Burning down the House

As Chehalis elders reminded a visiting anthropologist in 1926, human power strong enough to heal is also power strong enough to kill. It would not have surprised them that the third leading cause of death in the US today, after cancer and heart disease, is undergoing a medical procedure.

Today we are great at developing new technologies– but not so great at considering the results of applying them– or even understanding what those results might be. Thus we sorely need the “precautionary principle” instituted in European Union countries and some municipalities in the U.S. That principle states, “No data, no market” with respect to innovative technologies. That is, we shouldn’t market such new technologies until we have researched their safety. As modern philosopher Andrew Light observed, we look both ways before crossing the street even though we are not one hundred per cent certain a car is coming. We might certainly apply the same basic standard of precaution to the thousands of new chemicals and genetically engineered foods their developers are releasing annually into our shared environment.

Indeed we might apply parallel standards of care to all human technology. Take the example of the wildfires currently burning everywhere in the West. One could hardly find a more basic form of human technology than fire. Learning to set that first fire was an important step for humans. No more cold winters and raw meat. It seems we like this about ourselves. Western culture cheers those who “set the world on fire”. But that does not absolve us of choices. A deed that is “world burning” is only a good thing until we come face to face with global warming. And even a single campfire may spread out of control and set someone else’s house on fire if not properly handled.

We might do well mull over traditional stories told by indigenous Northwesterners such as the Chehalis, which encouraged care in dealing with fire-and by extension, with all human technology. Fires burned on the prairies between the land of the living and the land of the dead in such tales. In one story, Bluejay has to cross these prairies-and learn lessons about how to deal with fire-lest he get himself burned up and relegated to the land of the dead forever.

This story taught pragmatic lessons to those who regularly gathered in inter-tribal groups to set fires to clear out the underbrush in their landscapes that otherwise provided fuel for more dangerous fires. At the same time their fires encouraged habitat for game animals and important food crops. Those fires were essential, and they set then with care.

Without their own stories that helped them deal with fire, pioneers stopped native burning and suppressed fires started by natural causes. Smokey the Bear became our icon. But that didn’t exactly work out as planned. If an area has no small fires, fire fuel builds up there. When that area does burn in the inevitable course of things, it burns with a larger and hotter fire. Today Forest Service policies have put that lesson into effect to allow for controlled burning and/or fires started by natural causes to burn unabated.

Fire is not good or bad in itself. It is not a matter of whether we should laud it or outlaw it. Instead we have to learn how to handle it. And as the example of fire illustrates, in learning how to handle it, we must account for the cumulative and spreading effects of our actions. In parallel fashion, we must assess the health effects of chemicals currently in production before we release new ones into the environment, as stressed in a memo sent recently to the members of Congress crafting the Kid-Safe chemicals Act by the Science and Environmental Health Network.

I am impressed by the compassion for their fellow citizens exhibited under emergency conditions. Last night (July 10) shelters housing those who evacuated because of the fire in Spokane issued a call for donated toys. They were flooded with so many responses, in only a few hours they had to issue a request to stop sending donations.

But on the flip side of our compassion, we have our carelessness. It is true that wildfires may be started by lightning strikes-and these in turn are exaggerated by global warming and its destabilizing weather patterns. But it’s also true that the vast majority of the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California were started not by lightning but by individual humans.

It seems our frontier mentality is still with us. According to the dictum of “full steam ahead” and “dam the torpedoes”. asking an entrepreneur to pause in getting a designer chemical to market is an unpatriotic as throwing a damper on a firecracker on the Fourth of July.

The Fourth of July gave campers in northern California ample opportunity to start the majority of thousands of wildfires there. My neighbor related her own experience celebrating the Fourth of July on the beach where crowds gathered to set off fireworks. She watched a father hand his toddler a lit bottle rocket- I imagine he wanted to share the excitement of shooting it off with him. The toddler, not knowing quite what to do with it, turned around in a circle and finally launched it-into the open door of the family van. Out of the van poured the rest of the family who happened to be lounging there out of the wind to watch the family fireworks. Then someone remembered the rest of their fireworks were still in the van. Back in they went with sand and water and fortunately captured the miscreant firework which miraculously hadn’t lit anything else on fire.

While my neighbor was laughing, she heard a whoosh and turned around to note that someone from another family group had tossed a sparkler into the backseat of her own car through an open window. After they managed to put it out, her family went home. They had had all the fun they wanted for one night.

Some seem to hold to the idea that if we’re on vacation, nothing bad could happen to us. We’ve entered a realm where none of the cautions we otherwise use in daily life apply. That’s the frontier mentality as well: if we’re pushing the boundaries of human technology, nothing bad will happen as a result.

As a first step in rectifying such abdications of caution, it would help to name things correctly. Just as we can’t rightly call the recent flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa a “natural disaster” (since it was due to the breaking of levies humans built to protect houses situated in a flood plain), we can’t blame the wildfires burning in the West “natural” disaster. There are a number of dams in Oregon with cracks in their infrastructure-dams holding back water from the flood plains where currently reside hundreds of thousands of people. If those dams break under stress, as did the levies in New Orleans and Cedar Rapids, it’s ignoring our own responsibility to label the results a “natural” disaster. And acknowledging our responsibility is the first step to taking care of both ourselves and our environment.

Assuming such responsibility allows us to learn from our mistakes. Forest Service policy aside, things haven’t changed much since pioneer times on the score of our carelessness with fire in the Pacific Northwest. Those who played out the bottle rocket version of keystone cops on the beach were only following precedent. The year before first Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens came to announce his unacceptable treaty provisions to the indigenous folks on the Olympic Peninsula, local emigrants accidentally set the forest on fire during their own Fourth of July celebration. That fire raged out of control until the autumn rains finally put it out.

By the time Washington became a state things weren’t going much better. That year was 1889, the same year a Seattle fire consumed two dozen business blocks and all the mills and wharfs on the bay, in spite of the help of volunteer firemen from Victoria to Portland. A similarly devastating fire hit Spokane in late summer of that year, as did fires that took much of downtown Vancouver and destroyed parts of Ellensburg, Goldendale and Roslyn. As a Snohomish County pioneer put it, it seemed “inevitable in all pioneer towns” that fire “virtually destroyed the entire town”.

As smoke pours into the Willamette Valley and hunkers down here from the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California, I am reminded of an historical image relayed to me by venerable Lower Chehalis elder Nina Baumgartner. When the first Scotsman arrived on the Olympic Peninsula with his red hair flying out in all directions, her people joked that they thought his head was on fire. This joke was about more than appearance. Baumgartner went on to relate the tale in which Bluejay crosses those burning prairies– which she emphatically slanted toward the necessity of being careful with fire.

With our heads set on “full steam ahead”, we don’t dwell on the disastrous potential of our power. We forget that what seems adventurous or profitable in the moment might eventually burn down our neighbor’s house-or give our children cancer.

But to balance that dangerous foolishness is the level of community response that brought firefighters from Portland to Victoria on the scene in Seattle in 1889-the same kind of community response that caused those fighting California fires to travel 24 hours and then begin their work without sleep.

Imagine if we could put such community feeling to work on caring for the future of our shared planet, as those in the Science and Environmental Health Network are currently doing.

Olympia Peninsula elder Nina Baumgartner’s people had ten thousand years to learn how to live in partnership with their land–and to observe the effects of their own actions. We don’t have the luxury of such timing. But the precautionary principle, which states that human innovations need to be proved harmless before enacted, is a good place to start. This principle helps compensate for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. It helps protect humans and natural systems from harm as did traditional indigenous stories stressing care in how we use our power.

The Precaution Reporter provides a wealth of information on the movement to institute the precautionary principle globally. And the Science and Environmental Health Network provides an outline of this principle and ways to support it.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, by Madronna Holden, and if you wish to copy it, please email for permission. Thanks.

336 Responses

  1. A few thoughts off the top of my head-

    I think the recent trend towards biofuels is a great example of this. We know there is a problem so the first quick and non-painful solution is implemented, even though that solution has turned out to be an idea that has major flaws.

    We can look at this like the pendulum of a clock. As the problem has become bigger and harder to solve, we rush to implement a solution that swings the pendulum faster and higher, forcing us to implement a new solution that pushes us into a new problem.
    Ex: Gas prices -> Biofuels -> Higher prices for food commodities – > Larger downturn in economy -> Higher gas prices.
    At some point we need to slow down, accept there is no short turn, quick, painless solution and implement a long term strategy for solving our world’s problems.

  2. Great point and example, Jeremy.
    I am especially taken with the fact that a large number of US manufacturers are making two sets of goods: one which holds to the safety requirements of the European Union and its REACH program for chemical safety–and one for sale in the US, which requires no such details. So manufacturers are making perfectly economically viable and safe products to be sold elsewhere, but not here. I think this is inexcusable– especially given the effects of these chemicals on households like yours, that have young children. Here is a link that will help you choose safe products for your family while we stall on the precautionary principle.
    http://www.womenandenvironment.org
    Meanwhile we should all be thinking about the long range implications of our actions. Biofuels from food products like corn- given that there have been food riots all over the world this year are not a great choice.
    Your last statement about the need for a long term strategy that may also require something of us that a “quick fix” doesn’t– is much to the point.
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. We seem to want everything as quickly as possible here in the U.S. I just finished the book Fast Food Nation which has a section on how much of the beef sold in the U.S. cannot be sold in the UK. It would not pass their inspections. But, many plants, clean out all of their machines, get healthier cows (i.e. ones that can walk to slaughter on their own four hooves), and slow down their assemble lines to a rate where workers stop slicing themselves to produce hamburger that can be sold to the EU. But, for my son, they think that the other meat is good enough. I am pretty sure that it is not. I have unintentionally stopped eating red meat since I read that book. As sick as it sounds, until I can look into the eyes of the cow I intend to eat and know exactly where it was born and where it grew up, it will not end up in my or my child’s body.

  4. Good for you and for your child, Katie!

  5. Right now, there are fires burning along the Interstate 5 corridor between Eugene and Salem. I have never been directly affected by a wildfire before today. I was on my way from Albany to Salem and got stuck on the Freeway for 30 minutes. I was one of the lucky people that got off and made it to Jefferson before they closed off the roads. When I was driving by the fire, I was no more than 10 feet away from firefighters trying to extinguish the fires burning in the fields along the road. After my meeting in Salem, I was listening to the radio and had to completely go around the freeway and it took me an extra hour to get home. The radio said that the fire has spread to a hill full of trees and undergrowth and was not burning at 20 acres. They had over 50 different fire truck units there and it had gotten so bad that they had to call in air support.

    I was driving after seeing that and was thinking about all of the trees there that had been growing since I was little. Never has that mountain been bare since I could remember. Most of these trees were over 20 years old, but they were burned to the ground in less than an hour. I also felt bad for all of the animals living in that area! (I am a sap for animals).

    It was so amazing to think that those trees were growing for well over a decade, but they were destroyed in minutes. Our communities have come together to help battle this fire that keeps changing course. ODOT, Six Different fire stations (Jefferson, Linn County, Albany, etc). Oregon State Police, and The Sheriffs office are all involved to try to stop this fire before it hits the especially dry fields only a few hundred yards away.

  6. I wonder what started these, Haylee. Must have been harrowing to drive through. I know the summers in the Willamette Valley are usually dry, but this summer it has been so dry and windy I’ve been watering my native plants. They might survive without, but they certainly seem unhappy.

  7. From following the news, I understand what causes most of the forest fires. Just a few years back, a firefighter was convicted of intentionally starting a fire that lasted for months. His reason was that he wanted seasonal work. Many careless backpackers forget to put out the fires they built for warming themselves or lighting a cigarette.
    While the Kayapo Indians burned an area and quickly planted a variety of grains and vegetables to sustain themselves and well as enrich the soil with the ashes, persons of lesser intellect burn forests for fun or out of negligence.
    We are witnessing the human power daily, in helping peoples in distant lands like Africa, and at the same time leveling magestic mountains for air-polluting coal in West Virginia.

  8. A perspective that illustrates Hegel’s statement that humans can be the best of creatures because we can be the worst. Now the time has come for us to be the best if we wish to survive on our shared planet: both carelessness and greed are no longer functional (if they ever were).
    I just witnessed a great example of the best in the Oregon Bus Project that takes young people all over the state to work in support of progressive causes.
    http://busproject.org/

  9. I have actually been employed by the U.S. Forest Service for 6 years and have worked first hand on many of the fires you mentioned in this article. While it is true that many fires are caused by human carelessness, and cannot be coined Natural Disasters, I think that there is more to the story than just that. For example, within the western United States, there are burn cycles, just as there were back in the days of Native Americans and fire, which, whether human caused or natural caused had the same effect on nature. These plants and other species of trees are adapted to this specific burn cycle and thrive off of any burn that moves through the area. It is true that humans cause a lot of unnecessary fires that can potentially do great deal of damage to the land, however, lightning and other natural fire starters can start in places that will create just as much if not more damage when burning out of control. Humans have impacted the use of fire on land for many years. For example Smokey the bear was created to prevent human caused fires and the 10 a.m. policy went into effect, which stated all fires would be put out by 10.am. the next morning. Back in the first days of fire, people did not really know how to control it and they let it burn out of control and it destroyed many towns and villages. This created a fear of fire that swept over the United States and made fire seem like an evil force. However, the United States Forest Service has since put in a policy of seek and destroy which essentially says we must put out every fire that we find within a timely fashion, unless we find the fire a benefit to the land. (10 a.m. policy, went out of effect in the 1970’s early 80’s) Because of human impact, on natural fire cycles, we almost need the human caused fires to help create a balance between nature and the fire cycles that have been interrupted by humans. To me, it demonstrates the natural model of reciprocity. While, I do agree that most of the information in the article is true and factual, I think that most people forget that fire is, and has been, used as a useful tool for many many years and the science behind it is just now catching up. Humans need to understand that fire is essentially a living force of nature and it must be respected or great damage will be caused.

