Precaution and common sense

By Rex Weyler

Over 2500 years ago, Chinese Taoist Lao Tzu included precaution among his attributes of wisdom in the Tao Te Ching: “Those who rush ahead don’t go far,” he warned.

“Better safe than sorry,” my mother warned me many times. Most mothers have said something similar: “Safety first” or “look before you leap.” Yorkshire writer Charlotte Brontë, went one-step farther: “Look twice before you leap.” Japanese mothers may say, “Yudan taiteki”: “Rashness is your enemy.” 

Precaution is common sense and would have prevented virtually all of Earth’s current ecological crises. Instead, in the stampede to plunder Earth’s bounty and accrue wealth, humanity has actually made itself poorer by degrading the real wealth, Earth’s rivers, oceans, soil, atmosphere, and biological diversity. 

The cheerleaders of economic growth could not be bothered with common sense precaution, so instead, we have the meltdowns at Fukushima and Chernobyl, virtually continuous oil pipeline spills, toxic rivers, shrinking seas, poisoned citizens in Minimata Bay and Love Canal and a thousand other sites, and the current threat of atmospheric heating and ocean acidification. All these tragedies could have been avoided by commonplace precaution, the sort our mothers taught us. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  

The Precautionary Principle

A Precautionary Principle has been formalized into international law, but weakened by duplicitous language, and all too often simply ignored in favor of profiteering.

Most simply stated, the precautionary principle affirms that if an action implies serious risk, one should avoid that action and seek alternatives, and that the burden of proof falls on the person or persons taking a perilous action. Drunk drivers are responsible for harm to others. Property owners are responsible if a building collapses. 

We practice precaution daily in our private lives. We don’t leave objects on stairs and we discourage children from playing with matches. We wear seat belts in cars and life jackets on the water, even if the risk remains remote or uncertain.  

The formal, public Precautionary Principle recognizes the social responsibility to protect others from harm. In 1982 the UN General Assembly adopted the World Charter for Nature, which stated that when “potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed.” This reflects the common sense version, which became known as the “strong” version, since it has since been weakened by loopholes.

In 1992 the Rio Declaration stated, “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

This sounds nice, but notice the qualifying language: An “approach” (a term the US insisted on using) does not carry the force of a legal principle. “Widely applied” means the approach is not universally applied. “According to their capabilities” and “cost-effective measures” give a nation or corporation license to claim they can’t afford to be cautious, and therefore may discard precaution. 

Even so, when 172 nations signed the Rio Declaration, the intention remained clear that governments had environmental responsibilities when considering economic activities. The European Commission later confirmed that the Precautionary Principle had “become a full-fledged and general principle of international law.” 

Ignoring the law

We have learned during the last fifty years of environmental action that winning bans on dangerous activity is not enough, since corporations often ignore regulations and defy the world community. As a result, since the world adopted precautionary principles, we have witnessed a flood of disasters: 

In 2000, the Aurul gold mining company spilled 100,000 tons of cyanide into the Someş, Tisza and Danube rivers, killing some 80% of aquatic life in some regions. Greenpeace cited the disaster as an example of why the organization had called for a ban on the dangerous cyanide leaching technique. In 2001, the AZF fertilizer factory exploded in Toulouse, France, killed 29 people, injured thousands, and destroyed neighbourhoods. In 2010 a tailings dam at the Magyar Aluminium plant in Hungary broke and flooded several villages under a toxic sludge, killing 9 people, including children. In that same year, due to weak government regulations and lax safety efforts, the Pike River Coal Company mine near Greymouth, New Zealand exploded, killing 29 miners instantly.

In 2005, a British Petroleum oil refinery exploded in Texas City, killing 15 people. BP was charged with hundreds – not one or two, but hundreds! – of safety violations. Ten years later, after more safety violations, the BP Deepwater well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers, destroying fisheries and tourism in the region, causing some €40 billion in economic and material harm, and causing incalculable damage to the marine ecosystem.

Last summer, a crude oil shipment contracted by World Fuel Services, derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, exploded, killed 47 people, and destroyed 30 buildings. The engineer had left the oil train unattended, engines running, on a downward slope, on the main line, and had gone to a hotel for the night, all supposedly within existing regulations. He did not park the train on the safer adjacent siding because the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway company used it to store empty boxcars for a particleboard factory. Sometime after midnight, the train began rolling downhill, traveled 11 km into Lac-Mégantic, and virtually destroyed the quiet town of 6,000 inhabitants.

The corporate inclination to place dangerous manufacturing in regions with low wages and lax regulation led to the Bhopal disaster in 1984 and to recent tragedies in the garment industry. In the fall of 2012, fires destroyed the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan and the Dhaka Tasreen Fashions factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 289 people in Karachi and 112 people in Dhaka. A few months later, in April 2013, the Savar building, housing five garment factories in Dhaka, collapsed, killing 1,126 people. Each of these factories manufactured clothing for western fashion markets. 

The full list of these disasters appears overwhelming. The shocking consistency of industrial catastrophe suggests these are not “accidents” but rather the expected consequences of a corporate style born in “free market” societies during an age of deregulation and globalization. 


The 2011 nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site in Japan stands now as a tragic example of an irresponsible corporate gamble. The world had been warned by scientists and ecologists since the 1950s that nuclear power was inherently dangerous and that the lack of safe storage for nuclear waste posed a serious threat. General Electric, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) and the Japanese government were warned not to build nuclear plants on earthquake fault lines. 

Tokyo University professor emeritus, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, concluded that the Fukushima accident “cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly man-made disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.”

We do not yet know the full impact, but the Fukushima meltdown may prove to be the largest industrial disaster in history. Thousands of workers received radiation doses from the plant. Hundreds of thousands of evacuees may never be able to return home, and local fishing has been shut down. The World Health organization has estimated that exposed local infants face increased future rates of thyroid cancer, leukemia, and breast cancer. Coastal Asians, Pacific islanders, and North Americans will be impacted by radiation and food contamination. 

Fifty-one crew members on the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier now suffer from thyroid cancer, testicular cancer, and leukemia, resulting from exposure 10 miles off the Fukushima coast.

Fifty Japanese nuclear reactors have been shut down, stranding public and private resources.  The clean-up and decommissioning of the site is projected to cost some 5-trillion Yen (€ 35 billion), threatening to bankrupt TEPCO and the Japanese economy. 

Three hundred tonnes of radioactive water now flow into the Pacific Ocean each day from Fukushima. The radioactive cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, the strontium-90, 29 years, and this radiation will move with ocean currents, accumulate in gyre pockets, and will bioconcentrate along the food chain, typically reaching 100-times the ocean concentration in fish, and a 1000-times ocean concentration in marine mammals, who eat the fish. 

All of this was preventable and foreseen by doctors, scientists and ecologists. The world was warned. Simple, common sense precaution, the sort we practice every day, would have avoided this disaster and thousands of others. 

Top photo credit: Remember Fukushima by greensefa via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Originally published on the ECOreport Jan 1, 2014.

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