Of all the questions I am asked as an environmentalist, the hardest to answer is how I keep on going given the odds. Social workers, college students, moms and dads, mechanics and doctors hear the environmental threats scratching at their door and smell the trouble in the air. They want to know if their babies will be born healthy, if their grandchildren will have wild whale, honeybee and pelican companions, if the redwoods will still reach to the sky when their great grandchildren come of age. The odds are against us.
My dirty secret is that I hide behind numbers. It is easier to hold the sorrow at bay when we hear statistics — this many birth defects, this many lost species, this many rivers contaminated, this many acres paved over — since the numbers and the decimal points have no faces, no story. But sometimes the numbers have their own ghoulish power.
Consider these from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families:
• Leukemia, brain cancer, and other childhood cancers have increased by more than 20 percent since 1975.
• Breast cancer went up by 40 percent between 1973 and 1998. While breast cancer rates have declined since 2003, a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is now one in eight, up from one in ten in 1973.
• Asthma prevalence approximately doubled between 1980 and 1995 and has stayed at the elevated rate.
• Difficulty in conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy affected 40 percent more women in 2002 than in 1982. The incidence of reported difficulty has almost doubled in younger women ages 18–25
• The birth defect resulting in undescended testes has increased by 200 percent between 1970 and 1993.
• Since the early 1990s, reported cases of autism spectrum disorder have increased tenfold.
This list of statistics is like Pandora's box that contained all the evil in the world.
Each number is a story of suffering. Each child who has leukemia or autism or a birth defect is an entire book of lamentations. The great sorrow is that so many of those problems can be prevented. So many of those cancers, birth defects and learning disabilities are caused by environmental contaminants. We have good scientific evidence that certain chemicals cause certain diseases and that the effects of toxic chemicals can be magnified by poor diet and social stressors like poverty or racism. There are strong links between some pesticides that are designed to be neurotoxicants and Parkinson's disease. We have demonstrated tight causal chains between some chemicals and the disruption of hormone systems that cause the beautifully orchestrated development of a fetus in the womb to go haywire, resulting in deformities of the penis.
I went to work for the Sierra Club in the 1980s. Our major approach to siting radioactive waste facilities or to protect endangered species, or promoting environmental health was to say “no.” This meant that environmentalists, including me, were an angry lot. “No, you can't build that dam. No, you can't site that garbage dump. No, you can't.”
We had plenty of evidence that indiscriminate yeses got us into big trouble. Toxic messes like Love Canal, Chernobyl or Bhopal let us know that our approach to toxic chemicals or hazardous facilities had failed. Saying no was the only tool we had since our environmental policies are not designed to further health of either the human community or the Earth.
If we agree that the system isn't working to protect the health of the land, air, water, fish and mammals; the health of babies, teenagers and elders, what can we do?
Five Elements Of Forecaring
One policy option is the precautionary principle, which tells us to take action in the face of uncertainty to prevent harm. The precautionary principle, translated out of a German word that literally means “forecaring” has become the bedrock of European environmental law and been adopted in several US jurisdictions including the county and city of San Francisco. It stands in direct contrast to the tenets of free market policies by asserting that we have a sacred duty to protect the Earth and all her creatures from harm even if we haven't proven every cause and effect relationship to the satisfaction of a judge, a shareholder or a scientific journal.
Since 1998 the larger environmental movement has been working on the precautionary principle and finding ways to make decisions that benefit the Earth and people. There are five elements that guide the precautionary actions mandated in the principle.
The first is that we should pay attention to early warnings. The statistics I noted describe changes over time. Trend data can serve as warnings that things are amiss. Work on the precautionary principle made clear that many environmental actions were taken too late because we hadn't acted on early warnings. We can create reporting systems and early response mechanisms that can address emerging information about environmental problems in advance of absolute proof of causation. Imagine hotlines and swat teams located at public health or environmental agencies that can act on early warnings and trends such as loss of pollinators or birth defects.
The second is that we should set goals. What actions would we take to meet goals to reduce the rates of autism, breast cancer, Parkinson's and asthma? We have some pretty good statistics on the trends. Let's set goals and then mobilize all our science and ideas to see if we can't reverse the trends that are heading in the wrong direction.
Third, we should look for the best alternatives to a harmful practice and choose them. San Francisco has refined this into an art and science. When San Franciscans passed their precautionary principle law, they began implementing it by using their purchasing power to choose the safest alternatives for all major projects. They got rid of disposable flashlights and bought rechargeable batteries. They looked at the safest materials for children’s playgrounds, and ways to reduce pesticides in parks. This is just good policy. Why should an agency like the Environmental Protection Agency rubberstamp every pesticide, flame retardant and plasticizer, especially if public health and safety mandate safer alternatives?
Fourth, the precautionary principle requires that we reverse the burden of proof. This idea, which is usually used in a courtroom, stands for the notion that the corporation or person that puts something into the market or the environment should have the responsibility for demonstrating that it won't cause undue harm. As it stands right now, if you put a chemical into my carpet and I get sick from it, I have to prove that it both could cause that sickness and that it did cause my sickness. Under the current free market law, I have to prove causation, even if you didn't test your chemical. The precautionary principle puts responsibility back on the proponents of an activity, rather than the customer, the public or government because they are in a better position to get data on their product and search for the best alternative.
A sacred duty to protect the Earth
As a backup, in case there is a public health or environmental problem, reversing the burden of proof means that the polluter must pay for cleaning up its mess.
Finally, the precautionary principle decision process isn't business as usual. At its very heart the precautionary principle is an ethic. It is future oriented— that is, we want to prevent harm to the future. The precautionary principle is an expression of the Golden Rule toward future generations.
The explicit incorporation of ethics into decision-making means we can't leave all the decisions up to the market, scientists or politicians. All affected stakeholders have to be at the table. Democracy is embedded in the precautionary principle as the fifth element of precautionary action. If we want to leave the environmental choices to the market, we will continue down the path we are now headed—more breast cancer, fewer shellfish in the ocean, more unstable climate. This means you have a seat at the table to give voice to the things that you love, to use your gifts and skills in service to the common good, to refuse to drift into catastrophe.
At the bottom of Pandora's box, under all the evil, was hope. Vaclav Havel, the writer and former president of Czechoslovakia, says hope isn't optimism or the belief that everything will turn out perfectly, it is the deep orientation of the soul toward what is right. After all is said and done, those environmental health statistics are already out of the box, and what is left — is hope. If the health of our children and grandchildren, the well-being of the planet are going to be restored, it is up to us to give ourselves to the future and act out of love for this sweet Earth.