  10. Thanks for sharing your firsthand experience here, Amber. I am reminded of the ways in which Kalapuya Esther Stutzman speaks of careful control of fires in the Willamette Valley in traditional times. On Puget Sound, indigenous peoples specifically started controlled burns to avoid the build up of fire fuels in certain habitats.
    Altogether, the Northwestern habitat pioneers found here grew up in conjunction with human actions: it is an important point that we need to care for fires in more intensive ways to compensate for the ways in which we have modified habitats. Ways in which we are modifying the weather is another issue, since there are now so many more storms today than thirty years ago.
    Thanks again for sharing your particular perspective here.

  11. Well, I lived near San Diego and worked in San Diego last year about this time and I was affected in several ways by the fires that burned out of control there for days. I couldn’t get down the 15 freeway to work nor could I take the I-5 because it was closed due to the fire by San Onofre so it was a scary time. Several of my co-workers’ houses burnt to the ground. Even up where my house was, north of the Rainbow/Fallbrook fires the sky was a brownish orange and the air was so thick we were issued an alert not to go outside. I’m just trying to point out that when you’re a victim of a fire you have different feelings toward them rather than if you’re just hearing about it. My work began operating in emergency mode; shutting down server room and implementing the phone tree to make sure everyone was accounted for. My background is in Emergency Management so they called on me for support but I was unable to get down there because there were so many fires between myself and work. I guess my point is that we do need to let fires burn in order to prevent these enormous and devastating fires that cost lives and lots of money. And while they may seem like an inconvenience to some people, take a look at the alternative where I actually though San Diego was just going to shut down. We need to take care of our environment and do everything we can to understand it and preserve it before we don’t have one.

  12. Hi Renee– time to start using all our science along with responsibility for the future of our shared world to make the changes we need, yes?
    Obviously, we need to express the value of care for those who share our world, in both the present and the future. In an interdependent world, this benefits all of us.
    Thoughtful comment.

  13. I was living in Escondido in North County San Diego when the October Fires of 2003 broke out all over San Diego County and in parts of Los Angeles County. There were a total of 12 fires that burned all over Southern California. I happened to be between to devastating fires: the Cedar fire near Ramona and the Paradise fire in Valley Center, which was 15 minutes north of my home in Escondido, near the San Pasqual Reservation. These fires were such a surreal experience. I worked in Vista which was about 20 minutes northwest of me. I would drive to work along Interstate 15 and 78 and 5 and see the eastern horizon glow in bright reds and oranges. I remember calling my family and friends in Oregon and telling them that you always see things like these fires on the news but it’s a totally different experience when you are witnessing the flames burning out of control in your own county. I lived on a hilltop in Escondido and from the roof of my house I could see the Cedar Fire burning Scripps Ranch and Alpine. The Wild Animal Park near my house had to take on precautionary measures in case the Paradise Fire threatened the park. The strong Santa Ana winds added fuel to the fires, which caused them to rage uncontrollably, spread through residential areas, and even jump major roads and interstates. Many of my friends and their families were evacuated in Valley Center and my aunt and uncle and cousins north of El Cajon. When I heard areas near El Cajon were evacuated I called my aunt and she was in the process of packing clothes and family valuables and seek refuge at the San Diego Charger’s Qualcomm Stadium. The brush-filled hillside was threatening to burn their neighborhood and residents had to get out fast. My aunt later told me that they were given close to 45 minutes to evacuate their home. The San Diego October Fires of 2003 was such a crazy experience. I was working at Home Depot in Vista at the time and hundreds of people were shopping like crazy in the store, buying fire extinguishers and gas masks. I worked near the entrance of the store and we were forced to wear simple face masks so we wouldn’t breathe in the ashes that were blown into the store. People even offered me money for my face mask.

    After the fires were finally extinguished and investigations were conducted, I was shocked to hear that the Cedar Fire was ignited by a lost hunter to signaling for help. He first lied to officials saying the fire was started by a gunshot but later confessed it was from a flare gun.

    Wildfires are meant to be natural disasters, not to be caused by the carelessness or negligence of humans. Perhaps if the Cedar Fire was caused by a lightning strike or some other natural way, residents would have a different tone as they cleaned up their neighborhoods. But when residents heard the fire was manmade, they were so very angry because they felt the destruction of their homes and community was preventable. We create conditions that allow fires to burn out of control. Our homes are packed together in condensed neighborhoods. We use chemicals and other agents that are either highly flammable or can spark a potential threat to our families as well as our environment. We extinguish natural fires as quickly as possible to avoid the potential threat to our homes and our cities. We fail to properly dispose debris such as fallen leaves and branches. By carefully practicing controlled burning, we could save our cities and rural areas by eliminating the threat of an out of control wildfire breaking out in the future. Controlled burning encourages growth of trees, plant life, and crops. I learned in a horticulture class that the Sequoia seed won’t germinate until exposed to fire.

    I think when people think of fire, they either think of a simple, controlled campfire that is used for warmth and enjoyment or they think of wildfires destroying forests and grasslands. We need to come to a middle ground with fire. Fire can be controlled and used to our benefits, even when it does involve wildfires. Native people have successfully practiced controlled burning for generations and allowed natural fires to take its course. Because of the increase of human populations and being crammed in tight living situations, fires are even more dangerous. But if we take the necessary precautions, like practice controlled burning, not releasing products until we know the effects and consequences they will have on ourselves as well as our environment, we won’t be adding fuel to the fire.

    This site has a map illustrating the spread of the fires throughout San Diego County. http://map.sdsu.edu/fireweb/animations.htm

  14. Ashley, thanks for your striking eye witness account here– and perspective on the human responsibility involved in such burns.

  15. As a resident of the Los Angeles area and having just experienced two recent fires (Porter Ranch and Sylmar 10/08), I have seen on numerous occasions what damage (both physical and emotional) fires can cause. I work for a volunteer organization that assists owners of livestock in evacuating their animals to safer ground during a fire or any other crisis. Having been surrounded by fire, one cannot help but feel the awesome and overwhelming power a wildfire can produce. However, from the destruction also comes renewal. Fires, by their very nature are reciprocol and bestow many regenerative gifts upon the land.
    Having said that, we humans must take action and implement precautionary principles in everything we produce, grow, inhabit and manufature to ensure as best we can, given the knowledge we currently have, to protect all life around us. We have a duty to plan and protect not only ourselves, but the future generations who will inherit all that we have accomplished, along with the negative side effects that come with those creations. Implementing these types of controls will allow the human population to begin to create a safer environment while reducing the negative impacts our “set the world on fire” actions have caused.

  16. Great balance in this comment, Kate. Thanks for this note from someone who has experienced wildfires up close in this way.
    I certainly concur with your statement about the precautionary principle!

  17. I think that in such a money-driven market, the long-term effects of these new technologies have become secondary. It seems that there’s always a new drug/technology that’s newly being found to have detrimental effects on people and nature. I feel that nobody is willing to take the time to actually examine and collect the information necessary to fully realize what the long-term effects are going to be. I like the mention of patriotism. It seems that somehow that word/sentiment has become a form of peer pressure. One isn’t being patriotic or is un-american if they question (fill in the blank).

    I agree that people can be compassionate, and I think that if people were to really look objectively at some of their actions they would be appalled. I don’t think that many people are inherently bad, but this distance that we’ve created between ourselves and nature makes it easier to mistreat and abuse her. Hopefully we can develop a new (to the western world) definition of progress.

    One last comment, as you mentioned the levies that were built to protect the houses placed in a floodplain, why does that happen? It’s as if there’s a need to exert control on natural forces, maybe to show it can be done, i don’t know. It seems to me that houses shouldn’t be built in flood plains. I do recognize that in, for example New Orleans and some areas of Florida, it’s often very poverty stricken communities situated in these areas, and their need for housing may outshine the possibility of it being destroyed, but I see this occur in areas that are not poor or need-driven, as well. It seems to me that “the wall” usually comes down at some point, so why do we keep doing it?

  18. These are all important considerations I think, Erika. We can only hope that it becomes a habit to evaluate the long term effects of our actions. And that we also exercise some sense of environmental justice–so that we don’t locate the poor in the most physical danger from environmental disasters.
    Good point about controlling nature: once again, we can only be looking at short-terms effects since, as you say, “the wall usually comes down” in the end.

  19. I know firsthand that fire can be very devastating to people’s properties. After working for two years to build a house for my great-grandmother it went up in flames the day before the insurance was going to be put on it. Someone did not put out their cigarette all the way, it smoldered all night and by the 7am the next morning the house was ruined. However, people need to remember that fire has its upsides and can work for the good of people and environments. As this article discusses, indigenous populations of America would create brush fires or burn clearings so that huge wildfires would not happen and to increase soil fertility and make hunting easier. Today, after stopping Natives from burning fields, we are burning fields for the same reasons that they did; to decrease wildfires and promote fertile soil.

    Although fires can be good, it is no excuse for people to be careless with fire. Cigarettes, fireworks and campfires need to be put out completely by the people using them. The results of fires set unintentionally, or intentionally with malicious reasons, often end up being the uncontrollable fires that destroy people’s houses and kill people and animals. People need to be responsible when deciding to use fire and think about the possible dangers that are associated with it and the damages that they can possibly inflict on people, animals and the environment.

  20. Hi Samantha.
    I am sorry to hear about you great grandmother’s house.
    Yet again, it seems we have the situation that the same thing that brings us many benefits when used with care is disastrous when used carelessly or arrogantly or greedily.
    I hope you great grandmother’s house got rebuilt!

  21. I agree with the comments about “natural disasters”. When something that we build does not hold up to nature, while it may turn out to be a disaster it’s a man made disaster. It’s nature going back to what is natural. We seem to think that we can dominate and control everything, and at some point we may realize that we have done more harm in the name of good.

    I’m amazed to watch people in my area build a house in a “hundred year” flood plain. Most people think “it won’t happen in my lifetime”… well it just might, and ideally isn’t your house going to last more than 100 years? What about the next family that lives there?

    I agree about the Bio-Fuels. Are we sure that the growing of corn for fuel is better? What about the striping of the land, what about the water and chemicals? While it may be considered renewable, is it really cleaner in the long run?

    • Hi Angie, thanks for the response. Your friends might take note of the fact that climate change is making floods more likely–and more disastrous. Though I haven’t confirmed this with a look at the actual stats, someone on the news in Washington stated that southwestern Washington has had two 500 year floods in the last two years– one of these was the flood that closed I-5 and over forty state and federal roads for several days last month. Even if the newscaster misspoke, I would wager on this being a hundred year flood (the flood the previous year closed I-5 as well).
      And as for biofuels, a recent Stanford University study ranking energy sources according to efficiency, sustainability and environmental impact placed two different highly touted forms of biofuels (not just corn) last on the list of desirables (after even nuclear power and gas!)
      Not only do biofuels generally cost more in energy to produce than they yield in energy, they contribute substantially to global warming in both their production and their burning–and that’s not even counting their source problems (effects on the land where they are grown and competition with food production).
      Algae has been put forth as a biofuel of choice, but the discussion I have seen only rates it as better than corn in terms of source issues, not in terms of energy taken to refine it and global warming gases produced in burning it.

  22. This article is right on the money. I am a Forest Officer, I enforce forest rules, state laws, and Fire Laws. Nearly 100% of all uncontrolled fires are started by people. Most of these fires are due to carelessness, but some are intentional. I had to respond last spring to a fire that was set intentionally to a pile of railroad ties, all beacuse the property owner didn’t want to pay to get rid of this hazardous waste. The fire spread to a nearby feild, and luckily was controlled and put out before anybody was harmed.

    This article also mentioned the idea of non-natural “Natural Disasters”. Right on. How can you complain about floods if you live in an area that historically floods? That notion seems ridiculous to me, and to be honest I don’t think that the government should be spending tons of money to rebuild levies that will inevitably break and reflood the same areas again.

    I wanted to touch on the response you gave about bio-fuels in your last reply, because there are parts that I disagree with. You talked about how they cost more to produce than they yeild, I read similar studies but I disagre with how they calculated the energy used to produce them. Most of the studies that showed this calculated all the way down to the food that the workers ate, which seems a bit silly to me. We don’t calculate that for petroleum products. Though I do believe that using food for fuel is unwise, both in the form of corn-burners and in the form of ethanol. To me it seems unethical to burn food while so many go without.

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for your point by point response here. Some great perspective. I appreciate the response on biofuels. The studies I have seen haven’t counted worker food (that would be ridiculous), but they do count the cost of things like the production of fertilizer used to grow corn, the gas used to plow fields, and the amount of energy it takes to distill ethanol as against the btus that come from burning it.
      Since there have been food riots all over the world in the last two years, I concur that using food for fuel (and agricultural land to produce it?) is a central issue here. Though I have seen some studies on alternatives such as straw chaf and algae, I haven’t been convinced, since burning these ultimately removes them from somewhere in the food chain (for instance, as agricultural fertilizer) and inevitably puts carbon into the air.

  23. I agree that “fire is not good or bad in itself”; it is a part of the natural cycle which is why some tree species rely on fire to prepare the soil, or to be the catalyst to release seeds. Humans of course interfere by either carelessly starting fires, or putting out fires that should be allowed to burn. The article cites examples of mans carelessness, with results that range from humorous to devastating. When I think of mans ill advised use of fire it reminds me of the Centralia PA mine fire. An abandoned coal mine pit was turned into the towns trash dump, and later someone had the bright idea to set the trash on fire. A vein of coal was ignited and has been burning and spreading underground for decades. The residents of the town eventually had to be relocated and the town basically died. Our actions have consequences, and we need to look ahead to try to learn what chain of events we may be setting in motion.

