This week sees the tenth anniversary of an important event in the American environmental movement, although few people know it (even some who were there had forgotten the date). In late January, 1998, a group of 32 environmental scientists, activists and scholars sat down together at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin to hash out a consensus statement on The Precautionary Principle. After a grueling three days, the statement was put into final form on January 25 (just in time to see my beloved Green Bay Packers lose the Superbowl. Is history repeating itself? Aargh!).
In the ten years since Wingspread, the Precautionary Principle has itself spread its wings. It has developed into a nuanced and flexible paradigm that has affected the thinking of both the public and the scientific community. Tip of the hat to the Wingspread Conferees.
The statement was released publicly on January 26, 1998, with this preamble:
Last weekend at an historic gathering at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation, scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists, reached agreement on the necessity of the Precautionary Principle in public health and environmental decision-making. The key element of the principle is that it incites us to take anticipatory action in the absence of scientific certainty. At the conclusion of the three-day conference, the diverse group issued a statement calling for government, corporations, communities and scientists to implement the “precautionary principle” in making decisions. The 32 conference participants included treaty negotiators, activists, scholars and scientists from the United States, Canada and Europe. The conference was called to define and discuss implementing the precautionary principle, which has been used as the basis for a growing number of international agreements. The idea of precaution underpins some U.S. policy, such as the requirement for environmental impact statements before major projects are launched using federal funds. But most existing laws and regulations focus on cleaning up and controlling damage rather than preventing it. The group concluded that these policies do not sufficiently protect people and the natural world. Participants noted that current policies such as risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis give the benefit of the doubt to new products and technologies, which may later prove harmful. And when damage occurs, victims and their advocates have the difficult task of proving that a product or activity was responsible. The precautionary principle shifts the burden of proof, insisting that those responsible for an activity must vouch for its harmlessness and be held responsible if damage occurs. The issues of scientific uncertainty, economics, environmental and public health protection which are embedded in the principle make this extremely complex. We invite your thought and conversation on these topics.
The Wingspread Consensus Statement on the Precautionary Principle
The release and use of toxic substances, the exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials. We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to protect adequately human health and the environment – the larger system of which humans are but a part. We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary. While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors. Therefore, it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle: When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action. Conference Partners The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network, an organization that links science with the public interest, and by the Johnson Foundation, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the C.S. Fund and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
Dr. Nicholas Ashford
Univ. of British Columbia
Chicago-Kent College of Law
Dr. Robert Costanza
Univ. of Maryland
Dr. Carl Cranor
Univ. of California, Riverside
Dr. Peter deFur
Virginia Commonwealth Univ.
Dr. Kenneth Geiser
Toxics Use Reduction Inst., Univ. of Mass., Lowell
Dr. Andrew Jordan
Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, Univ. Of
United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Office
Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann
Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Dr. Michael M’Gonigle
Univ. of Victoria, British Columbia
Dr. Peter Montague
Environmental Research Foundation
Dr. John Peterson Myers
W. Alton Jones Foundation
Dr. Mary O’Brien
Dr. David Ozonoff
Science and Environmental Health Network
Dr. Philip Regal
Univ. of Minnesota
Hon. Pamela Resor
Massachusetts House of Representatives
Louisiana Environmental Network
Dr. Ted Schettler
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
Dr. Klaus-Richard Sperling
Alfred-Wegener- Institut, Hamburg
Dr. Sandra Steingraber
Environmental Health Coalition
Univ. of Mass., Lowell
Dr. Konrad von Moltke
Dr. Bo Wahlstrom
KEMI (National Chemical Inspectorate), Sweden
Indigenous Environmental Network