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OP-ED: The Precautionary Principle – Now, more than ever

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by Frederick Sinclair

We humans are faced with a rapidly expanding challenge of survival amid myriad environmental pollutants. Some sources are obvious such as smog, plastic islands in the ocean, sediment and sewage discharge yet some are not so obvious, such as radiation, forever chemicals, electrosmog, biological agents, CO2 and holes in the ozone layer. Humanity must rise to new levels of awareness, understanding and informed decision making in order to slow the degradation of life support systems here on spaceship earth. It was Einstein who stated “ We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Rising to new levels of thinking for environmental problem solving involves a compiling and processing of information at levels which support the identification of options and appropriate solutions. Oddly, the first step in such a process is knowing what you don’t know and pausing decision making until you can assemble appropriate information to support new “levels of thinking” and decision making.

Enter, center stage, The Precautionary Principle; which is meant to ensure that the public good is represented in all decisions made under conditions of policy and or scientific uncertainty. When there remains uncertainty about the risks and benefits of a proposed activity, decisions should be made in a way that errs on the side of caution with the respect to the environment and the health of the public.  In support of decision making at the Federal level, Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970 see www.epa.nepa and in Title 1, the Declaration of National Environmental Policy requires the federal government to “use all practicable means to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.”  States were prompted to follow the federal NEPA example and in 1975 New York State enacted the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) to “declare a state policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment;  to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment;  enhance human and community resources; and enrich the understanding of the ecological systems , natural, human and community resources important to the people of the state.” Under SEQR law, and its implementing regulations, all state and local government agencies must consider environmental impacts equally with social and economic factors when engaging in decision making. The Federal NEPA and NYS SEQR laws are important tools that were established to meet our environmental challenges and were configured to facilitate a front line application of the Precautionary Principle. The obvious question is; in the half a century since the enactment of these powerful environmental laws why has there not been more progress and why is degradation of the environment accelerating?  We will tackle that question in our next article.

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