Friday, February 11, 2011

The Precautionary Principle might have come in handy...

© 2011 Joshua Stark

California Watch reports on lead, arsenic, and other toxins found in climate-friendly LED lights.

While reading this post, I thought:  Well, there's another technological fix with the subsequently ugly, unintended consequences (see glyphosate-resistant crops, methyl iodide, and DDT even).  I also remembered my post on our inability to "sell" conservation

Right now, if you hear a spokesperson for any environmental advocacy group, you are far more likely to hear about green jobs, high-mileage brand-new cars, high-tech solutions to saving the planet, efficiency gains, etc.  What you will rarely hear is one of them saying, "just turn off your lights, and turn down your thermostat.  And for goodness' sake, hold off on buying that new car!"  It's hard to sell, "buy less".

But this post isn't on conservation, it's on preparing for all these new technological advances that purport to save us from ourselves.  As I read that report, I thought: how do we keep from shooting ourselves in the foot with each new attempt at efficiency gains, especially here in California, the Land of the Next Big Thing?

Then I remembered that simple, great, conservative pillar of environmental justice:  The Precautionary Principle.  This principle merely states that a new item (chemical, technological process, etc.) must prove that it is generally benign to the environment before it can be mass produced. 

That's it.

When people hear about this principle, they are usually struck by the notion that things don't have to prove that they won't leave tremendous amounts of toxins persistent in the environment.  In the case of LED lights, for example, I'm sure people are thinking,  "but, we regulate lead; how did these things make it here in such huge amounts?"

Regulation is an interesting term, and while most Americans think it means that everybody gets equal scrutiny under the law, the reality is often far, far more complicated.

It comes down to this:  Most Americans believe, inherently, that our regulatory agencies follow the Precautionary Principle, because it is a very conservative way of looking at the World.  But, they don't.

What we need are far more sophisticated models of thinking, rather than re-packaging the same materials in new ways.  We need, when we consider costs, to include the total lifecycle of the product.  We need to consider the noneconomic impacts, even if that means coming up with some quantities to at least represent them (and we need to continually re-work those quantities).  At the very least, we need some form of the Precautionary Principle, some proof that the Next Big Thing doesn't come with the Next Big Cleanup Effort.

No comments: