Winter 2002 Newsletter
Redefining Progress Using "The Precautionary Principle"

David Kyler, Executive Director

What is good, clean tap water worth? How much would you pay to keep traffic from getting worse on your trips to work or shopping? What would you be willing to sacrifice to prevent the leveling of a nearby stand of native oaks, cedars, and magnolias? Just how valuable is that view across the marsh where those undeveloped hammocks are home to blue herons, woodstorks, and other wildlife?

These are questions being asked by coastal Georgians with greater regularity as every year passes.
Difficult as they may be to answer, we must struggle to find reasonable responses, and sooner rather than later. We know from witnessing the loss of natural beauty in other places that growth takes its toll and there are limits that shouldnít be violated. But defining those limits eludes us, even as we know they are being crossed.

The uncertainty brought by growth and the risks to our future may seem insurmountable. Setting standards for our quality of life and adopting the means to prevent them from being violated is unquestionably a major challenge. The Center is working with other non-profit organizations in Georgia to help meet that challenge.

An vital part of that work involves an important principle being debated among Georgians embroiled in water resource policy: water, above ground and below, is a public resource, not a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Yet, some argue for land, water, and living resources to be cleared, extracted, diverted, shipped, and sold indi- scriminately in the name of economic progress.

The Center strongly believes that it is time to reconsider how we define progress before ìprogressî ruins what coastal Georgians value most. We simply cannot afford to continue ìbusiness as usualî at the expense of our shared natural wealth. And we must direct our efforts to address this urgent question before it is too late.

Toward that end, the Center for a Sustainable Coast recently sent a petition to the Board of Natural Resources, endorsed by scores of coastal Georgians, asking state officials to improve the enforcement of existing environmental protection laws. (Please see page 3.) A memo submitted with this petition set forth specific steps that should be taken in making these improvements. Further, we suggested general principles that should be used as new decision criteria that would avoid unjustifiable risks to valued resources. This proposal serves as the groundwork for a more enlightened notion of progress.

Without creating any new laws, there is ample opportunity for doing a better job of protecting our individual and com- munity interests in natural resources. Most regulations provide great discretion in the use of federal, state and local authority in determining how resources may be used and under what controls and circumstances. Yet decisions made by those authorities continue to threaten the interests of the public by inaccurately evaluating the individual and cumulative effects of permitted actions.

Officials who are in a position to make tradeoffs between public interest and private gain could do much to reconsider criteria we use to define progress. As long as such decisions are consistent with the intent of applicable laws, they would be defensible and could help set important new standards. When impacts of proposed actions are uncertain, we can be more resourceful in using current law to better protect our communities and long-term interests by using the Precautionary Principle. In the January 2001 issue of Scientific American, the precautionary principle is justified as an innovative policy to prevent decisions that could cause significant harm in the face of scientific uncertainty. International treaties apply this approach in trade issues to limit risk of items like bio-engineered products. To quote EPA Director Christie Todd Whitman (prior to her appointment at EPA), as cited in that same article, "...Policymakers need to take a precautionary approach to environmental protection... We must acknowledge that uncertainty is inherent in managing natural resources, recognize that it is usually easier [and far safer] to prevent environmental damage than to repair it later, and shift the burden of proof away from those advocating protection toward those proposing an action that may be harmful." [Parenthetical comment and bolding added.]

Coastal Georgians should seriously consider these questions and voice their concerns in support of actions that protect our cherished public resources. One of the most important ways you can speak out is to write or call our local, state, and federal elected officials. You can also help resolve these issues by supporting the Center through your membership. Working together, we can make lasting improvements in Coastal Georgia by embracing a new definition of progress.
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