    • Thanks for another example here, John. The fact that our actions have consequences in the long as well as the short term is certainly something to keep in mind. This is the main thrust of the precautionary principle. Good point here.

  24. IN the first part of your article you discuss the rush to market of new technologies. I know that one of these technologies is so called nano-technologies. These are devices or inventions that are constructed on the atomic level, atom by atom. I recently read an article where there ar major concerns about the use of this technology and its potential impact on humanity. They are currently performing studies to see if nano-devices were breathed in by a person would lodge in that persons lungs and potentially lead to pulmonary scarring or potentially cancer. This is part of the fallout that comes from all the asbestos lawsuits that are going on today in the US. Everyone I’m sure has seen the lawyers advertising for clients with diagnoses of mesothelioma on TV. Hopefully the researchers involved have learned their lessons through lots and lots of litigation and are applying he precautionary principle to this and other technology.

    • Hi Joe. I have heard of suits brought against make up producers since such nano-products are being used to cause ingredients in hand cream, for instance, to go directly into the body- and they aren’t labeled. There is also an ongoing battle to label genetically modified foods (as in the same way they are labeled and/or outlawed in the EU), which US corporations have so far been able to block– on the grounds that it would hurt business. They claim it is too expensive to put this info on labels, but they have considerable marketing research that indicates most US consumers won’t buy these products if they know what they are purchasing. I have heard your points here about nano-participles and the parallel to asbestos. I have also heard there are other and serious problems being found in the use of nano-silver participles which lodge in the body.
      Here is where we really need the precautionary principle. Thanks for your comments on these points.

  25. I recieved a lot information out of this piece.
    The first thing was i was shocked to find out that the 3rd leading cause in deaths in the US was undergoing a procedure. I find that very distrubing. I feel that we live in such a fast past country. So many people are coming out with new things, we want to get them out there are see what they are going to do. Instead of thinking about the consequences that our actions have. We dont perfect things before people buy them or use them. We are more concerned about the mass productions of thing we let the number one componient get away….. quality.
    I liked the statement about the fires, that we can label them good nor bad but rather we have to learn how to handle them. I think that goes with a lot of things in life. I think we label things bad because we can not explain or handle them so rather than trying to figure it out we label it as bad. Giving the explanation for its defaults.
    Fires are a scary thing… The story about the fourth of July was scary…. There are so many people on the Fourth that are so carless with the fireworks and sparklers. I Thats how fires start , carelessness from humans!!!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Meagan. Obviously the precautionary principle is a necessity in terms of watching out for the consequences of modern chemicals, for instance, before we release them into the environment.

  26. “And acknowledging our responsibility is the first step in taking care of both ourselves and our environment.”
    This quote goes to the core of all of Western cultures ills in society and relating to the environment today. Taking responsibility for our actions is a concept we are taught in kindergarten but many have a problem taking it into later life if it does not benefit them quickly and directly.
    We can see the problems with not using the precautionary principle in drug recalls a couple times a year lately. Drugs that are either sped through trials to start making money quickly and are found to be life threatening to individuals later. Or in the case of Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic drug created for schizophrenia, that ended up being given to misbehaving kids as a cure all with minimal side effects. This scam made the drug company $16 billion in the middle of which studies showed many harmful side effects.
    This kind of blatant mistreatment of human kind is inexcusable. This is worse than NIMBY, it is even in my back yard that these people are doing these things. The fire is still burning out of control in some areas. Keep doing your thing Dr. Holden, the world needs more of you.

    • That is very kind of you, Aaron. I want to reply that the world needs more like you. In fact, it needs all who express their commitment to gain the information necessary to do things ethically as well.
      It is my hope that as more and more of us do this, we will together change things for the better. The case of Zyprexa and its actual side effects is tragic. There is something entirely wrong with the idea that we only need to swallow (or be forced to swallow) a pill in order to bring ourselves to perfect health or make ourselves into model citizens. As perhaps a tangent but a related one, here is list of some thought provoking resources describing potential fallacies about mental illness, especially as related to particular pharmaceutical “cures”: http://www.mindfreedom.org/kb/mental-health-system/truth. Readers might also want to go to the Integrity in Science website (see link on the right hand column of this blog) and type the name of a chemical into the search engine to see what info is there on who funds its research and public information and/or for women’s health issues in particular visit the National Women’s Health Network site.
      I don’t think dealing with human illness should be about making money in the first place.

  27. First of all, I am shocked that undergoing medical procedure is the third leading cause of death in this country. It shows that we put far too much faith in the medical establishment. The same could also be said of the pharmaceutical establishment. There have been numerous tragedies involving drugs that were expedited through the safety process in order to get them on the market quicker, only to be found to be harmful and/or lethal. This is an obvious example of the abandonment of the precautionary principle in favor of the dollar.

    I like the line, “if we’re pushing the boundaries of human technology, nothing bad will happen as a result.” This really sums up Western mentalty. Our egos have us believing we can control everything, and if we can’t we will invent a way to do so. The natural world can be tamed. This reminds me of the fires that regularly rage through Laguna Beach, Ca. (near where I grew up). Even though these are usually natural fires, as it is a dense brush area, people still choose to rebuild time and again. The reason for this is obvious, as it is a beautiful place and very desirable, but much of the town is in danger when the fires hit. It is uncontrollable and untameable, yet people continue to try. The precautionary principle in this case would involve the abandonment of prime real estate, something that greed will not allow. Hopefully that will change.

    • Hi Mike. Hopefully that will change indeed. Maybe we will substitute our greed with a hunger for the quality of life (all life, that is, now and in the future). There is some to concentrate on developing that might lead to real technological wonders. Though they might not be fanciful magic bullets. And they will depend (I predict, anyway) on the sophisticated ability to interact with and empower natural systems of life, rather than attempt to control them or shape them according to our single-minded desires.

  28. Speaking of wildfires, I live in San Diego and it seems that every other year there is a major fire that burns all around the city, and 9 times out of 10, it is started by people. I remember one major fire recently was started by a lost hiker. It is sad to think that someone who just wanted to take a walk and become closer to nature ended up burning hundreds of acres of land instead, but I guess that is what happens when people don’t think things through and don’t use the Precautionary principle.

    Now that I think about it, if the precautionary principle was applied more often, such as with the production of our fruits, vegetables and meat, then people today would be much healthier. The precautionary principle wasn’t considered when MSG was approved as a flavor enhancer for our food, or when harsh pesticides are used on our fruits and vegetables. Now, what is supposed to be the healthiest of our foods is slowly poisoning us. That is why, until the precautionary principle is used in finding healthier ways to enhance the food we eat, I am sticking to pure organic and home grown foods.

    • I think this is a good choice for both the health of the planet and your own health, Jessica. Your note about the fire started by the hiker reminds me about another points about the precautionary principle. Assuming that our actions don’t matter (denying their consequences) is a way of diminishing ourselves in believing that what we do in this world is unimportant.

  29. I think in many ways our behavior simply boils down human to arrogance (combined with a selfish worldview). For example, look at the first atomic bomb, we set it off with out really knowing what would happen, and yet we did it anyway.
    Look at the War on Drugs, and then look at the multitude of TV commercials advertising prescription drugs (whose side effects often include death), and then ask your self, what is wrong with this picture?
    If there is money, or history to be made, if there is a good time to be had, we as humans are really good at only seeing the immediate results. In many ways we are always on vacation.
    I agree that fire is not good or bad in itself… It’s how it is used. That can be said for nearly everything that humans touch (in our modern world). With knowledge comes power, and with power comes responsibility, we just need to learn how to use our power.

    • Hi Kristian, interesting point about always being on vacation. It does seem that there is mindset that goes with this (resulting in manner of driving, for instance), that translates to, “We are on vacation so nothing bad can happen to us”.
      You are absolutely right that assuming responsibility for our actions is the first step in learning how to use our power.

  30. Once again an eye opener. You make such great points, I understand the world much better, if only for a small piece of time.

    The point you make about taking responsibility, and calling things what they are is so true. Calling a flood caused by a breaking levie a “natural disaster”, is a cop out, and misleading to the public. Perhaps if the general public were made more aware of the truth behind the cause of such disasters, we would do more to keep it from happening again. And as you say, allow ourselves to learn form the past.

    Your mentioning of the controlled burns set by the natives reminds me of a passage from a book I read called State of Fear. In the book the author recalls the history of Yellow Stone Park, and the history of conservation efforts which have had the opposite effects*. He mentions that we cannot remove ourselves form the land, we must maintain it, but we need to do so carefully and thoughtfully. It is the same with the controlled burns, with understanding, fire can become part of a world maintenance plan.

    * I wish I had the book to reference, but I have given to a friend; keep the gift moving.

    • Thanks for your points here, Kate. I certainly agree with your point about naming things properly so that we can address them (not to mention, learn from our mistakes). The case of Yellowstone Park is an interesting one: the re-introduction of wolves there now is helping some ecosystems recover from over grazing by elk that prevented tree growth. State of Fear is a great name: it seems that our worldview brings this on ourselves. If we fail to work in partnership with the natural world, what we attempt to control but can’t leads to such fear. A negative feedback loop, since attempting to control things without knowledge is foolish, and suppressing or ignoring parts of the natural system so that we take them into account (or even see them) is an unfortunate part of this process.

  31. While I read this article, I was thinking about the many forest fires I have been affected by and how it is such a huge controversy. I live in Bend ,Oregon and we are hit every summer by at least one bad wildfire, a few times I have even been evacuated from my house. That is one of the scariest things that has ever happened to me. To have to race through your house and find the “important” things to you. its a horrific event that I hope I will never have to do again.

    Controlled burning is a very controversial issue that keeps popping up in this area. A lot of people are for the burning as it does have some positive affects, but now scientists are fighting against the burnings since it is putting harmful gases in the air. I am torn both ways. Had some of the areas near where I live not been controlled burned prior to the fire, who knows how far that fire would have gone. Its a tough call.

    • Hi Joanna. I wasn’t aware that there was a controversy about controlled forest burning. There is certainly a controversy about field burning, which produces harmful particulate–and to which there are much safer and even profitable alternatives, like selling straw stubble for hay instead of burning it–which many who used to burn fields now do. There is actually a very small minority who burn their fields now, but old habits die hard. It is hard to have controlled burns anywhere (especially when there is much built up fuel) near residential areas. Indeed, there is a serious problem with wood burning for heat in the Willamette Valley and a very serious problem in Oakridge. The trouble is that we can’t get away from the air we breathe; breathers don’t have an alternative to breathing smoke. Thanks for the perspective.

  32. It stuns me to think of how little I knew about what US manufactures put in products, products that they can’t sell in other countries because these countries have higher standard for their citizen. What is more disturbing is my lack of knowledge on this subject and I have two boys who depend on my knowledge so they are safe and healthy. I guess I shouldn’t blindly trust any longer.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dianna. You might want to check out some of the links here that consist of mothers researching safe household goods. There has been tremendous pressure on regulatory agencies not to do their job during the last white house administration. (See the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists). Let’s hope we will see a change now.

  33. Oh My Gosh!!!!!! This is absolutely crazy. When I read the part about the medical advances not being totally checked out or 100% reliable before they are put into practice. I thought that the US was and had the highest standards on all of that sort of thing. It’s just crazy to think that products in the US are not excepted in some European countries because they are not up to standard. This makes me think just how the US handles all the rest of it’s situations in the world. Especially the war and everything. If this social norm is accepted that most Americans think this country is the highest and set/follows the standards then what in Iraq. They are lying about his and makes me think about government officials worse then I did already. My dad is in the military and has been to Iraq twice as one of the officers in charge in the Air Force. I couldn’t imagine what else the government is lying about and it make me so nervous with my dad being in the institution of the military.

    • Thanks for your comment, Chelsea. I can understand your worry about your dad– certainly the families of all those in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering here at home. It is a hopeful that Obama is calling an end to the war in Iraq… though there are obviously still soldiers there and others still being deployed.
      I think it is important to develop an authentic and critical sense of what is going on in the world arena so that we can both vote and use our purchasing power appropriately.

  34. I agree with your full steam ahead analogy. I worked in the medical field for years, especially the operating room. I was always amazed by the new gadgets they would use on patients that was not really in the patients best interest. Usually it would take longer and was not always as effective.
    I also enjoyed your stories about carelessness. It seems like people do not think these days. I live in a neighborhood full of kids riding bikes and skate boarding, but not one has a helmet on. There are safety suggestions posted on all kinds of goods, but are regularly ignored. People do not think that anything will ever happen to them. Maybe that is why society is dragging it’s feet with changing their habits that effect the environment.

    • Interesting points about carelessness. Ann. I wonder if this is a sign of carelessness on the part of these children or of adults (certainly we are careless about the future of our children when we fail to care for our shared environment).
      Thanks for sharing your relevant experience in the medical profession. It does seem like I sometimes spend more extra time on this computer ironing out crashes and other problems than I save with this supposedly time saving device!

  35. The reading brought back many fond memories for me and the things that I really impressed on my children. Growing up, my family spent much time camping in Colorado on vacation. And, my children had the privilege of living in Wyoming for a number of years where we camped across the prairies and mountains.

    We were always careful to be sure a campfire was completely extinguished before we left the premises. From this article, I captured that natural or fires from lightning are expected; but, experts need to determine when a more aggressive approach is necessary. Us, who are campfire people, do not need to contribute to the overall cause.

    I loved the quote……”Olympia Peninsula elder Nina Baumgartner’s people had ten thousand years to learn how to live in partnership with their land–and to observe the effects of their own actions. We don’t have the luxury of such timing. But the precautionary principle, which states that human innovations need to be proved harmless before enacted, is a good place to start” (Burning Down the House – Holden). This kind of quote teaches me that I will let the experts determine when to start a “controlled burn”, but, this decision may not be the best as experienced by this indigenous culture. I plan to stick to campfires and being responsible.

