Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Prove that it does NOT harm the environment: the precautionary prinicipal

It’s a big decision…tinkering with an anomaly you know nothing about, trying to destroy it?  That’s a bit risky, don’t you think? -“Q” (played by John Delancy) from Star Trek:  The Next Generation, ‘All good things’

I read an article recently somewhere in the news about a lawsuit filed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the state of Ohio for allowing a coal mining company to create mining tunnels underneath a state park.  The owner of the coal company fired back, claiming the EPA could not prove that their mining operations harmed the environment in the state park (such as water quality, pollution, soil contamination, etc.).  He therefore felt entitled to mine there under the assumption that it would create jobs and help boost Ohio’s currently slim economy.

I thought about this for a little bit:  The EPA cannot prove that the mining operations underneath the state park was harmful.  Therefore, why bother filing the lawsuit?

I then thought about all of the mistakes industry has made in the past, and how they always try to rationalize their actions.  For example, large and devastating oil spills, such as the one in Alaska over a decade ago and the more recent oil spill in the Gulf, were never expected because the oil companies themselves would always tout their safety procedures and environmental controls, and how this was a safe and economically effective way to generate energy.   Because environmentalists could not ‘prove’ initially that off shore oil drilling would harm the environment, these companies felt justified in their extraction processes.

I then realized the problem.  Since the industrialization of our country, we have gone the route of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in terms of our natural resources exploitation procedures.  When an ‘unexpected’ accident does occur, it comes as a strange surprise.  It also becomes much more costly to fix the problem – if the problem can be fixed in the first place.  Industry in the United States (and other places) have refused to use the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle  changes the game quite a bit when it comes to natural resource extraction.  It is guided by the notion that we must prove that an economic adventure does NOT harm the environment.  Yes, even if we cannot prove that something does harm the environment, we must also prove that it does not.

Many people, including some of my close friends and family, do not believe this is an adequate ideology.  It is likely that people see the precautionary principle limits innovation and does not allow industry to take some small risks to test things out.  Yet as convincing as this argument may be, I question whether or not this outweighs the cost of environmental pollution, mass extinction, and the quality of life for people.

Or perhaps environmentalists should stop being so worrisome and fearful, and take advantage of the economic gains from large scale industry.  But can we do both?

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