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Learning from past vital for future

The concept of green living encompasses a holistic approach to our everyday lives. Examining the inter-relationships between our actions and their consequences can help us make better decisions about what is best in the long run.

The problem is that if we only learn from our mistakes and never get ahead of the curve by preventing them in the first place, we stand to suffer. For example, when DDT was first introduced many years ago, it was hailed as a miracle product that would eliminate insects we deemed to be pests, reducing disease and giving us unprecedented control over nature. Only after releasing billions of pounds of the chemical did we come to realize the seriously negative effects this poison has on our environment. It was a costly lesson.

We are now dealing with issues whose potential impact on the world pale in comparison. A partial list includes genetically modified organisms, animal cloning, nanotechnology, nuclear technology, growth and climate change.

In response to scenarios like these, a concept has emerged to help us deal with issues that have potentially serious implications.

In 1998, the “Wingspread Consensus Statement on the Precautionary Principle” was first drafted, calling for corporations, governments, communities and scientists to implement the principle in their decision-making process.

In essence, the Precautionary Principle states: “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.

“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.”

This simple concept has far-reaching ramifications and the potential to drastically reduce the negative impacts of our actions on society — before they occur.

Peter Montague, Ph.D. and director of the Environmental Research Foundation, strongly favors the Precautionary Principle, and has written extensively on the topic.

According to him, “The Precautionary Principle does not tell us what kind of action to take when we suspect impending (or on-going) harm.”

He suggests examining all reasonable ways of achieving a given goal with the intent of choosing the least harmful way. During the process, it is crucial to check results, pay attention to early warnings and make midcourse corrections when necessary.

A key component of the Precautionary Principle is that the burden of proof shifts to the party responsible for the potential harm. In the face of uncertainty about a particular outcome, the benefit of the doubt goes to the natural environment, public health and community well-being. Responsible parties (not governments or the public) must bear the burden of producing needed information.

According to Montague, another aspect of the process is to “Honor the knowledge of those who will be affected by the decisions, and give them a real say in the outcome. This approach naturally allows issues of ethics, right and wrong, and justice to become important in the decision.”

The Precautionary Principle is one of those common sense ideas that seems so natural and intuitive, one would think it would be quite common. In reality, quite the opposite is true. Quite often, a product or course of action is brought to fruition with little regard to the long-term consequences.

Application of the Precautionary Principle shifts our society toward sustainability, helping us avoid serious issues before they become expensive legacies. The city of San Francisco has embraced the concept, incorporating it into an environmentally preferable purchasing program. Other governments around the world are taking similar action. It is all part of the shift in society that is being driven by increased environmental awareness and a desire for responsible action.

Individuals, scientists, corporations, governments and other organizations should become familiar with the Precautionary Principle and the promise it holds for our future. It is a key aspect of green living, another tool to utilize in our quest for a healthy, sustainable and just society.

Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, specializing in renewable energy, green building, alternative transportation and lifestyle choices for both residential and commercial clients. The company is committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. Steve can be reached via email at steve@greendream.biz. More information relating to this column is posted at www.greendream.biz.

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