Transcript: Debbie Raphael, precautionary principle, May 09 2006

Thom interviewed Debbie Raphael, Program Manager for the City and County of San Francisco's Toxics Reduction and Green Building Programs about the precautionary principle.

Thom Hartmann interview with Debbie Raphael 09 May 2006

[Thom Hartmann] One of the things that has significantly distinguished from Europe, is that the United States we inflict things, or we allow corporations to inflict things on the people, and then if people die, we go 'Oops! Can't do that any more'. Whereas in Europe they operate on something called the Precautionary Principle. Prove that it's safe before you release. Welcome back to the programme... Debbie Raphael is with us. Program Manager for the City and County of San Francisco's Toxics Reduction and Green Building Programs. This our Bioneers segment for the week. Bioneers a non-profit organization founded in 1990 that promotes practical environmental solutions and innovative social strategies for restoring the Earth and communities. You can find their website at And Debbie Raphael's web site Debbie, the Precautionary Principle in the United States?

[Debbie Raphael] This is [not?] a concept. You know, working in government like I do, I look for inspiration in unusual places and it's heartwarming to know that there is something in the way of inspirational, truly inspirational and transformational legislation, and that is where the precautionary principle comes in. And your summary is absolutely correct. In this country, you know, we let things on the market; we allow companies to make profits on chemicals and products, and then once they are out in the environment and in our homes we say, 'Oh my goodness! Look what's happened'. We have lead in our gasoline and paint. We have mercury in thermometers. We have asbestos in our homes. Now we're going to have to figure out how to clean it up and solve the health problems that are a result.

[Thom Hartmann] But see that is, from the point of view of pure capitalism, that's actually a useful way to do things because if you put lead in people's paint, then you make profit doing that. And then you have an opportunity to make a profit taking that leaded paint out of their houses later. Plus the health care industry has an opportunity to make profit; I mean, Bill Frist's dad is worth billions as a result of our private health care, our privatized, for profit health care industry. You have the health care industry able to provide services to children who have been damaged by lead, or chelating the lead out of them. And you have the educational industry, to the extent that, you know, that's actually the one sector of this that is not entirely privatized, in fact it's still probably mostly public. But there's still opportunities to make a little money there as well with special needs private schools for children who have been neurologically damaged by lead. And so everybody gets to make money on these kinds of things. And the Precautionary Principle, on the other hand, would say, 'No you can't do that, you know, it's not a good idea'. How do you push this thing in a laissez-faire capitalist world that's increasingly being run by right-wingers who believe that corporate profits should be above everything else?

[Debbie Raphael] Well, in San Francisco we're saying no to that. We are saying there is a better way. And we have found that better way. And we are going to try and make our government decisions based on that precautionary approach. So here's, what the precautionary approach does is it says we need to ask the question is something really necessary. Because where we are right now, the way we've gotten to that scenario that you just explained, is we only asked two questions. We asked the question 'is it legal?' and that makes the assumption that there is some government agency protecting us from all things bad and I think we all know that those protections are not in place. And then what industry found is a better question that they can get us in is, 'is it safe, is it safe?' and what will happen when communities and industry engage in a discussion of 'is something safe'; is it safe to put mercury in vaccines? Is it safe to put high fructose corn syrup in everything we eat? What happens is, is you'll get the scientific community engaged and you'll get 6 inches thick of science saying something is safe, 6 inches thick of science saying something is not safe, and then what industry says to government is, 'well look, it's inconclusive; you cannot prove harm. Therefore the answer is more study'. More study, more study, which leads to inaction. And what the precautionary principle says, is that it is no longer sufficient to ask, is something legal or is it safe. Instead we ask, is it necessary. Do we have to have mercury in our vaccine as a preservative? Do we have to build play structures out of wood that contains arsenic, a known carcinogen? Do we have to put pesticides on our park? Is it necessary? And when you ask that question, that whole cycle that you described falls apart.

[Thom Hartmann] Well, unless you assume that anything that drives economic activity is necessary. I'm telling you, the Bush and Republican right wingers really and truly believe that. You get these guys, they are true believers in this.

[Debbie Raphael] And therefore, the most important voice in that is industry who makes the alternative. If we can engage the green [kammath?]; the people who are making solar panels, who are making wood that isn't treated with arsenic but with something that doesn't cause cancer and demonstrate the profit opportunity for them, then we're engaging the capitalist system in a precautionary approach. So I believe, and in San Francisco we believe, that it is pro-innovation, not anti-business to do a precautionary approach.

