Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Precautionary Principle,” was written by Carolyn Raffensperger for the Spring 2008 edition of Rootstock.

The great story of the United States is that we are risk-takers, adventurers, always sailing off the map into dragon territory. But even the cowboys of the Wild West circled the cows quietly, easily, singing to their charges, and alert for danger. They had sentinels and scouts making sure there was water ahead, the wolves were kept at bay and the calves weren’t left behind. They kept watch through the night, on guard.

In essence they were practicing the precautionary principle by looking ahead and taking action to prevent harm to their charges.

“Precautionary principle” comes from the German word Vorsorgeprinzip that literally means “forecaring”, or preparing for the future. The principle is a philosophical and legal idea that is taking hold in environmental policy because it is evident that our old way of making decisions has failed. We have to find new ways to cope with accelerating problems from global warming to increases in breast cancer to the massive pollution and depletion of the oceans.

The old way we made decisions was to give the benefit of the doubt to money. We figured babies and redwoods, oceans and polar bears could take care of themselves as long as the economy was sound. We assumed that we could measure and manage risks like breast cancer, autism, global warming, birth defects, and Mad Cow disease.

We were wrong. The best information about how wrong we were comes from a 2005 dry, understated study commissioned by the United Nations to assess the health of our planet. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment warned: “Human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

The scientists added, “It is possible to reverse the degradation of many ecosystem services over the next 50 years, but the changes in policy and practice required are substantial and not currently underway.”

Can we turn the ship away from dragon territory? Perhaps. We need a new compass that will allow us to set a course into a future with a healthy and whole planet.

Ten years ago, a group of scholars and activists gathered at the Wingspread conference center in Racine, Wisconsin to see if we could forge that compass. We decided that the precautionary principle was what we needed to set a course with future generations as true north.

The Wingspread definition of the precautionary principle is “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Before Wingspread most U.S. environmental policy was based (purportedly) on science only. Emotions, values, ethics were supposed to be left at the door while scientists told us what to do. The problem was that science has limits. It isn’t very good at predicting long-term effects of a chemical or technology in a complex system.

Ten years ago we were just discovering that exposing a pregnant woman to a chemical could affect not only her child’s risk of cancer, but also her grandchild’s risk. We are just now learning how vulnerable people are to even tiny doses of environmental poisons at some times of their lives — as fetuses, in puberty and in old age. We are discovering new vulnerabilities in our food and water and other essential systems. Contaminated meat recalls demonstrate how a mistake at one factory can affect human health and the economy across a broad swath of the country.

So science alone can’t provide us with definitive guidance. The precautionary principle tells us that in the face of scientific uncertainty we need to take action to prevent harm. This basic notion of forecaring is at its heart an ethical idea. We take action now to prevent harm to current and future generations.

The recipe for precautionary action can be boiled down to 5 steps.

1. Set goals. The fact that some problems are getting worse means they can probably be prevented. When my mother got married in the 1950s, one woman in 25 could expect to get breast cancer. Now it is one woman in 7. Can we set a goal to reduce breast cancer incidence to what it was in the 1950s?

2. Heed early warnings. Trends like the breast cancer rate or increasing global warming tell us that things are amiss. Can we attend to these warnings and take action to prevent more damage?

3. Search for and choose the best alternative to help us meet our goal. For instance, many farmers and businesses like Organic Valley have found that mimicking nature and practicing organic methods lead to healthier soils, healthier animals and a more resilient food system. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a healthy, contented animal eating food it was meant to eat is more likely to provide healthful milk or meat than an animal that was crowded, injected with hormones and antibiotics and fed factory rations. We are less likely to get an antibiotic-resistant disease eating Organic Valley food than eating animals shot through with antibiotics.

4. Reverse the burden of proof. Our legal system gives the benefit of the doubt to the economy rather than children’s brains or farms that smell good. Many chemicals in the U.S. don’t have to be tested even though they might be in your lipstick or food. If you are injured by that chemical, you are responsible to prove it even if the chemical company hasn’t tested it. The precautionary principle turns that around. It asks businesses to take responsibility for their actions in the world. Imagine that.

5. Finally, because the precautionary principle is designed to prevent harm to the things we love, we get to participate in the decisions. We need to be at the table as a democratic matter to set the goals and look for alternatives. We get to evaluate the science and decide if we know enough to take action. The precautionary principle invites democracy.

We can apply these ideas anywhere, from our household purchasing decisions to international treaties. And in fact the precautionary principle has been used by moms looking for safe baby toys, in businesses like Organic Valley and international treaties that govern toxic chemicals and genetically modified organisms.

It is likely that you already know the simple steps you can take to prevent harm to the Earth – you recycle, you’ve changed the light bulbs, you ride your bike when possible, you keep the thermostat set to minimize use of fossil fuels, your clothes are dried by the sun. But then what? What else can you do to ensure a legacy of health left to future generations? Here are some of the compass lines you can use to see if you are heading in the right direction.

First, use your nature-built radar for what is healthy and good. That radar is beauty. If it stinks and smells like a petrochemical, it probably isn’t good for you. If it is certifiably ugly (think big box stores) it probably isn’t good for the Earth.

Second, ask if a practice or technology is good for the land. If it is good for the land, it is likely good for you. Agricultural practices that force nature’s hand— antibiotics in animal feed, growth hormones, pesticides — are bad for the land because they disrupt the life forces of the soil and the creatures of the land. If they damage soil health, frogs and pollinators they are almost certainly going to damage you.

Third, join forces with others. It is too lonely and discouraging to do this by yourself. You could become a guardian of something you love and then create councils of guardians to ensure that all the treasured commons of your area are watched, protected. Swap notes and ideas. Imagine one guardian setting a goal to increase the wild hatchlings in her town and another setting a goal to clean up the little stream edging his community and then working together. We can do this.

Do we have enough time to forestall the impending disasters? This is the age-old question of hope made more pressing by the urgency of environmental problems. Vaclav Havel, the former president of Czechoslovakia, said:

“Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

The precautionary principle is the compass that sets the orientation of our souls towards hope. It is the way this generation embodies the Golden Rule toward future generations: we commit ourselves to pass on a legacy of health, wholeness, beauty.

We are the night watchmen circling and singing. We are the guardians of future generations. We will prevent harm to our charges by taking actions guided by respect, humility, and an abiding affection for this sweet world.

Carolyn Raffensperger is co-editor of Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental Policy published by M.I.T. Press (2006) and Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle, published by Island Press (1999). She has been featured in Gourmet magazine, the Utne Reader, Yes! Magazine, the Sun, Whole Earth, and Scientific American. Along with leading workshops and giving frequent lectures on the Precautionary Principle, Carolyn is at the forefront of developing new models for government that depend on these larger ideas of precaution and ecological integrity. The new models include guardianship for future generations, a vision for the courts of the 21st century and the public trust doctrine. Carolyn and her husband, Fred Kirschenmann have a 3500 acre organic farm in North Dakota.