    Thanks,

    Paul

    • Hi Paul, thanks for the comment and sharing your personal experience. We might also take note that there are many places now where fires are not allowed–and especially during summer or dry seasons. You need a camp stove or no fire at all in these situations.
      The “experts” opinion has been changing with respect to burning: such flexibility in response to the consequences of our actions is a good thing.

  36. I have to admit, I had no idea of the third leading cause of death was having a medical procedure! Holy cow. I’ve had quite a bit of dealings with medical procedures myself. As a side note, I will offer a couple of bits of information I’ve learned.

    *Never leave someone you care about in the hospital. Nurses are awesome, but they are people. Additionally, they’re not babysitters so if your loved one needs something for comfort, you’ll want to be there to see that they get it. Also, you can take a lot of pressure off the nurses by providing small favors like adjusting a pillow or offering ice chips. And keep a close eye on medications given. Oftentimes, asking a nurse what they are giving gives you power and encourages the nurse to re-verbalize what they are giving. My daughter once almost got some other blue pill instead of ativan.

    *Also, instead of just writing on one leg or one arm “this one” also write on the other limb…”Not this one!”

    Concerning fire, I think its a complex issue. We’re dealing with climate and weather that is as original to the Earth as a fingerprint, so I don’t think we can know for sure the consequences. I joined the National Interagency Fire people for a field trip once. These people are genius’ and are on the job taking in 360 degrees worth of precautionary principle. Their warehouse was enormous with fire tools and food. They report 24/7 and meet with presentations and detailed information (that it takes large teams of people to create) every day and multiple times per day. It was pretty impressive. There is a serious amount of technology being used to understand, fight, encourage and protect people from fire.

    It was a profound statement Nina made about taking thousands of years to understand the responsibility concerning fire. One good read on the responsibility concerning fire and timber is Nancy Langston’s Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares.

    One thought I had in the past is that we’re aware (and have been for some time) the affects of subduing fire, but I think we have to be careful to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. It seems to me that prescribed burns are happening with such close intervals in our panic to lower fuel loads, we might be encouraging detrimental consequences.

    Those stories about fireworks were pretty interesting. It shows how something so volatile (both physically and metaphorically) has to be handled with great responsibility.

    • Hi Tina, thanks for the thoughtful comment–and all the important information you share here. I echo your cues for caring for loved ones under medical care. As we lose number of nurses per patients (as hospitals try to cut costs), your recommendations are especially important. I personally know of at least half a dozen instances where medication was the wrong dose–or the wrong medication period–and this might have been tragic or fatal had not a family member or friend questioned this so that the right medication in the right dose could be given. It is also important to healing to have a familiar presence nearby.
      I think that you have something very important about of balance here. I mentioned this a bit in my response to your very important question on “diplomacy with the nations of life”.
      I think we also need to understand that there are multiple consequences to any action. So we are now going after invasive species with a vengeance everywhere. To the extend that public facilities are using herbicides on water ways. Invasives ARE a problem, but I think we need to stop and think about over-use of herbicides. We shouldn’t be using any of them anywhere near our water systems. Indeed, as more and more data comes in for the dangers of “Roundup”, we should stop using it anywhere.
      Part of the problem in gaining perspective is chemical company funding some of the research on invasives (as per the assessment in the links to “Integrity in Science” and the “Union of Concerned Scientists” pages here. )
      Power and danger are always linked.

      • Your “multiple consequences to any action” reminds me, of course, ecology. But, my brain is stretching that comment beyond ecology and science to humanity. It reminds me of a ripple effect with all sorts of people running in to each other.

        Your comment that power and danger are always linked reminds me of the holocaust. But, I was always taught that Prayer is the key to Power. I think we’re thinking of two different kinds of power; false power and true power.

        Thanks for your comments, Professor. I am enjoying your wisdom.

        • Thank you, Tina. The learning is a two-way street here. There is a difference between power over and power with. But it seems to me that one needs to be very careful with spiritual power as well– that is, treat it with respect.

  37. This essay reminds me of a discussion I had with my girlfriend while driving back from the airport a few weeks ago. We were talking about how incredible flying is and planes are and she asked, “how much crazier would planes be today, if they didn’t have to go through so much testing to advance the technology?” my reply was, “they’d probably be way more advanced, but then flying would be so risky who on earth would want to fly?” I believe both sides in this situation are valid, sometimes one can’t know the damages of their actions for many many years or even centuries, and this should make us all cautious in how we act. However, at the same time, without some level of risk, there can be no reward, no advancement. We do need to look both ways, maybe even twice, before crossing the street, but eventually we have to cross the street or find some other way across lest we stagnate and no matter what, there is a chance we could get hit or get burned.
    This post also raises the question of New Orleans, I have some friends who love to debate this topic, one side says the city should be abandoned, the other says the cultural heritage is invaluable and that they should just dig in deeper, build higher, better levies. I’m curious professor what your opinion on the matter might be, seeing as how Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, but the bursting of the levies and the ultimate destruction of the area was not. I don’t mean to put you on the spot, I am just curious, my opinion is that people can dig in if they want, and I understand why many would see New Orleans as their home and not want to leave, but they also need to understand that another disaster is a matter of when, not if, and so when disaster strikes, they must realize that the damages they suffer are a result of their choice to live there. Live below sea level in a Hurricane corridor at your own risk, no?

    • Hi Mark, you raise some interesting issues. Thanks for your comment.
      It is certainly true that some use (presumed) safety as an excuse for not taking responsibility for their actions– as those who drive large trucks and/or large cars with mucho safety devices in an unsafe way, presuming the size/safety devices of their vehicles will protect them. However, in the case of the unsafe drivers, others on the road take the risks along with them.
      Here is the issue with risk: can we fairly subject OTHERS to risk as a result of our actions– or for our gain? It is my sense that those who create risks ought to take responsibility for them–and to suffer their consequences. But the trouble is that economic system in which we pass on costs and hang onto gains (the capitalist mantra for business success)– the risk for new technology gets passed off to others. In terms of releasing new chemicals in the environment, for instance, this passing on risks is a given, since natural systems are interdependent.
      So risks for yourself– sure, you have a right to those. But risks for others– no. And especially if, as the precautionary principle states, there is another less toxic (or dangerous) alternative.
      As for “advancing” by taking risks, I am not sure your meaning here is not closer to the idea of challenging ourselves– one that is a part of adolescent coming of age rituals in indigenous cultures throughout the world. I certainly agree that we should challenge ourselves– you can think of that as an important way to take personal risks. To give some personal examples, someone’s taking a class out of their arena of expertise or opening emotionally to something that has caused fear in the past– or perhaps standing up for what they believe in in a public arena, which makes them feel vulnerable, etc. I think we could use more of this kind of personal risk taking and courage. As for risking other’s lives (including that of other species) because we want to experiment– I don’t think there is an excuse for that.
      And sometimes, such “risks” in terms of innovation are just based on laziness or convenience–on not REALLY challenging ourselves to come up with a better solution. In this sense, the folks at Gaviotas were constantly challenging themselves (you might like to read this, since there are so many examples of innovative engineering here).

  38. This was a very informative essay, as I did not know very much about the reasons for controlled fires. I have often seen controlled fires on farms, or on homes with a lot of land. These are created by people who care about their land, who are educated and choose to live in a place requiring a lot of time, experience and education about the part of the earth on which they live. I think of controlled burning in this context, because this is where I have personally seen it the most. I know that the Forest Service also uses controlled fires and they have a lot of knowledge about how to protect the land and the animals and people who live near it.

    However, I am also aware that we humans are responsible for many of the out-of-control fires, especially in California and Oregon, which we are closest to. Many of these fires can be blamed directly on silly mistakes, and on a lack of knowledge about how to care for the land. This carelessness is, as stated in the essay, carried on in many aspects of our culture, and there are huge health and environmental consequences.

    We have all seen the country come together when disasters like Hurricane Katrina and huge wildfires have occurred. What if we could come together in preventing these? If the systems were set up to instead protect the earth and the people, and not only to rescue them after something bad has happened, we would not have many pressing problems we face today.

    • A very important point on prevention rather than fixing disaster, Erin. As Tina Barker has also noted, there can be too many controlled fires. I think grass field burning in the summers is an example, since the burn effects the lungs of so many nearby residents. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  39. There are a couple of ideas from this essay that jumped out at me. When you link controlled fires to the precautionary principle, you start with the idea that power needs to be used with care. What struck me, though, was when you said, “Those fires were essential, and they set then with care.” I think this shows an important aspect of the precautionary principle, one that is not necessarily in the forefront of my mind when I think of the principle—is something necessary in the first place?
    You go on to say that we mislabel human disasters as “natural disasters” when dams or levies break due to human negligence, and call on people to take responsibility for their actions. For (a very narrow) example, if we could hold corporations accountable, and they would take responsibility for the products they produced, we’d make some major progress in implementing the precautionary principle. It just seems like everyone is escaping accountability.

    • Thanks for your comments, Christine. The point about whether something is necessary in the first place is a good one in this day of over-consumption. I certainly concur with your point about corporate responsibility!

  40. i agree with some others before, it was very interesting to find out that medical procedure is the third leading cause of death. I believe this sounds like a bad thing but at the same time i think that the reason it is so high is because the people that die were so sick or already on thier death bed. I am sure that people that had small problems didnt die from a procedure.
    Besides the fact I thought this essay had some really good insight, i dont believe we should ever build or do something. Hence where the precautionary principle comes into play.
    Like said in the essay when we go on vacation we seem to do things diffeernetly or live a little more dangerous weather it be good for us or the environement. I believe if everyone would treat the environment as they would treat thier home we would be much better off. Fortunatly we dont seem to have this gun ho attitude when we are home.

    • Thoughtful point, Christian, but actually people with small problems– or no problems at all (as in elective plastic surgery) have been dying of medical procedures. The frail are of course at more risk. Reasons: medications with side effects (or wrong prescriptions or administration), infections picked up in hospitals, dangers of anesthesia-and general carelessness and neglect, as hospitals become more “cost-efficient” and cut staff. I know of two instances regarding diabetes that might have been fatal (in one of the top hospitals in the country) had there not been intervention on the part of relatives: in one case, a new mother whose chart was clearly marked diabetic was being given a sugar drip; in another an elder who was NOT diabetic was being given insulin. I know of a number of other personal stories that are part of this statistic.
      I am a bit confused by your statement about “home”– seems you are saying this should be our model, but that we also need to change the way we treat our homes?

  41. I hope the Precautionary Principle has a lengthy time frame in which they test and research. I like this principle and would love to see it in force in the drug companies as well. I know they have a certain period of time for testing but I don’t think it’s long enough. Data is skewed all the time and I hope there are a few different checks and balances they must go thru first.

    • Good points, Pam. I agree with you about the issues surrounding testing– that is why I also like the idea of using the “least toxic alternative” that is also part of the precautionary principle. And of course, we must keep testing agencies and science in general honest by disassociating it from monied interests– which is why I think what the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Integrity in Science folks are doing (linked here) is so important. Thanks for your comment.

  42. While reading this article, all I could think about is the plethora of class action lawsuit commercials advertised constantly on TV. Either it is a new drug that came out and was then found to cause serious side effects, or a building product that now causes cancer or causes your house to catch fire. The list goes on and on and each time it reminds me that in technology, the bean counters are still always focused on the bottom line and not what’s best for the consumer or environment. Also, I will never understand why science and technology so often advocates synthetic versions of products when a healthier natural one may be available. For instance, many of us want to get away from using so much sugar in our diets but still need something to sweeten our coffee or tea. Everywhere you go, you can find Sweet-n-low, Splenda or Equal but you can’t find a natural, zero calorie sweetener like Stevia? So many consumers don’t even realize that this product is an option. I think educating the public on natural versions of their synthetic counterparts and giving the consumer the choice could change a lot of what’s wrong with the environment.

    On a side note, anyone stupid enough to hand a small child a lit bottle rocket is asking for a Darwin award. The family is lucky no one was hurt and there was no damage. I don’t know the statistics but I imagine that this type of carelessness is probably a major contributor of wildfires such as the ones you reference here. If people just took a few extra seconds to think about what the possible outcomes may be in a situation like this, I’m sure most would have anticipated it. The precautionary principal sure would have come in handy here!

    • You have some pointed observations here, Allyson. The precautionary principle would indicate that if natural sources of something are readily available and renewable, we ought to stick with them, no matter how much profit we might make in engineering a substitute. I like the “Darwin award”– your response underscores how the kid with the bottle rocket is an analogy for some of the other things we give our kids (or society at large) to play with– it might do us well to become conscious of the fact that this is not exactly an adaptive trend.

  43. Whats sad about the world today, as many people as we educate about these problems it only takes one or two to cause such events. I think allot of the time when we label such events as “Natural Disasotrs” is because if we suddently said It was human error, everyone would look around to point a finger. When in reality its everyones fault. Another problem I think we have is some people not onle are uneducated about fire but are absolutley obssesed with it. I have a friend who considers himself a pyro and constantly tells me not to worry about the massive fire hes building, I dont understand why some people dont get the point until they finally get burned. I wish there was a better way to go through to these people. Having a camp fire is like having our own personnel dam. Its our job to watch the walls, because if the walls fall, that fire will flood the world around us with destruction.

    • Hi Kevin, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Interesting analogy about the campfire. It would be great if we looked into these things as a matter of prevention rather than blame.
      I think your point about learning by getting burned is well taken. Seems like traditional stories once allowed listeners to put themselves into a situation and feel the consequences so they wouldn’t have to be repeated in the real world. I think we could use some such stories today.