[Thom Hartmann] I absolutely agree, and I think it's brilliant, Debbie Raphael, that you've done this. the web site. I want to play just a short clip. This is a 30 second spot that Adbusters produced a number of years ago actually, that I think really defines this. I'd like to get your response to this.

[Debbie Raphael] Excellent.

[Thom Hartmann] Just, you know, give you something to bounce off of. Here we go.

[Debbie Raphael] OK.

[Clip:] "For years, economists have defined the economic health of a country by its gross domestic product. The trouble is, every time a forest falls, the GDP goes up. With every oil spill, the GDP goes up. Every time a cancer patient is diagnosed, the GDP goes up. Is this how we measure economic progress? Economists must learn to subtract."

[Thom Hartmann] Isn't that brilliant?

[Debbie Raphael] It is. I couldn't hear it perfectly but I guess is the gist of it is that we're gauging our GDP, our GDP goes up at human misfortune.

[Thom Hartmann] Yeah. It starts out by saying that we use GDP as a measure of economic health.

[Debbie Raphael] Right.

[Thom Hartmann] And then he said, the trouble is, every time there's an oil spill, GDP goes up. You know, there's economic activity involved in cleaning it up. Every time a forest falls, GDP goes up. Every time cancer is diagnosed, GDP goes up. In fact, a cancer diagnosis right now is worth on average a quarter of a million dollars to the health care industry.

[Debbie Raphael] Wow.

[Thom Hartmann] And so, you know, and then he says, if we're going to save ourselves, economists must learn to subtract. And it seems to me that that's essentially the message that you're saying; that we must use a different criteria than economic progress to define what's a healthy society.

[Debbie Raphael] And you know that's a really, that is an interesting point because a lot of people are trying to put numbers on, in order to combat that, so to measure economic health based on the health of our natural resources and putting a dollar value on conservation and on wetlands that are filtering pollutants and forests that are taking out CO2. So there, and I don't know if that's the answer. I don't know if the answer is...

[Thom Hartmann] Yeah. It's almost buying into the same game.

[Debbie Raphael] It is almost buying into the same game rather than saying, as you put it, that subtraction is the issue.

[Thom Hartmann] Yeah.

[Debbie Raphael] That this, and really health care, of all people, have been talking about prevention, and the idea that prevention is better than trying to figure out cures. And in a sense, that's what the precautionary principle is saying as well. If we can prevent the problem to begin with, then those same resources that are being used in our government structure to clean up could be used to create jobs perhaps in another way

[Thom Hartmann] But as long as we have a for profit health care system there's going to be more emphasis on creating new drugs than there is going to be oon preventing type 2 diabetes, for example. And I think that it's really interesting that you're coming out of the world, I mean, you're coming out of the world of government in San Francisco. Government is part of the commons.

[Debbie Raphael] Yes.

[Thom Hartmann] Government is not for profit. Government is we the people serving we the people and so government obviously has a vested interest in diminished costs, increased efficiency and, you know, reduction both short term and long term in costs. Whereas for profit agencies, like our health care industry in the United States, tragically, because it is for profit, is profit driven, really has a reverse sent of incentives.

[Debbie Raphael] And perhaps then, as you started out, we need to look at other models for that and because I work in government, that's where I think about some of my solutions. And I think about the role of government along with partnerships, because obviously government alone is very ineffective. So, how can we in government and industries that are doing the right thing, what kind of systems can we set up in this country that serves capitalism in the sense that we're not trying to put people out of business? And we want to create jobs. And, at the same time, are regenerative to our health and our natural resources. And one of the problems is that we don't have incentives, the right set of governmental incentives for industry to reformulate and give us the healthier products.

[Thom Hartmann] Right.

[Debbie Raphael] In Europe right now they are developing something called REACH. Which, it's a regulation for chemicals policy that very much has the precautionary principle as its underpinnings, and the A in the word REACH is Authorisation.

[Thom Hartmann] Yeah. This all goes back to really re-visioning.

[Debbie Raphael] Re-visioning.

[Thom Hartmann] You know, re-understanding what the commons, what we're all about here. Debbie, thank you so much for being with us. Debbie Raphael, she's the Program Manager for the City and County of San Francisco's Toxics Reduction and Green Building Programs. You can read all about it at Debbie, thank you.

[Debbie Raphael] Thank you.

[Thom Hartmann] Great talking with you.

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