Common Sense – The Precautionary Principle

My mother in law, Darlene, was a big believer in common sense. She could look right to the heart of things and immediately find the best way to deal. She died a couple of years ago of cancer, one of the great scourges of modern Western populations. She smoked for a time, she drank diet soda and ate many other foods prepared by the industrial machine we call a culture. Did this have anything to do with her cancer? Maybe, maybe not. No one has ever done the long term studies to find out. If I had to guess I would say it had more to do with a lifetime spent in our toxic civilization. Pesticides, hormones, pharmaceuticals and fluoride in the water supply, dioxins and sulfur oxides in the air. Living for some years in both Calgary and Kamloops, we could safely add volatile organic compounds and other byproducts of oil and industry to the mix.

So what could we as a society have done to give her a better outcome to her life?

Perhaps if we had adopted something called the Precautionary Principle back when we were building this great industrial machine, we would have done those studies. Perhaps if we had ever had the balls to stand up to corporations, substances like aspartame would still be waiting approval instead of being railroaded through the approval process as a purely political, money based decision. Perhaps we would have applied the same principle when DuPont first came out with the kraft pulp process. Or maybe even SunCor and the oil sands project could have used a bit of this common sense approach. I know the First Nations downstream on the Athabasca River sure would be a lot better off if they had.

I include the complete Precautionary Principle as originally created during a January 1998 meeting of scientists, lawyers, policy makers and environmentalists at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin.

Wingspread 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.

Pretty much a common sense statement that is very difficult to argue against. Darlene would have approved. So why, in this age of information and informed citizenry has it not become the guiding principle for all that we do? How can corporations and governments not follow this in the best public interest?


If you were looking for a better reason, I don’t have one. As with so much else in our culture, maximizing the corporate return on investment takes precedence over habitat, fresh water, clean air, spotted owls, biodiversity, public safety, doing the right thing, cultures other than ours existing, ethical behaviour, entire species, watersheds, morality, your life and of course, common sense. And what do we get in exchange for looking the other way and not saying anything?

I thought so.

As it ever was…

(In memory of Darlene Sonmor, January 26, 1946 – December 13, 2007, we miss you!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>