the original Nagpur airport in 1937, for the Improvement Trust, for a dairy project, and in the 1990s for the 'Gajraj' project of the Air Force," Baba Daware, an organiser of the protest, told this writer. "The 270 ha Gajraj land was never used. But the government won't give it back. It's selling it to private developers and profiteering on our backs."

Mihan is yet to receive environmental clearance, but land acquisition, and construction driven by lucrative contracts, have already begun. A 22,000 square-metre Central Facility Building is awaiting completion by July. So are internal roads.

Mihan will eliminate whole villages and render people landless - without rehabilitation. In a reply under a Right to Information Act application, the authorities have clarified that there is "no notification" for rehabilitation.

The people are willing to sell land, but at market value, so they can find alternative plots not too far away. The market rate is Rs.2 to 4 crore an acre. This is confirmed by a sale deed of April 30 last, which shows that a High Court judge and his brothers sold land for a staggering Rs.2.55 crore an acre. The MADC is offering a pathetic Rs.1 to 2 lakh.

What makes Mihan especially egregious is the spectacular irrationality of the "hub" airport. This derives from the "hub-and-spokes" civil aviation model, which has no takers in India. Nagpur airport is puny.

Nagpur records just 2 per cent of India's aircraft movements and only 65,301 domestic passengers a month. By contrast, Mumbai handles 1.65 million, 27 times more. Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore do 8 to 12 times more. Nagpur has half as much traffic as Guwahati, Goa or Jaipur. It makes no sense to increase its monthly passenger capacity from 65,301 to 1.2 million under Mihan.

There are three general lessons in all this. First, the colonial LAA must go. Its "public interest" Section has been extensively abused to promote corporate interests. Second, the bureaucracy cannot be trusted to determine the right price of land, based on market value and likely appreciation, and related to the true costs of rehabilitation.

We need independent commissions. Finally, we must respect the "precautionary principle" and not resort to land acquisition unless it can be demonstrated to increase welfare. We must invest real content in the right to life.

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  Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical
  examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in
  action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making
  decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to
  answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary
  principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

  We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we  
  believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what
  their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed
  to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

  Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to
  provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

  As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary 
  principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- 
  please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

  Editors:
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  Tim Montague   -   tim@rachel.org
  

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