The Precautionary Principle, and Treating Polluters as Murderers

Cartoon by Barry Deutsch of Alas, A Blog fame, in ZMag.

The mega-polluters, companies like ExxonMobil and Monsanto, and other corporatist plunderers, continue to wage their physical and chemical war on the environment, but lately their propaganda war on the environment has taken a few twists. The NYT has recently declared the Lomborgian denials that irresponsible human activity is the primary cause of global warming, ‘dead’. The evidence is just too overwhelming, and there just aren’t enough scientists with any credibility left still willing to lie about it, no matter how much they’re paid. A second twist has been to label anyone an ‘ecoterrorist’ who challenges environmental irresponsibility with anything more aggressive than a timid letter to the local paper. Hence, Sir Paul & Heather McCartney, and the IFAW animal rights group are ‘ecoterrorists’ for protesting the barbaric and unnecessary slaughter of 300,000 helpless seals per year, which is going on again right now. Greenpeace are ‘ecoterrorists’ for publicly embarrassing mega-polluters, drift-net fishermen, strip-miners, clear-cut loggers, and leg-hold trappers. Even the Humane Society and the SPCA are ‘ecoterrorists’ for daring to speak out about the horrific cruelty suffered by animals in corporatist factory farms and laboratories.

The reason for this stepped up rhetoric is strictly economic: Big business is beginning to understand that their reputation (good or bad) can impact the bottom line, and their shareholders don’t want these radical do-gooders sullying their investments’ ‘good name’, so it is necessary to try to discredit the critics — and what better way these days than slapping that handy ‘terrorist’ label on them.

Greenwashing ads are also a booming business — if you wanted to create a list of the worst polluters on the planet, you could find worse ways to start than leafing through the full-page ads in magazines catering to the more informed segments of our populace, and picking out the corporations proclaiming themselves to be doing wonderful things for the environment. These companies have a ton of money to spend on propaganda, and a ton more for lawyers to sue anyone who dares call it that.

The latest target of the mega-polluters, and their conservative handmaidens, is something called The Precautionary Principle. This principle has various and sometimes contradictory definitions and interpretations, but when it comes to human and environmental health it is simple: No action should be taken unless there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that it will not cause ill health or environmental harm.

The principle has been more formally promulgated by the multi-disciplinary Science & Environmental Health Network as follows (emphasis mine):

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.

On the surface, this doesn’t look too controversial, but in fact it is enough to lead mega-polluters (and their shareholders) to apoplexy. It means that, to the extent there is reasonable evidence that a significant proportion of human illness, death and environmental damage is due to human activities that poison (I don’t think that’s an unreasonable term to use) the water, the air, the land, and the food chain, those human activities should immediately cease, and it means that new activities should not be undertaken unless it can be established beyond a reasonable doubt that they would not cause such harm.

Very few business activities would meet this standard. A complete and staggeringly expensive overhaul of most commercial activities and processes, to make them waste-free, pollution-free, and toxin-free, would be required. Most larger corporations would be bankrupted, to the dismay of their shareholders and their overpaid and exploitative executives. And what if the principle is ignored — there would presumably have to be some laws to mandate compliance with the principle and prosecute non-compliance. As soon as we stop fooling ourselves that industry, mining, oil & gas, agriculture and transportation isn’t massively damaging human health and the environment, then we start looking for compensation from the wrong-doers: Huge fines, and prison terms for executives and directors who condoned it. No wonder the mega-polluters equate adoption of this perfectly reasonable principle with Armageddon.

None of this, of course, is going to happen. As Adam Smith cynically put it, “the real purpose of government is to protect those who run the economy from the outrage of injured citizens.” We are not about to bite the hand that feeds us, even if it is feeding us poisons.

Not using the usual legal methods anyway. Just as the attempts of some countries to indict Cheney and Bush for international war crimes are purely symbolic (or if they aren’t, they’re naive and foolish), we need to find some non-futile, social means of bringing those who flaunt the precautionary principle to account. So here’s an idea that will probably strike you as strange, even preposterous, but please hear me out:

What we could do is socially treat mega-polluters as criminals. That would mean:

  • Creating “most wanted, for crimes against humanity” lists — Well-publicized lists of the people at the helm of the most socially and environmentally irresponsible corporations and organizations. These would not all be for-profit corporations, by the way: The US Department of Defense would certainly make the list, as would government-run power generation utilities in many countries. And some private corporations, like Koch Industries and Cargill Meats, would probably outrank both private and government organizations for environmental atrocities. The objective of the lists would not be to bring these people up on charges, but to disgrace them.
  • Treating these people and their companies as criminals and rogues — We should urge business magazines to shun them as poor, disreputable models, not worthy of profiling or investment except as “horrible examples” of how not to do business. We should pressure investment analysts to flag such companies as highly risky because of their immorality and poor reputation.
  • Boycotting their products, and encouraging retail outlets we do business with to do likewise. We should encourage and support “anti-advertisements” by social and environmental organizations to counter greenwashing and other propaganda perpetuated by these companies. We should also boycott companies that do business with these companies (many mega-polluters keep a low profile by selling only to other businesses, not to end-consumers).
  • Teaching our children that pollution is murder, and that the people in organizations that pollute cause millions of people to suffer from illnesses and diseases, and are no different from other mass-murderers. Big Tobacco is the perfect case study for such an educational campaign.
  • Teaching our children as well to recognize greenwashing for the propaganda it is, and to be suspicious and skeptical of political advertisements by business organizations and consortia.

All of this would essentially amount to accepting and applying the Precautionary Principle as a social principle, since it would be naive to believe that, at least in our lifetimes, it could become a legal principle.

Would any of this do any good? I think you’d be surprised. As I mentioned above, reputation is important to these companies, and anything that deservedly tarnishes their reputation will make them stand up and take notice. There is, of course, the risk of retribution from these organizations and their armies of lawyers. But just as the heavily-financed corporatist propaganda about global warming being a myth has petered out because it just could not bear close scrutiny, eventually the truth will out, and organizations fighting the truth with lies will eventually discover that constant defensive protestations and aggressive litigation against people who have no axe to grind does not reflect well on them, and will ultimately prove self-defeating.

We may be living in an age when the law and the truth have seemingly ceased to matter, and the law may be an instrument of “those who run the economy”, but the truth, so far at least, belongs to no one.


A couple of plugs: Barry Deutsch, who penned the cartoon above, is an articulate and unwavering champion of the rights of women and minorities. His blog, Alas a Blog, is a must-read. Check out his reporting on the outrageous Duke University gang-rape, a story he recently broke nationally.

And talking of must-reads, Steve Hannaford’s Oligopoly Watch is a unique, incredibly valuable source of information about corporate wrongdoing and how cozy oligopolies make it so much easier. Steve has taken over key public information parts of the job the US DOJ Anti-Trust Division, and equivalent Anti-Combines agencies in other countries, should be doing but are not. His RSS feed is

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