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David Schoenbrod

"David Schoenbrod" Continued...

Issue: "Narnia unleashed," Dec. 10, 2005

WORLD What is the "precautionary principle," and what is wrong with it?

SCHOENBROD To support their policy preferences that have no basis in science, some environmentalists invoke the "precautionary principle." It dictates leaving things "natural" unless there is proof positive that the unnatural way is safe. It sounds both sensible and scientific, but in fact is neither. Science shows that eliminating risks can itself produce risks. As Jane E. Brody wrote in The New York Times: "The millions or billions spent in compliance and enforcement might be better used in ways that would save many more lives, and sometimes the cost is not worth the potential benefit. I say 'potential' because in many cases, the risks involved are only hypothetical, extrapolations from studies in laboratory animals that may have little or no bearing on people.

"Remember, too, that 'natural' is not necessarily safer, and just because something is manufactured does not make it a potential hazard. Nature is hardly benign. Arsenic, hemlock and, despite its current medical applications, botulism toxin are wholly natural but also deadly."

WORLD How is this principle rooted in a particular set of religious beliefs?

SCHOENBROD Nature inspires awe. As Isaiah puts it, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory."

When the "Age of Reason" made it unfashionable in some circles to believe in God, many people skipped "the Lord" and deemed the earth holy. They had shifted their religious attachment from a transcendent deity to the nature around them.

Environmentalists who espouse the precautionary principle have, in effect, embraced a religious doctrine holding that humans left nature's ways and now stand in peril unless we return to them.

The key question in the case of the environmental doctrine is, what is "natural"? Apparently, it does not include human society as we have it today for, otherwise, everything would be natural. The natural is apparently the earth before homo sapiens improved upon Stone Age technology (in which case, the precautionary principle tells us to get rid of modern dentistry and central heating because both entail risks).

There is much to be said for caution in altering natural systems. They are difficult to understand. Misunderstanding can produce grave harm. The harm can be irreversible. But neither science nor the scientific pretense of the rigid precautionary principle can settle our environmental disputes. Common sense must also play a role, and in it there should be a prudent dose of the precaution that sensible people take in dealing with suspected dangers.

WORLD Your description of "the joy of doing" sounds a lot like the biblical concept of calling, in which God equips each person with the skills and at least the potential passion for certain vocations. How does the EPA undermine this joy of doing?

SCHOENBROD Many people want the joy of doing that can be found in farming or a small business. A majority (56 percent) of Americans dream of starting their own business and another 10 percent already do so. Their primary reason is "doing something you love" far more than "being your own boss" or to "get rich."

EPA staffers want to do the right thing, but they end up squashing small businesses. They pay more to comply: $3,328 per employee for firms with fewer than 20 employees versus $717 for firms with more than 500 employees. Large corporations can afford to hire their own lawyers and experts to impress their concerns on regulators in Washington. Little firms and farms can't. They would do better with elected state and local legislators who are closer to home and want their votes. Before the EPA's advent in the 1970s, small plants were gaining market share from large ones. The trend has since reversed.

Small businesses and farmers have an even more basic problem-deciphering the regulatory requirements. While giant corporations have in-house environmental staffs to decode regulatory complexity, the small fry grope in the dark. Regulation by a single state or locality would be simpler and more understandable.

WORLD Why do big businesses often support costly environmental regulations?

SCHOENBROD Major corporations can pass most of the costs-of pollution control equipment and of the legal work and lobbying-along to the public in the form of higher prices. The largest firms use their sophisticated lobbyists to seek regulations that put competitors at a disadvantage. For instance, big refiners pushed for eliminating all the lead from gasoline in order to give themselves an edge over small refiners. Firms use environmental law to restrict the entry of competitors and subject them to higher costs. No wonder that, when EPA announces new regulatory initiatives, the stock prices of established firms sometimes go up.

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