  44. For me wildfires conjure up images of middle aged office workers who build giant houses amongst the brush in Southern California. He’s out there with his garden hose feverishly sprinkling the roof in a futile attempt to bar the onslaught of flames rolling up the hill. While at the same time, he is smoking a cigarette and flicking the ashes into the shrubs that surround his piece of invaluable real estate.

    This comedic scene of ignorance is something we often see on TV whenever a fire ravages the forests and brush. It shows that with all our creation we are powerless against such a natural force. If a fire wants to burn, it will burn. Whether it was man made in origin or sparked by a natural cause is really irrelevant because policies that don’t allow for natural burns really just increase the potential for an unnatural one.

    Also, it is intriguing that we once thought by preventing fires we would be preserving nature. Now, opinions have since changed. It shows that some of the worst things done to our ecosystem where because of the best knowledge of the day.

    • Thoughtful points, Matt. Hopefully we are flexible enough to change our thinking as new information about the consequences of our actions comes in. The bottle rocket in the hands of the kid on the beach was a bit like the keystone cops scenario. Hilarious if one could laugh in the midst of running for safety.

  45. For almost every post I find myself saying that we MUST take more responsibility for our actions. The carelessness and general lack of common sense is dismaying at best. To me the process is simple – there is an action, there is a consequence, and there are lessons learned. We seem to be good at connecting the first two – I start a fire and it grows out of control. What we fail to do is drawn conclusive lessons from these cause-and-effect relationships that allows us to forego the disasters of the past and forge ahead in the right direction. So when wildfires rage in California every summer, it seems inevitable that we will shortly learn of someone who started a fire (with or without intent) that resulted in large-scale destruction. Why can we not make the same connections that indigenous tribes did years and years ago? Why can we not break away from our pioneer mindset and embrace the forces of nature for what they are? Until we can view situations from this point of view I think it will be difficult to get people to buy into the idea that they should learn from their mistakes. Humans are at the top of the food chain for a reason…. right?

    • Thanks for this comment, Allison. Interestingly, we are one of the few societies (not in population, but in terms of human history) that has NOT told stories that pass on past learning from our mistakes. Even those pioneer family members I interviewed wanted to speak about what they had done wrong when I collected their oral histories. It seems that learning from our mistakes has been a key part of human evolution– until now. Not an adaptive change, I think.

  46. Proving innovations safe before putting them out on the market or don’t purchase items until they are proven safe only makes sense and of course, will keep health costs down. The responsibility is not in just their hands but also in mine.
    I found out that glade plug-ins are dangerous when just alittle amount of liquid seeps out of its packaging so needless to say, i will not be buying those in the future. If it is not made from natural substances, i will not buy it has become one of my rules.
    Understanding that our lives are in danger before we walk into a medical facility because of overworked staff, each person needs to take their own precautions on caring for themselves or a loved one.
    This article showed me that we are responsible for ourselves and others. When we are at home or away, the precautionary principle should always be understood. If it is not safe, then don’t do it…

  47. I think the way that I understood the message from this article is that, everything must be in balance. I think we could learn a lot from nature here. Just as nature allows everything to happen a a certain pace, the same should go for us.
    We need to learn how to live with nature’s wildfires, but we also need to proceed with caution. The same goes for releasing products out to the environment, we need more checks and balances. Actually, probably more restrictions just to help balance things out. I am always confused if there is anything such as a good chemical. I just know we need a lot more caution, and slow things down in th U.S.

    Thanks,

    Troy

    • Thoughtful comment, Jonas. Balance is a very important value in deciding many of our actions. Perhaps you mean a good man-made chemical– since there are plenty of natural chemicals without which we couldn’t survive. But I understand what you mean. The natural world took a long time to achieve its balance– better that we should work with this rather than disrupt it with unknown (but more often than not) disastrous consequences.

      • Hi Madronna,

        Yes, I am sorry, I did mean manmade chemicals, I should have been more clear on that. You are right, we could not live without those benefical natural chemicals.

        Thanks,

        Troy

  48. Working on a cruise ship I have seen some people do some stupid things. Is just like the what this article said, when people are on vacation they think nothing bad is going to happen to them. I have seen people lean over the rails of the ship to look at the water below not realizing that a big gust of wind could come at any second and throw them off balance. I just want to know what goes through people minds sometimes???

  49. “No data, no market.” I like this idea, but how much data is “enough data?” In a society so dependent on drugs and cure-all’s, do we really understand or have any concept of possible risks associated with long term use of these chemicals?

    With so many new drugs coming out every year, it makes you wonder how much we really know about these products. Lets take birth control for example. It seems that every year there’s a new birth control commercial all over tv. With something as complex as a woman’s reproductive organs, do we really understand or have data on what these drugs will do long term? What if 25 years from now we find out the birth control pill 30% of the U.S.’s young adults are using causes cervical cancer or makes them sterile?

    Our society has been conditioned to trust modern science. I feel that we need to take some personal responsibility and precaution before we pump our bodies with chemicals. With a new drug that is conceived and brought to market in 5-8 years, there is no data past 8 years.. it’s a scary thought.

    • It is even more scary, Jason, when you think about how destructive humans sometimes were when they were new to an environment and did not understand its workings– sometimes took generations to learn enough to get straightened out on this one. Relying on modern science is one thing: relying on scientists often funded–and pressured– by economic interests that severely diverge from the goal of the common good is something else. The Union of Concerned Scientists and Integrity in Science sites linked here have lots to say about this. Personal responsibility is certainly called for, as you indicate.

  50. After having grown up in the Midwest and then moving to Oregon as an adult, I had the same notion that many of the settlers did, that fire did not have a place in this beautiful landscape. While they often saw fire as their profits from the timber literally going up in smoke, I saw it as a scar on the landscape. However, I now realize, as do the forest managers, that fire is a vital part of the ecosystems in the PNW since without small low-intensity ones, large, stand-replacing ones move in. While the land may look scarred for a short time, as soon as the next spring rains come, the land comes alive again and after only a short time, there is almost no evidence of fire to the casual observer.

    The concept of not labeling things as natural disasters is very interesting since in removing the blame from humans, we also remove the need for current and future responsibility. The increased severity of the floods and the forest fires have both been caused by humans and it is interesting to think that other natural disasters, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and heat waves have also increased in severity due to human action. Millions of people around the world are devastated yearly by what we call natural disasters, but I really do think that we are coming to the point where they are no longer natural, but man made.

    • Nice personal perspective here, Bekah. How we look at things (whether in terms of fire or in terms of “natural disasters”) is linked to how we behave toward them (and how we assume our own responsibility). Great comment.

  51. Ah, memories of sitting on the beach in Seaside and diving for cover to protect oneself some the actions of others. Seems that is what we continually do in life. Our science and technology comes up with great ideas (like throwing giving fireworks to a toddler) Seemed like a good idea at the time (I suspect beer was helping with that decision making process) as we move full speed ahead not looking to see what the possible ramifications will be.

    Our science has tremendous power and we forget what this power can do both for the good and the bad. By enacting the precautionary principle we would help alleviate the ramifications of our full speed ahead mindset. Before the next wonder drug is put on the market, or putting chemically altered foods on our table, maybe our first responsibility would be to study the underlying possible results this new creation of science.

    I am in a generation where I am seeing perfectly healthy adults develop cancer in the prime of their lives (45 – 50) and wonder how much of this is caused by the environment and what we ingest. I try not to become judgmental as I watch a friend eat a can of pringles or drink a soda – I fear for their overall health as they put what I would call controllable items in their bodies. There is so much out there we cannot control, but maybe the premise “look both ways before you cross the street” applies to what we “choose” to ingest. If you do not recognize the ingredients – don’t eat it.

    • Hi Liz, obviously many of us have experienced the toddler-firecracker event. It wasn’t exactly science that put this in toddler hands, but science–and social conventions– that made it possible. I could not agree with your more about the precautionary principle. We can now say that the majority of current cancers are environmentally caused. Perhaps you could talk to your friend about your choices rather than critiquing hers–invite her to eat and tell her why the delicious food you serve is what it is. (Without a whole sermon, of course). Or take her to a local farmer’s market as an outing. I too have lost far too many friends from cancer–it seems that this generation is more afflicted than the elder one, which makes sense, since we middle agers have ingested more chemicals than they did. Makes me wonder about our kids– and the time to say, enough is enough.

  52. I feel the problem is people want to live right in the middle of the woods (nature) without consequence. People do need to pull their head out of the sand. This is why fire management is so difficult…how can we have controlled fires (like the Indians set with care) when there are homes here and there? The residents of these homes constantly are calling for fire suppression, allowing fuel ladders to grow out of control, which in turn creates stand replacing fires and in turn, burns homes to the ground. It’s not a matter of “if” the forest will burn fast and furious (out of control) as a result of fire suppression….it’s when?

    It’s difficult to have compassion when these people just don’t think logically! They have absolutely no respect for nature….but yet they want to live in it…and in my opinion that is not the same as being a part of it (the whole). Native American fire setting was done out of respect for the whole…they understood that if they were going to be a part of it…they had to take care of it, and that meant periodic fires for the benefit of nature.

    I would also imagine that Native Americans were smart enough to set up their villages in areas that were the least likely to be impacted in the event of stand replacing fires.

    • Actually, they carefully set fires to burn out brush to prevent stand replacing fires as well as to create habitat for diverse animal and plant species. We need balance and as you point out a holistic view here, Patrick. We can’t have nature and not have it–as another of your classmates commented in terms of development. We want our houses in elegant natural environments we destroy in order to build them there. Building in flood plains was another tact that native peoples avoided.

  53. After reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of how fire was a huge issue in much of eastern Oregon. When people think of Oregon, they think of rich green trees and a lot of rain. However there is a part of Oregon (where I grew up) that is very dry and gets very hot during this summers. Regulations had to be made that banned campfires. Which ment no delicious smores 😦 I agree with what is said that fire is not a good or bad thing; we just need to know how to handle them better not only for the safety of ourselves but the safety of our environment. Fire disasters have destroyed many homes and natural habitat and I feel as though precautions need to be made before lighting a match.

  54. If we started today applying the precautionary principle to all new technologies we would be safer in the long run. It would be an enormous feat to be able to do this on a massive scale. Our own country would be a start. But then to be able to work backwards and revisit the existing technology, we would be hard pressed to complete such a task. It will take small steps, and they are probably already being taken.
    Field burning in the valley here is an example of technology and ecology. The finest crop of annual rye grass can be had with a sterile field from burning. The released smoke has become an issue in the area and now rumors are heard that burning will be banned in the near future. This is likely a wise decision, as the smoke and harmful gasses release are not ecologically sound practice. Hopefully the farmers in the area are able to modify their practices and remain in an economical situation in the future.

    • I think you are right about the challenges as well as the promises of the precautionary principle, Ross. The interesting thing is that other countries (the EU) are doing it in some arenas–and if they can, we can. I think working out the bugs is far better than the alternative–and we can’t forget that it would take so much energy to put into effect precisely because we have done so poor a job of taking care of our future in this way so far– we have so many things to repair.
      Thoughtful point about field burning–one of the issues is the pesticides that are released into the air with the current burning. Interesting, some growers had already modified their practices– indeed, the vast majority of them don’t burn anymore–and they were in favor of the ban that gave special privileges to the few who had not modified their practices.

  55. This article, I feel, is important for all Americans to read. The importance of dealing with fire and introducing “safe” technologies (not all technologies) for all earthy beings is one of the key steps to halting and reversing the environmental crisis that plagues our modern society. We, as a society, need to clean up our act instead of halting or imposing on nature’s clean up acts as in the example of small wildfires. The Chehalis and other indigenous peoples understood the concept of letting nature fulfill its obligations while taking their own responsibility to support nature and sustain it. They realized that nature was wiser than themselves and knew what was best for her inhabitants. They learned that wisdom comes by observing the acts of nature, and not by imposing on its course. We should do the same.

    • I like the image of “nature’s clean up acts” here in small wildfires, Kristen. And of course, our behavior can give her more to clean up. Wisdom as learning from nature rather than imposing our will on it– I will go for that!

  56. For some reason the United States has reached a point where the idea of the latest and greatest is a sign of success. Unfortunately, like this article states, we are not taking the proper precaution to foresee that we aren’t creating larger issues for the future. I have a fear with all the plastics that we use I am sure that some of the carcinogens in plastics are leading to many of the cancers people have nowadays. Not to mention the pesticides and other chemicals that we breathe daily with no choice. Yes I believe that new ideas and innovations are interesting and sometimes helpful, but they need to be backed up by a clear long term care for the repercussions it will have on the future. Nobody wants their loved ones to suffer and letting this go on is condoning that scenario.

    • Hi Lorena. Your fear about plastics and cancers is actually part of current knowledge: you should never microwave in plastics, for instance, for the chemicals that leach into foods from this process mimic human hormones in a way that has been shown in the laboratory to “feed” estrogen dependent breast cancer.
      That is only one instance: many, many chemicals the EPA has itself certified as causing cancer are still on the market (see “Dandelion Wars” here). We need the precautionary principle, as you indicate. We also need the a different and wiser view of the “profits” of our own actions. Meanwhile, if you want to protect yourself a bit, see the links under “consumer info” here.

  57. This article brings up a very touchy point about peering into the future. Human knowledge of what our actions, in the present, might do to the future is hard to see. It often easy to speculate and make educated guesses about what the effects of technology and advancement might be when this advancement is based on cruel intentions like greed and the need for power. However, with a “frontier mentality” and good intentions, it is very hard to speculate what might become of ourselves and our land. All we can do as scientists and researchers is make sure our intentions are pure and make sure we consider the reciprocity of nature and the precautionary principle. Madronna Holden brings up a good example when she states that “fire is not good or bad in itself…in learning how to handle it, we must account for the cumulative and spreading effects of our actions” (Our Earth/Ourselves, Burning down the House, Madronna Holden).

