Precautionary Politics - Cornell College


Dec 14, 2012 (4 years and 6 months ago)


Presented by Kirstin

Wagner, Sara
Harry Blackwood, and Nick Campbell

B.A. with Distinction in
Political Science, Stanford
University, 1975

M.A., Princeton University,

Ph.D., Princeton University,
Dept. of Politics, 1983

Professor of Government at
Franklin and Marshall

Author of
Divided Natures:
French Contributions to
Political Ecology


and the
Foundation of an Existential

1) Defining Scientific
Based Risk Assessment
and the Precautionary Principle

2) Comparing SBRA and PP

Study: GMO’s

3) Why the Precautionary Principle should be
the preferred method of policy

4) How the Precautionary Principle could be

Based Risk

Precautionary Principle

based risk
assessment is a
process by which the
potential risk of an
action is assessed
based on scientific
experimentation to
obtain proof of public
or environmental

The precautionary
principle is a moral and
political principle which
states that if an action or
policy might cause
severe or irreversible
harm to the public or the
environment, in the
absence of a scientific
consensus that harm
would not ensue, the
burden of proof falls on
those who would
advocate taking the

What are SBRA and the PP?

“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach
shall be widely applied by States
according to their capabilities
Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full
scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing
effective measures

to prevent environmental degradation.”

Rio Declaration, 1992

“The lack of certainty… must not delay the adoption of
effective and
measures that aim to prevent a risk of serious and
irreversible damage to the environment.”


Law, 1995

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


Wingspread Statement, 1998

“Better Safe Than Sorry”


Precautionary Principle

Use of scientific experimentation to Use of scientific experimentation to
prove the harmfulness of an action/ prove the safety of an action/policy


Use of cost
benefit analysis to

Use of philosophy, history, and

establish grounds for action

sociology to establish grounds for


Results are quantitative

No tangible results

Driven by


Driven by desire to protect the public

and environmental well

Technocratic in its political

Democratic in its political implications

SBRA versus the Precautionary Principle

GMO’s: What are they?

Genetically modified organisms

Organisms that have been modified by genetic engineering, a process
by which DNA corresponding to a particular gene is extracted from one

bacteria, plant, or animal

and transplanted into the cells of
a target organism.

Why genetically engineer crops?

Increased shelf
life, increased vitamin content, higher crop yields, more
resistance to adverse environmental conditions, ripening control, more
resistance to herbicides/pesticides, etc.

What are Transgenic Soybeans?

Soybeans that have been genetically modified to resist

What happened?

1) United States tried to introduce genetically modified
soybeans into Europe.

2) Europeans refused to have GMOs introduced into their
food supply before more investigation.

Reasons for European Precaution

Shortened time frame between discovery and

leads to less understanding of health and environment

Transferred DNA is not placed in specific place in the

Causes different desired results

No complete understanding of DNA structure and function

Traits require interaction of multiple genes

Change nature of food supply



species in markets

Impossible to keep

from the environment

Risks of growing and consuming transgenic
term safety to health and

Genetic engineering can produce unwanted effects


Allergy provoking genes without consumer knowing

resistant, pest


Herbicide resistant,


Genes emerge by process of natural selection

Pollen of transgenic crops harmful to species

Biodiversity effects

Genetically engineered plants have higher survival rate

GMOs replace native species and destroy natural reserves

Use of SBRA

Little testing on animals, humans, or fields

Rush to bring product to market

Limit range of scientists evaluating GMOs

Decisions based on extrapolated data

“substantial equivalency”=same food so no need
to label GM foods

Cannot detect danger of GM food is food is mixed

Unlabeled and untracked

Cannot trace problems back to source

Tested relative to conditions in U.S. not globally

Use of Precaution

GMOs not handled with same regulations as traditional

Advise from commissions

Health risks, nutritional value, probability of cross
scientific procedures, classifies by degree of risk, laboratory,
production, transportation, disposal

Different types of GMOs categorized

Degree of environmental danger

Expertise diversity in evaluations

Safety levels, confinement levels

Assessors do not act with interest of state or industry


conferences=public opinions about regulations,
citizens question scientists about uncertainty

Mandate labeling and traceability

The United States tends to favor Science
based Risk Assessment while Europe tends to
favor use of the Precautionary Principle. This
often places the U.S. and Europe at odds in
matters of trade.

“Precautionary situations fit poorly into
established patterns of thought.”

Political theory is aimed at problems with
immediate impacts

People should “know” when they are in distress

Politics have always functioned around
geographically localized problems

No one can be held individually responsible for
global problems

Nature has always been thought to be resilient to
human action

Which method of risk assessment is
preferable? SBRA or the PP?

Effects on the scale of climate change or the depletion of the
ozone layer confound existing approaches to risk management.

Damages from new risks can take many years to become evident
and then their effects can last for generations, therefore,
precautionary action is needed to avoid these effects.

Sometimes a technology is so novel that there has not been
enough time to completely test its effects in all the
circumstances it will be used.

The PP appeals to one’s moral sensibilities

“The fundamental logic for precaution is this: the fear of serious consequences,
combined with uncertainty about the conditions under which they might materialize,
creates a
moral obligation
to take precautions.”

A technology or practice should only be regulated if there is
scientific evidence that it has a causal relationship to an
identified problem.

Studies must be objective

influenced as little as possible by
people’s emotions or by special interests; therefore, they should
be based purely on science.

management should be cost
effective. Priority should be
given to regulatory measures which bring the greatest net social

The use of SBRA provides concrete and material costs that can be
measured in tangible units, whereas the precautionary principle
calls for preemptive action, so there is no way to concretely
measure the possible costs and benefits.

Precaution is actually more science
based than the traditional
approach because there are fewer political or economic

There is nothing admirably “scientific” about “science
based risk
management” if the resulting information is false.

Many opponents of the precautionary principle argue that the
Earth is resilient to recover from all human
made disturbances,
but this is hardly scientific.

The precautionary method examines and discusses links
between nature and humans.

It opens environmental issues to a discussion of uncertainties.

It mandates trans
disciplinary research.

It promotes the public interest, and the interests of future
generations, as opposed to the immediate interests of a
particular group.

National Environmental Policy Act (1969)

Clean Air Act (1970 and 1977)

Clean Water Act (1972)

Endangered Species Act (1973)

Toxic Substances Control Act (1976)

Pollution Prevention Act (1990)

Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1992)

*Anticipatory Environmental Action*

Use of precaution on a case
case basis, where judgment
is a matter of official discretion.

Example: Canadian mad cow


Vision of Government

Setting up research programs to gather information
about the risk posed by new products and
technologies before they are put into use.

term environmental and health monitoring.

Systematically favoring “green” measures and

Reinforcing the independence of regulatory bodies.

based research

Woburn, Massachusetts

Consensus conference model


Educative process

Neutrality and objectivity

Findings and policy



Environmental social learning

Global world