Two UML professors speak before House

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By SUSAN McMAHON
Sun Staff

Monday, July 28, 2003 - LOWELL Better to be safe than sorry.

That's the basic tenet behind the precautionary principle, a scientific theory that promotes prevention in cases of identifiable risk, even without hard-and-fast proof.

Two UMass Lowell professors spent Thursday briefing the U.S. House of Representatives on the issue, pointing out the benefits of the precautionary principle and its foundation in good research.

"We're trying to develop a new vision of science," said UMass Lowell professor Joel Tickner.

The briefing focused on the need to enact measures to protect the public in areas such as genetically modified organisms, climate change and toxic substances. The session was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan of Lowell, the Sustainable Development Caucus and the Livable Communities Task Force.

Tickner, of the Center for Sustainable Production, one of the premier academic centers in the world when it comes to the precautionary principle, planned to address the question of finding solutions rather than focusing on problems.

One of the tenets of the precautionary principle focuses on finding safe alternatives to meet human needs.

"No one's saying ban fossil fuels, for example," Tickner said. "But precaution means we should look at what alternatives we have to reduce greenhouse gases."

The U.S. government has typically shied away from using the idea of precaution, saying it is anti-science, Tickner said. And officials contend that constricting the use of products, based not on absolute proof but on the idea that there is a risk, can have adverse effects on the economy.

But on the contrary, precaution, and its resulting emphasis on alternate substances and methods of production, can actually produce innovation within the economy, Tickner said.

And using precaution could have prevented situations like widespread asbestos or lead contamination, which have had dire environmental and economic ramifications.

"There's quite a bit of evidence that precautionary policies are useful. When we're dealing with very complex, uncertain risks, the consequences of being wrong are quite severe," Tickner said.

Susan McMahon's e-mail address is smcmahon@lowellsun.com .