    • Thanks for your comment, Shamon. Shows the importance of responsibility and care on the part of those who, like yourself, are working in the sciences. And you make a good point about the “frontier” mentality– that is up to all of us to change.

  58. Your example of wildfires is a very good analogy to look at how we should learn to use all the chemicals we are creating. If we are to implement them, it should be one at a time, in low doses so over time we could have learned that it causes such tragic results, now we are learning these by cancer and other illnesses. This is the same idea of letting small, contained fires burn so we don’t have to try and fight big fires.

    Now we are watching healthy people develop all kinds of cancer and other illnesses that cause incredible suffering, because of irresponsible and inadequate testing. We need to follow the precautionary principle that the E.U. has established so that we may hopefully find out which chemicals are harmful to us, so we don’t create another ordeal like asbestos. We now have our own stories about the use of chemicals, like the indigenous peoples had about the use of fires, hopefully we will remember them and abide by what they teach, instead of going for quick-fixes and monetary profit.

    • Excellent analogy here about learning what NOT to do with technology, Paul. The next rational step, of course, is to put that knowledge into action with the precautionary principle.

  59. The precautionary principle would be a great boon to the health of our society and its individuals if we implemented it. One major obstacle to this is the tendency to reduce reality to a duality. As the example with fire and controlled burns points out, the key is the balance and not that we should be too quick to conduct burns or neglect them all together. Furthermore, this is a lesson learned from indigenous cultures, but only after we saw the errs of our logically obvious methods did we accept it and implement it. We must be more cautious before ‘setting the world ablaze’ with every new technological advancement before thinking and waiting to see the greater effects.

    • Key point about the necessity of caution in preventing “setting the world ablaze” with any new technological fad, Michael. What you also indicate is the need for balance rather than an all or nothing attitude. Of course that also implies we should look at the complexity of each situation before we go applying what we think is a “magic bullet” to it.

  60. I think that we have a kind of love/hate relationship with fire. As long as it is contained in our fireplace or wood stove we love fire. When it jumps out of the boundaries we set for it, we hate it. Fire is one of those great examples of how technology can help us or harm us.

    We used to own 10 acres of land alongside a country highway. While we were gone to town to buy groceries, someone threw a cigarette butt out the window and our property caught on fire. Fortunately, a neighbor came by with his tractor and put the fire out before it reached our home. He left without saying a word or expecting anything in return. We were shocked when we returned home and saw the blackened earth. It took us 2 weeks to find out who had performed the good deed so we could thank him.

    It seems as if that sort of community caring is getting harder and harder to find in suburban life. Imagine what a different world we would live in if that returned.

    • Good thought, Julie, it seems that we have a “love-hate” relationship with many of the things in the natural world in this way: good as long as it stay in the boundaries we set for it or is useful, bad when it “disobeys” us.
      Great that you were able to trace down the neighbor who saved your house! This is a striking situation! And a bit of NIMBY, yes? We just treat that cigarette butt as if it doesn’t matter once it leaves our hands. And even if it isn’t smoking (my daughter and I put out two butts smoldering in the path mulch in the dry season by a local river), these butts are trash. Very dangerous to certain birds, for instance, who ingest them thinking they are food.

  61. I really dig the precautionary principle because I know I’ll be exercising it during my education. I choose to pursue an education in chemical engineering with a concentration on nanotechnology because I believe it has the capability to do great good in this world. However, I know its safety must be proven first. These particles are so small they can pass through membranes in biological systems that their macro-cousins cannot. While it may seem advantageous to quickly develop technologies on a nano-scale, there are grave implications if we do so without insuring the harmlessness in our environments. Currently, most of the money funneled into this prolific technology is spent on research, not on testing its toxicity.

  62. I definitely agree that we often miss use our power for our own (short-term) benefit rather than the long-term benefit of all. One aspect of our society which we haven’t discusses is our ability to use our power to speed up natural processes. We seem to lack patience and want everything faster. We don’t wait to see what the results or consequences of our actions will be before we go “full steam ahead” to the next best thing. We don’t take time to reflect and learn from our past actions or acknowledge that they could come back to haunt us in the future. British Columbia is currently facing a huge ‘natural disaster’ due to climate change: the pine beetle. Which as Al Gore in An Incontinent Truth points out is also happening elsewhere. However the situation (which is basically human caused as climate change is human induced) was made worse by past forest practices. First the settlers’ ‘slash and burn’ techniques (used to settle or develop the land) made the ideal habitat for lodgepole pine, which is an early successional species (the first to re-establish after a fire). However, the fire suppression policies practiced later by the forest service limited the forest from completing its natural cycle of succession (described by Bruce Miller) thus creating a monoculture of even-aged lodgepole pine stands which are now all susceptible to the mountain pine beetle. We seem to have created our own catastrophe by not allowing nature to develop into a healthy mosaic of diverse forest stands. We did not listen to nature or mimic it behaviour as our current forest fire policies do.

    • Great point about our “instant” focus as opposed to the time and patience it might take us to understand the results of what we are doing, Chess. Ironically, at the same time that we are telling ourselves that such speed makes more convenience and leisure we spend more time on commuting (the more lanes added to a freeway, the more traffic is encouraged and the slower the cars move), for instance– or take our example of encouraging fast growing plantation forests. We’ve got wood, but as any carpenter will tell you, it is nothing like the wood we were using two decades ago. It is loose grained and makes the lumber fairly week and susceptible to rot (thus more chems to preserve it). And we hardly have the best use in mind with such speed–as we were at one point (not sure if still are) use old growth wood to grind into toilet paper because there was a market. Now there is recycled toilet paper available unbleached with chlorine– the latter is very important since chlorine based plastics, pesticides and refrigerants are responsible for some of the worst damage to our environment and health. They create pseudo-estrogens in the human body–and ozone holes in the sky, for instance. The mentality of faster– if it means simply grabbing what comes to hand– is certainly not better. You might be familiar with the “slow food” movement– to counter the “fast food” approach.

  63. Starting out stating that those who have the power to heal also have the power to kill begins on a very strong point and leads to an interesting topic. Like most things, we have the power to use a resource but we don’t quite know how to limit ourselves and our actions. We make irrational decisions sometimes without thinking about the complete circumstances that surround the situation. It’s obvious we need fire in certain situations but with the amount of building and resources we use we find ourselves in interesting situations. The idea of us needing to know how to handle fires is just like anything else, and we just can’t quite figure out what’d good and what’s not for us. I heard that a machine is in the process of being built that would control the ocean and help prevent disasters like katrina, but how far will we take an innovation like that? We continue to grow as a species and while our limits seem unimaginable and exciting it’s also scary to think of what we could be controlling in the future, and if it would be the correct thing to be doing.

    • Our ingenuity is remarkable, Trevor–and as you indicate it can be both exciting and very scary. Wouldn’t you think we might put some of that ingenuity into learning about OURSELVES and ways of life that do not do violence to human and more than human life forms? Surely we need more understanding of any natural system before we go trying to control it– or change it. But that might slow down our profit… or our sense of exploration. I think we need to recast our ideas of challenge and discovery and invention– in “toys” if we must– but ones that don’t devastate the systems upon which we all depend for survival.

  64. It is unfortunate that the quest for scientific discovery and the advancement of technology can have such devastating consequences. It seems that the scientific world would have already adopted the precautionary principle after so many tragic fires, broken dams, and so on that have caused such harm. We may have been fortunate that more harm hasn’t been done, and I wonder what will have to happen before such a principle is finally adopted. In the medical field, doctors learn to do no harm- that is, if the risks of a procedure outweigh the potential benefits, the procedure should not be performed. At least.. this is the impression I was under. The fact that the third leading cause of death is undergoing medical procedures is actually very surprising to me, and I definitely believe that the precautionary principle should be applied to all medical procedures. If scientists on the cutting edge of technology teamed with native elders who knows what could be accomplished.. maybe a 4th of July with considerably less accidental fires.

    • Hi Karen, wouldn’t you think the precautionary principle would already be in practice, indeed! The problem is that risk-benefit analysis is classically done in terms of profit (how much does it cost versus how much will it earn)– and as pointed out in another essay on this site, such analysis has even priced human life in the past (how much is a human life worth versus how much profit to be made). Check out “pricing the priceless” here.
      The precautionary principle takes into account the things we cannot (or do not wish) to price and sets out to protect them.
      I totally concur that we need this in place wherever we can get it there.
      Thanks for your comment.

  65. Maybe it is a lost meaning in life that makes one act reckless with something so precious as the Earth. Or maybe it is arrogance that makes one think that they can control the elements in order to get what they want from them. Without proper respect and honor, whatever element is “controlled” by man will backfire with vengence, for their is no greater disrespect than to shackle that which sustains us. Which is what is going on now with the “natural disasters” that are the result of this harness that has been put on MotherEarth. It saddens me deeply that all the wisdom that the indigenous ones had about how to flow with the natural world in order to obtain that which is needed to survive, is being lost. How awful it must have felt (and still, today) to watch the land one’s people have cared for be molested and mistreated by strangers. Well, the Mother is definitely speaking up and it would be wise for us all to pay attention.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jessica. I think you have perceptive points in both the lack of meaning and arrogance that drives many humans to try to control nature. “Shackling that which sustains us” is appropriate wording for a quality of of disrespect that also implies ignorance of those same sources. As you indicate, we cannot continue ignorance of the sources that sustain us without consequences of the type we are currently see– climate change prominent among them.
      I agree with you that this is a time in which we cannot pay too much attention.

  66. Your comment about “. . . asking an entrepreneur to pause in getting a designer chemical to market is an unpatriotic as throwing a damper on a firecracker on the Fourth of July,” made me stop and think. How wrong is it for those who stop and think, and care about the future to be thought of as unpatriotic? If we get in the way of the market place then are we treasonous? I think that looking beyond our own lifetime or the next dollar to be made should be rewarded and celebrated. It is another example of how far away we are from taking care of ourselves and each other. It reminds me of President Bush’s comment after 9/11 and the death of so many Americans. He told the American people to shop. Is shopping all we can do to be patriotic these days?

    • Great point, Christina. Great point about shopping. It seems that in the context of the environmental issues around consumerism, it is better NOT to be shopping. But that isn’t something we are critically assessing as a nation– as indicated by the fact that our “economic indicators” include shopping– so that if we are shopping less, the “indicators” are negative and thus the stock market falls. We obviously need to cultivate a different consciousness.

  67. I was born and raised in southern California where wildfires are a yearly occurrence. Instead of snow days off of school in high school, we had “disaster days” because of fire danger. The worst fire that I ever experienced was the Paradise fire of 2003. This was a large wildfire in San Diego that burned 57,000 acres. It started in Valley Center, the location of my family’s home. It destroyed 176 residences, 192 outbuildings, 75 vehicles, and killed two civilians in addition to injuring many other civilians and firefighters. We lost our shed, but were able to control the fire near our home before we were evacuated, not knowing what was going to happen. For this reason, the consequences of fire are very real to me. I agree completely with this article in that most fires really aren’t “natural disasters” even though we label them as such. The paradise fire disaster was not a natural disaster. An unknown individual started the fire, and it was made worse by Santa Ana winds. The fire was truly a tragedy, but was due to human error and carelessness. Starting a fire is something that needs to be well regulated and handled with care; otherwise, as in this case, the consequences are fatal.

    • Thanks for this response, Bree– and the example of a fire that should not have been labeled a natural disaster. This must have been pretty horrifying to experience. I think the other thing to observe is that climate change is going to make such fires more frequent, because of drying conditions, increasing wind speeds, and more thunderstorm with lightning strikes.
      Time to change our behavior to address climate change both on an individual and on a group level.

  68. This article probably brought home a different perspective than any other, so far. The reason is simple: how often have we unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings because of something we said either in an off-handed manner or in a tone we didn’t really mean? Especially children are more sensitive to tones and phrases than some adults. The slight, whether intentional or not, still exists and it can’t be taken back. We can only learn to watch what and how we say things. But who knows how that “little moment” will affect that child/person?
    This is the same idea of this article. With technology or tools, comes responsibility. We have to take the responsibility seriously and pay attention to how it affects everyone and everything. Without the responsibility or putting the responsibility on someone else, we fail so many areas (global warming ring a bell?).

    • Thoughtful analogy here, Christy. We cannot indeed “take back” most technology– and certainly we cannot repair destructive effects with some sort of “magic bullet”. This is a good argument for the precautionary principle: thanks for proposing it.

  69. My heart jumped into my throat when I read about the father handing his toddler a bottle rocket. Things like this make me glad that bottle rockets are illegal in most parts of Oregon. I spend most of my summers in Texas visiting relatives. The people in Texas have learned the hard way not to play with fire. In the cities fireworks are outlawed on the fourth of july. You’re only allowed to have sparklers (and I’m not even sure that anymore) due to the extremely dry grass. Where as here in Oregon, we’re allowed to do a lot more then they are with bunches of fireworks on the 4th of July.

    Yet it makes me wonder how many forest fires in the PNW were deemed “natural disasters” but were actually man made? In 2010, Linn County (and maybe all of Oregon?) made it illegal for farmers to field burn because it pollutes the atmosphere. Farmers are losing yet another valuable tool. But we are still allowed to be careless with fireworks, cigarettes, etc and cause massive fires – that get slapped with a “natural disaster” label and forgotten about later. If people would just be more careful, and accountable – then maybe fire wouldn’t be such a deadly thing (especially at thanksgiving time when people are trying to deep fry their turkeys!!)

