Time For Another Rant: Precautionary Principle Edition

As I have previously noted, Cass Sunstein, now head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB under Obama, has called the precautionary principle “deeply incoherent.” Why? Because, as Sunstein notes, “costly precautions inevitably create risks.”

I hope that Sunstein is as troubled as I am by the news, reported recently by Inside EPA, that Mathy Stanislaus, head of EPA’s Office of Solid Waste & Emergency Response, has said that implementing the precautionary principle is a key to EPA’s environmental justice efforts.

When Stanislaus says that “we can’t wait until we have all the conclusive interpretive science to make a decision,” I agree with him, but that’s not the precautionary principle, that’s just a willingness to regulate under uncertainty, which has been a bedrock of environmental law.

However, the precautionary principle is something different and much more insidious. It’s not “regulate in spite of uncertainty” – it’s “regulate because of uncertainty.” It seems to stem from an almost Luddite fear of new technology and, as Sunstein points out, a philosophical view that nature is good and man-made is bad.

Stanislaus is head of OSWER. Is he going to oppose use of new cleanup technologies based on nanotechnology, because the precautionary principle says that we don’t know that nanomaterials are safe?

Stanislaus wants to “operationalize the precautionary principle.” Be worried, be very worried.

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