Precautionary principle promises a better future

Opinion: Columns

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Peggy McGrath

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To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," local environmentalist Peggy McGrath is offering monthly essays on Carson's legacy — and what remains to be done.

In the last essay, I discussed the toxic environment we live in, and the path that got us there. According to the 2006 book, Naturally Clean, "In the United States, we have based most of our decision-making on a system that says an activity is innocent until proven guilty. In this school of regulatory thought, most activities, whether cutting down a tree or selling a certain chemical, are considered OK to do until someone can prove that they're actually not.

"This legal theory has proven to be quite dangerous from a public health perspective. Instead of protecting our families from harm, the current shoot-first-ask-questions-later regulatory policies of both federal and local governmental agencies and lawmakers tend to favor commercial interests."

An example of this is the recent decision by our legal system favoring Monsanto's rights over farmers' rights. Monsanto sued farmers when Monsanto's GMO seed was blown by the wind onto independent farmers' lands. These farmers didn't want Monsanto's seed, especially if they were organic farmers. (Monsanto also sued farmers who collected natural seed. Monsanto won this case, thanks to their deep pockets.) So the farmers united to sue Monsanto. But the court, shockingly, upheld the decision that Monsanto was not to blame.

There is another way, different from the one we experience living in the U.S. It is called the "Precautionary Principle." (Rachel Carson's writing includes this cautionary principle, although she didn't use those words.) The precautionary principle was first declared in Stockholm in 1972, reiterated in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, reinforced and formally created at the 1998 Wingspread Conference in Racine, Wis. The European Union and Canada follow this principle.

"When an activity raises threats of harm to health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

Simply stated, it is much wiser to be safe than to be sorry.

An example of this principle in action occurred in Huron, Ontario. The community's governing body decided to ban chemical use on private property lawns. Chemlawn, now TruGreen, sued Huron. The case went all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. Huron won, based on the precautionary principle. That was in 2001.

An unanswered question is: Why do most of us not even know that this principle exists? Please consider contacting your representatives with this question.

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Reader Comments

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Tom the Beer Guy  

Posted: April 18th, 2012 11:37 AM

We have enough Malthusians in Oak Park, now we are attracting more from the Pacific Northwest? Great. Just Great. Malthus was a fraud.

Marie Matt from Vancouver  

Posted: April 18th, 2012 11:25 AM

How bad is Monsanto? Monsanto was just found guilty of %u200Bpoisoning%u200B a French farmer because a Monsanto herbicide was not labeled properly, and that's only the tip of the toxic iceberg when it comes to damage GMO giant Monsanto causes to us and our planet.

Nancy Churchill from Oregon, Illinois  

Posted: April 5th, 2012 1:20 PM

I found your article through a search today, as my partner had alerted me to the precautionary principle recently. I found all the sources you referenced before this article, plus one from the American Enterprise Institute ( attempting to debunk this principle. Your reference to Monsanto being granted "rights" over the organic farmers is a perfect example of why we need to return to this principle in the US today. Caution is a small "c" conservative principle, but today's conservatives have become ideological, and are no longer truly conservative, merely anti-"liberal" or progressive. Once public servants and corporate executives were stewards of the commons, as they should be, but too many today care only for creating profit for the already wealthy private sector, to hell with everything else. Bravo for a fine piece!

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