  70. This article reminded me of a saying. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It seems much easier, better for our environment, and cost effective to make sure we don’t pollute than to have to clean up pollution later. Wouldn’t it also hold that it would be much easier, better for our environment, and cost effective to make sure that we only have fires when they are needed and to make sure they don’t get out of control, instead of trying to keep them contained or put them out when they do get out of control due to human error?

    • Indeed, prevention is worth a good deal–especially as we gain more and more ability to effect our environment. You have put forth a succinct argument for the use of the precautionary principle, Jennifer.

  71. This article reminded me of a conversation I had with a coworker today. There was a leak in the ceiling of a room in the building, and someone had come in to report it. We called facility services, and notified them of the problem, and what they told us shocked me. They said that they knew the building had plumbing problems, and that leaks in the pipes was inevitable.

    So much of our society operates on the old idea “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Never mind that it could be doing irreparable damage to, in this example, the frame or foundation of the building. But this mentality is the cornerstone of western culture. Not to say that everyone is lazy or anything like that, but there is a general trend to just do things the way we want to do them until they hurt something badly enough that we all take notice. For example, the crisis that is global warming could have been averted decades ago, but it was more convenient for us to continue using our fossil fuels and environmentally harmful business practices. It’s only now that this problem is so severe that we actually are wanting to do something about it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah. I think. like all folk sayings, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, depends on its context for its legitimacy. We don’t, for instance, need to “fix” particular natural processes in the human body– see the examples of disease “creation” by pharmaceutical interests in the essay on “side effects” on this site. Another prime example is hormone replacement therapy for menopause– which does not need to be “fixed”–and the chemical “fix” has resulted in numerous breast cancer cases. HRT needs to carefully evaluated– it is important in some instances, but not to “fix” a natural process in itself.
      It is of course an entirely different matter, as you point out, to avoid looking at something that we do need to change/repair. The leak, to use your analogy, doesn’t disappear; it just keeps gnawing away at the structure of things until we are forced to face what becomes a very large job to fix indeed. Thus the importance of the precautionary principle in avoiding environmental contaminants.

  72. I was in Southern Colorado Springs this summer and witnessed a wildfire in a back mountain right behind a family member’s house. The first thing I thought about was the wildlife when I screamed “OMG, FIRE!” before running to the phone and calling 911. Thankfully it had already been reported and we watched over the next hour as the billowing smoke decreased to a small streamline from the trees.
    This story comes to mind because that fire, which actually ended up killing a few of the wildlife animals living up in the mountain, was started by a group of campers who’d left their campfire (during the daytime) to go get more alcohol during a weekend camping trip. I was outraged when I heard the whole story. Not to mention the home I was visiting was in a scarcely populated residential valley below the mountain, so every home would have been in direct danger had the fire travelled south, with no way of getting help.
    People’s recklessness with fires is so disheartening because, not only is it dangerous to those who start them, it’s dangerous to the environment, the homes around them, and those who have to put the fires out. This article just reminded me of that incident.

    • Thanks for sharing this story with us, Randa. Unfortunately, this carelessness with fire is coincident with so many other ways that many members of modern society are careless with our environment. I am glad this incident did not turn into a more destructive case. And I find it interesting that we call it a “wildfire” as if the “wild” had anything to do with it.

  73. We live in a market driven society which dictates what is fair or safe for us. Unfortunately this means what ever is cheapest. Therefore if a pharmaceutical company says waiting for safety approval will cost the lives of thousands who have cancer (when in reality the time loss and safety costs are what the companies are trying to avoid), people line up in protest. Then 6 months later when tens of thousands die because the drug was never safe in the first place, it is swept under the rug as external costs, the company pays out a minimal cash settlement and goes to the bank with their billions. The CATO institute pays for think tank specialists who wriggle their way through the precautionary principle making it look as unpatriotic as possible, enough for any American to want to burn it. I did a paper once where I found the CATO Institute director boasting about how Chlorine bleach has saved millions of lives from deadly bacterias and now environmentalists are trying to say it is not safe “How dare they”! As professor Holden has said in other essays, there really are better alternatives than bleach, but they are more expensive. The precautionary principle would have weeded that out if it were allowed to be applied. Many US citizens don’t have a clue. They are given or fed information that is one sided, that side is always the market side. Another good example is toilet paper. Toilet paper manufactured by the big TP industries like Scott, Kimberly Clark, and others use virgin trees usually from the Boreal forests in Canada. All are bleached where the deadliest toxins are then spilled into our waterways and landscapes. Seventh Generation (a link in Dr. Holden’s webpage) manufactures toilet paper that is from wood and paper waste and not bleached but cleaned with Hydrogen Peroxide which breaks down fast and into water and hydrogen which is natural in our environment. When Seventh Generation first came out, they were seen on all of the grocery store shelves. Now? nowhere. Why? Because Kimberly Clark and Scott are very powerful. I asked several grocery store managers why the toilet paper isles do not carry environmentally safe toilet paper anymore and all of them said they couldn’t keep them on the shelves. This was misleading information because months later a NEW brand of “green toilet paper” was filling the shelves, a generic brand for $4 more than Seventh Generation and guess who the manufacturers are of this new brand of more expensive environmentally safe toilet paper? Scott!
    There will be a presentation on Indigenous knowledge on natural and prescribed fire on November 24th (which is a Tuesday) done in collaboration with the Native American Longhouse at OSU and the College of forestry, held at the COF cabin. There will be a pot luck of Indigenous food served FREE and a blessing and healing by an elder so that environmentalists, sustainability specialists, the timber specialists and Native Americans can come together in peace to learn from those who came before us about sustainable ways to live with our forests. We have indigenous speakers who specialize in prescribed fire knowledge. In the spirit of sustainability there will be vans to carpool those interested to the cabin and back to campus at the Longhouse. All are welcome to come, if you have any questions please email me at goodnesv@onid.orst.edu
    Wa-do
    in peace
    Val Goodness

    • Thanks for your personal passion as well as your thought here, Val. I wanted to add a response to your theme of much in our society being “market driven”. We do not have a “free” market, that is, a democratic market in which all can “vote their preference” with their purchases, since some can spend a great deal and some nothing at all. And our preferences are not “free” but manipulated– as the interview with the executive points out. Those that have economic power in this system are situated so as to accumulate more.
      I am adding your invitation to the event on indigenous knowledge to the end of the post I just put up today on domestication. Seems to fit right in.

  74. The story of the first Scotsman who arrived on the Olympic Peninsula and how the native people thought his head was on fire reminds me of The Grandmothers who speak of an ancient Hopi prophecy in which the creator gave each of the four races an assigned task that would ensure that the world was kept in sacred order, and the white peoples were given the “knowledge of fire, which creates, consumes, and moves.” We are definitely good at the consuming part but we still haven’t found the balance, or wisdom of how to use fire constructively because, like you said in the article, fire is neither good nor bad. Everything has the potential to become destructive or creative, it all depends on the intention of the user, or the lack there of. It seems that it is the way of America that one should have access to everything, that everything is a right because we are “free”, when in fact many things, like fire and medicine, require a certain communal responsibility and wisdom when handling.

    • The comparison with the Hopi story is an apt one, Jessica. Our ability to “make fire” is neither good or nor bad, but needs wisdom and balance to be put into affect in an ethical fashion. Thoughtful comment!

  75. I agree that we need to see the whole picture of technology before we either place it on the market or use it. I think that profit is the main drive behind much of what is made today when it comes to fuel, drugs, or products. And with such pushing, we forget to see that some of the new problems are caused by the new products.

    As for natural disasters, I agree that when you build below a lake level, sea level or on the hill that when nature visits is not her fault but those who tried to tame her.

  76. “With great power, comes great responsibility” (I think that’s off of Spiderman) It’ s so true. We need to be more careful with the things that we create and the adverse effects the could eventually have on us. I like the part when you said “We forget that what seems adventurous or profitable in the moment might eventually burn down our neighbor’s house-or give our children cancer.” That’s the main problem that we keep coming to over and over again. America has become too accustomed to living in the moment and doing what feels right, right then. We need to become more future minded. I think there is a balance there as well, we can’t only be thinking about the future all the time, then we would miss there here and now, but if we never think of the future, we’ll probably screw it up. This is a very interesting topic and I think there is a lot of validity in it that we really do need to be aware of the power to cause harm that so many of our new technologies and inventions have. We need to know our own strength.

  77. I can appreciate the philosophy behind the precautionary principle – if there is not enough scientific data to predict the likelihood of harm occurring then the burden of proof is on those who seek to introduce a new technology to prove that the proposed technology will not cause harm. This principle sounds so straightforward and filled with common sense that it’s a wonder that it has not been wildly implemented earlier. I completely agree with the Chehalis belief that the more (technological) power one posses the more potential for destruction they likewise possess. Two hundred years ago technology was at a level which made it difficult if not impossible to do serious long lasting damage to the environment. Such is not the case today. Today there are more chemicals, compounds, drugs and technologies than ever before. A seemingly beneficial technology such as the pesticide DDT or the antiemetic drug Thalidomide is introduced and it is not until years later that the disastrous results are seen.

    • Thanks for your comment on the precautionary principle, Jeff. Seems straightforward to me–and to the European Union and the city of San Francisco as well.
      Actually, humans have always had the capacity for harm: indigenous peoples had the capacity to fish out the salmon runs throusands of years before emigrants appeared. That they didn’t was the result of their view that humans stand in partnership with the natural world–and had no right to take so much that the salmon they revered would not be sustained. I think it is essentiial to understand that such choices were being made–they model much for us today.
      That is, we ought to be able to make such responsible choices again. Our technology IS also more toxic. I see no excuse whatsoever for 84000 untested new chemicals to be released into the environment.

  78. Trust is a very funny thing. This passage reminded me of some of my family members. They are scared to death to touch the shopping carts because they worry of all of the germs. Yes, at the same time they never flinch when they think about the food and medical technologies they seek. I can’t help but escape the realm of food. This passage immediately brings up the issue in my head of European food standards versus those of Americans. I do believes that we hold the power to vote every time we spend money on food, but I am afraid that the majority of Americans simply place too much trust into the food they consume. To the contrary, Europeans seemingly have zero tolerance, as is stated above. It is puzzling to me that we do not demand more data in order to trust.

    Fire has also been a subject matter that I, admittedly, have left…well… I guess neglected in a sense. I am no stranger to the danger fire poses, but I do find it as a necessary amenity. Also, I do camp a lot and my parents have a fire pit in which many of my most favorite memories are constituted of eating smores and being around a fire. I think it is important to always keep in mind that although we have a valuable resource, we mustn’t take advantage of it. Once again, we have another opportunity to partake in a mutually beneficial relationship with nature.

    Thanks Professor Holden!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response, Dana. It says somehow about our worldview and consumer knowledge that we are worried about all the germs we might encounter–but not the toxic chemicals.
      Balance is the key here: if you respect fire, that is what counts. After all, many indigenous peoples used fire to sustain their landscapes, not to mention, cook their food. Fire is an ancient human technology that we also need to use with care.
      The key is, as you say, a mutually beneficial relationship between ourselves and the natural world– as also with ourselves and other humans.

  79. The two things I really thought about when I read this was on language and caution. Americans are so gun-hoe about our new technology and “advances”, in my opinion, because of greed. If I remember correctly from a public health class, the U.S. is one of the most swift in passing the “OK” for new pharmaceuticals placed on the market for our use. Other countries have more rigid testing standards. This scares me! There is no caution and no wisdom here. When our eyes are focused so much on looking forward, we never take the time to look at the mistakes of the past nor those who have shown great wisdom and successes. It’s like the barrier they put on the side of horses eyes.

    Language is so important. I couldn’t help but think of the labeling of foods as one example. Lets call a spade a spade. Words are used to manipulate too many times. I see this in the “natural disaster” comment (then humans can absolve themselves), “friendly fire”, and “war on terror”, just for a few examples. It makes me feel as if our industries, our organizations, and government feel we’re not capable of hearing the truth and not capable of having the wisdom to be positive entities for change.

    • Great perspective, Shawna: it IS scary to be part of a country with so much technological power and so little use of the past for learning the wisdom that would teach us not to repeat our mistakes.
      I like your point about truth in language! It sounds like you and many of those commenting on this site and sharing your class with you are capable of hearing the truth an gaining the wisdom to change from it.

  80. After experiencing a medical procedure just this past December, one of the facts that continued to creep into my thoughts was what this article pointed out, “the third leading cause of death in the US today, after cancer and heart disease, is undergoing a medical procedure.” A frightening thought indeed!

    Even though technology has brought us many things to improve our lives, it has also brought us to the point of destroying our health and environment. It seems that common sense no longer prevails. As this article points out, all human innovations need to be proved harmless before they are allowed to be put into place. And if something appears harmless, but at some point proves otherwise, we need to be quicker to act upon getting the item off the market and widely publicize the consequences; something that doesn’t appear to be happening currently.

    I have a friend who is a firefighter. He has explained the same situation as the inter-tribal groups about how the underbrush needs to be cleared. The indigenous people had ten thousand years to understand this concept and, some but not all, people understand it today. Unfortunately trying to “manage” our forests has actually caused many fires to go out of control and threaten wildlife, homes, our environment and our health. We learned some difficult lessons through this with the Tillamook burn in the 1960’s, Yellowstone in the 1990’s and several other fires that were mentioned in this article. Most of the fires have been started by humans taking advantage of fire and the land, rather than seeing the benefits of fire and what it has to offer. It is interesting to learn that most of the out of control fires are actually started by humans being irresponsible. A careful plan incorporating the indigenous people’s philosophy would serve us well.

    • Indeed, Marla, I appreciate the balance in this comment– which we should exercise in our technological choices. Seems there is too much of many things that have much going for them in moderation.

  81. I’m not so sure I would allow my toddler to handle any sorts of fireworks. I don’t even want him to handle it as a teenager!! Fireworks make me nervous, I just have this fear one is going to be too close and it will hit the house or if we’re out, it might hit one of us. Not liking fireworks at all except for professional use. I love them from a distance but that’s about it. It just doesn’t seem like people are really responsible enough to handle them, but that’s just me.

    • I don’t think I would allow any toddler to handle fireworks if I get to choose this either, Judilyn. And I agree that it doesn’t seem like some adults handle them very responsibly. And if they don’t handle fireworks responsibly, how about some of our technology?

  82. I was astonished to hear that the third leading cause of death is a medical procedure. The more I gave it thought the more disturbed I became about how much trust we put into things that we know very little about.

    On the topic of fire, I recently took a class that discussed the benefits of fire and previous practices that incorporated fire. With icons such as smokey the bear, we are made to believe that forest fires are bad, when in actuality there are many benefits to fires. Fires are a natural process, and the indigenous people learned how to utilize it to benefit the land as well as themselves.

    • I think the issue your comment points to, Dana, is the problem with our all or nothing, dualistic worldview. Either fire is bad or good: either we should do everything we are capable of or not use technology at all. Judgement, balance and responsibility are the key things I think we need to recover as we evaluate our human power.

  83. Flooding caused by deforestation and faulty dams are not completely “natural disasters,” but largely due to human activities. Devastating forest fires are of the same nature. When we stifle small, natural fires, and light them by individuals, we are also to blame for their overwhelming destruction.

    Hindering the “entrepreneurial,” frontier mentality by taking caution and responsibility for our technology is sometimes criticized by the conservative right. However, personal responsibility is a top value of republicans in this country. If we can reach this group bearing the message of responsibility, maybe we can gain further support in protecting and living in harmony with our environment.

    • Nice point, Morgan. We need to understand the values we share: if responsibility is one, I think care for the next generation is another. The problem is folks like Sarah Palin (recently paid 100,000 for a speech at the “tea party convention”) and Fox tv and conservative commentators who “spin” the information to make it seem like there are no enviromental issues to deal with–and so responsibility for our actions is not a real issue. I think it is essential that we get scientific information out there.

  84. Although I don’t remember the exact term “precautionary principle” being used, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” used this as a major theme in regards to the rapid creation and widespread distribution of pesticides and herbicides. She understood the interdependence of biosystems and the irreversibility of some toxic chemicals. As Holden says ” we must account for the cumulative and spreading effects of our actions.” I particularly liked Holden’s point about testing the health effects of the chemicals that we are already using before adding to our toxic load with new chemicals.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Taylor. Though Rachel Carson did not use the term (it actually came into currency after her death), she did point out situations in which the effects of toxics did not show up for two of three generations after their use– which would certainly seem to call for precaution if we care about our children and grandchildren.

  85. The supplement and herbal remedies market is huge. None of it is FDA approved. The companies are responsible for making their own case studies and are only held to a few laws requiring them to list “Supplement Facts” on the bottle. A lot of people don’t know that and when I tell them they don’t believe me. I’ve had a lot of people respond with, “They wouldn’t sell it if it wasn’t safe.” I think that is the general consensus of most people. Most people assume that others are honest and are not trying to profit from loosely regulated products.

    • Wouldn’t it be great if our regulatory agencies lived up to such trust? But of course that would not alleviate our responsibility to think for ourselves.

      • I often wonder if the average person thinks they need to take responsibility. Some people act helpless in that avenue. Why should they if they assume someone is doing it for them? We’ve developed quite a lazy sugar-coat it for us lot.

  86. I often think of the human race as being in it’s teenage stage. In the big picture of the universe, human beings have only existed for a fraction of time. In the early days of humans, when life was a bit more ethereal, perhaps, and things didn’t move quite as fast, we were in our womb phase. We were one with the world around us and trusted in reciprocity and partnerships, even if we were unconscious of it. Slowly, as we began to “awaken”, language was created and thoughts began to change. At some point we began to think that we are separate from the earth and we were birthed into a new awakening and started stumbling along, exploring, pushing limits, seeing what we could do.

    Now, in the teenage phase, we are rebellious, we don’t want to listen to reason, we reject many things that are good for us, we are moody and angry and selfish. We think we know it all, however, we don’t want responsibility and it’s very difficult to hold us accountable for our actions. We are reckless: With fire, with nature, with water, with everything that sustains us. We are reckless and to top it off we are blinded to the steady hand that tries to guide us through this transition — the earth, our mother. Perhaps the earth is holding it’s breath like many mothers do when waiting to see if their teenagers will ultimately fall on their feet?

    • Delightful and pointed analogy, Dazzia. I do hope we mature as a species before we wreck much more– including our own chances for a future. We are very young on the planet indeed.

  87. This made me think of the slash-and-burn method of farming that was used up until recently in the sugar cane plantations of my native Trinidad. Again, only the short-trm benefits were analyzed for a long time. It was only later discovered to be detrimental to the health of the soil itself, and to be disastrous in the long-term when considering using those same fields for other crops besides sugar cane. If more emphasis is placed on sustainability and less on immediate provisions of wealth, progress can mean much more.

    • Indeed, Hannah. We do both our environment and ourselves a favor when we look to the long term instead of short term profits. Thanks for sharing stories of your native Trinidad to widen our perspective here.

  88. This article got me thinking about why we don’t use fire as we should. It’s kind of weird how the western world disregards fire and sees it as a bad thing yet we use a lot of other things that destroy our planet. Maybe it’s because when fire destroys our homes we see the quick destruction it causes, so we believe it’s a bad thing. If we only knew how good of a tool it was for agriculture and sustaining fertile land than maybe we wouldn’t look at it so negative. It also proves that our focus is only on short term affects which is maybe why we are having a hard time achieving sustainability and also why we carelessly pollute the environment with our technology.

    • Good thoughts, Dylan. Fitting fire to place is an important consideration. Small burns to prevent larger burns is something the forest service is currently doing. Field burning in the populous Willamette Valley, in the context of a deteriorated airshed and the pesticides that go up into the air with the smoke, as well as the fact that most farmers are able to successfully avoid the use of burning, is a very different issue. Thanks for your comment.

  89. I would have guessed many different kinds of illnesses but never would have guessed that having a medical procedure would be the third leading cause of death. But not that you think about it, it really isn’t that surprising. You often hear about drugs that we have on the market that are suddenly pulled off the market after a few years due to some fatal side affect. And then if you read the small print on a lot of the drugs that we do take, there are sometimes some dire side affects. For instance you take a drug thats for high blood pressure and one of the risks are heart attack. Or you take a drug for a headache and one of the risk factors is comma. At least it will cure what you’re taking it for. Our frontier mentality, being the first to cure this or that, is causing many people their lives.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Mildred. The interesting thing about this stat is that so many “side effect” deaths go unreported as such– when, for instance, a woman dies of a stroke, for instance, the doctor likely does not note that she was taking a type of estrogen replacement pill associated with strokes for the last three decades. What I find hopeful is that there is more attention to environmentally-caused illness, which has largely been below the radar of most doctors until very recently.

  90. I agree that the consistantly implementing the precautionary principle would greatly benefit our society. We’ve devolped a “shoot first, ask questions later” methodology for solving any problem here in the U.S. Accurate, honest risk assessment should be a starting point before beginning any new process or solution.
    The perspective on “natural” disasters was interesting. I had not considered how often we throw this term around to cover anything that causes destruction by means of nature, not just to destruction caused directly by nature with no outside influence. It’s ironic that we have spent centuries manipulating nature and attempting to reign it in for a more comfortable life (i.e. damming a river to live in a naturally occurring floodplain), yet we want to hold nature responsible when our world comes crashing down. This ties directly into the precautionary principle. Had the developers of these communities had some foresight, perhaps they would have considered building outside the floodplain instead of charging in.

    • I like your take on the “frontier” gunslinger technology (“shoot first and ask questions later”), Clayton. I like the idea of charging developers for an insurance bond that keeps them around and responsible for the effects of their handiwork– rather than leaving it for communities to clean up.
      The precautionary principle certainly goes hand in hand with the recognition of reciprocity: I can’t imagine how we can marshal a rational argument against taking a closer look at the repercussions of our actions.

  91. The key statement to this whole essay is “responsibility is the first step in taking care of both ourselves and our environment.” As our essay states, we don’t have the luxury of seeing what happens to our environment based on our actions now. Our lives are poised in the now. We seldom have a concern of the future. This is the same way of thinking that the settlers and even the earlier Euro Americans had for the natural resources of the West. They thought the resources were never ending. But, as we see now, their actions have caused the expiration of many species. As far as fire, the use of suppressing fires has to be stopped. The damage that this does to the environment is not invisible. All people need to do is to look towards the way the Native Americans used fire, and then look at fire suppression, and see what way works best. If we just open our eyes, we can give the environment the tools that it needs to reestablish itself. If we continue the course we are on, we are dooming ourselves and the future generations.

    • Thanks for your comment, Scott–and for joining those who assume the responsibility you refer to here– the first step of that is conscious assessment of the effects of our actions–and humility when we don’t know those consequences. You indicate the problems, as well, with an “all or nothing” approach to the complexities of our choices such as burning or inhibiting burning.

  92. This article covered so many issues I don’t know where to start. I was shocked to learn that the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S. is medical procedures. I am SO glad I didn’t read this three weeks ago, before I went in for my procedure! I can’t help but be curious, if the European Union has already passed a precautionary legislation, why haven’t we? We are usually ahead of the rest of the world in everything except trying to save our home, the earth. That just doesn’t make any sense at all. Am I the only one that finds this very contradictory and confusing?

    I was also shocked at the percentage of devastating forest fires that are set by HUMANS. I remember the one here in Colorado that was set by the forest ranger who was burning a letter from her ex and the wind was blowing so hard that even though she lit it in a fire pit the sparks set one of the largest fires we have ever had.

    I thought the story of the bluejay was really cool. Those are the kind of stories that need to be preserved for our future generations. They need to include the concept of safe controlled fires to help prevent the more dangerous ones. I think it is great, if not a little late, that the forest service has changed their policy to encourage controlled burns.

    I also don’t understand the concept of putting a product on the market to find out the acceptable damage rather than testing products till they have an acceptable degree of safety. That is why mother’s are more afraid of feeding their babies naturally. With all the chemicals being produced each year and only a dozen or two being pulled off after being proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be harmful, it’s starting to scare me into reading ALL my product labels which I’d never felt the need to do before. This article has been very eye opening for me!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Cendi. I agree with you that we need more stories of this kind: I just reread my notes on Nina Baumgartner’s telling of this–and she emphasized the preciousness of water in the same manner as did Grandma Aggie in the last post on this site. We could certainly follow the ethical lead of such elders.
      Putting a product on the market without checking for its dangers is obviously motivated by profit before people–and too often make humans the subjects of an “experiment” with these new products or chemicals.
      Of course, there are some medical procedures that are more dangerous than others. I wouldn’t warn folks off of all them–but I do think the medical profession could take a bit more care and in some cases, be more cautious about invasive procedures. I am glad yours went well.

  93. I think that a very important concept that humanity as a whole needs to embrace is that you have to be responsible for your actions! The smallest mistake in the right situation can lead to big time trouble. As far as working with potentially dangerous substances such as chemicals, producers and people who handle them should understand the negative consequences, present and future. Accidents happen but accidents can become disasters really quick. An example would be the oil spill in the Gulf right now. That has the potential to be a huge disaster. People should understand that their actions have consequences, sometimes huge consequences. Fire is another force that demands great respect. Your examples of forest fires should provide enough examples.

  94. The idea of not calling disasters involving fire and water “natural disasters” is a great one.

    Put the responsibility on those who it belongs to. Believing in our artificial solutions for the ravages of the natural world is foolish. We should never allow ourselves to think that we are 100% safe just because of some dam or fire preventative procedures.

    If a dam or a levee breaks, it is either because of a design flaw or the gross misunderstanding of the natural powers that will be acting upon it. These are human errors and therefore Humanity’s disasters.

    We need to focus on improving infrastructure in the areas that can be considered “dangerous” Stopping nature’s forces is unrealistic, but utilizing her very strengths to allow us to coexist is a plausible way for us to continue along our path.

  95. The thing to really pay attention to is the amount of people that you have to get on board with the precautionary principle. The millions of companies who pay more attention to the bottom line of their ledgers, then even considering the effects that their products are having on others.

    I lived in Houston during the hurricane that hit New Orleans, drove past the Astrodome every day for work, where thousands of refugees were held. Heard the horror stories like every one else did of that tragedy.

    But some simple questions hounded me, questions I still wonder about to this day. Like why would anyone with a thought in their brain, live in a spot, that sat below sea level, on the Gulf Coast, the same coast prone to tropical storms and hurricanes every year? The old French Quarter, built on higher land, still flooded but not to the point that the other sections did.

    It is rather easy to blame the levies, blame the hurricane, blame the Army engineers who created them, blamed everyone else, but yet no one held each other accountable for living in a spot, that in a disaster was going to be the worst place to be. The precautionary principle should have been applied here as well, with those building the houses, those selling the houses and those choosing to live there. If such dangerous risks can come about such a decision, is it smart to even start construction on a housing development in land lower then sea level, right next to a violent coast?

    And should these people be held accountable for future disasters if they chose to move back, having already experienced the consequences previously?

    • Thought-provoking points that support the idea of the importance of the precautionary principle: the EU is now joined by the President’s cancer panel in the report they just came out with. Certainly an idea whose time has come.

  96. Obviously the Precautionary Principle has gone the way of the Chehalis, so to speak, in modern Capitalism. I am dumbfounded to see during the same commercial break, advertisements for a tort lawsuit involving the latest birth control pill which has hit the market (which seems to be at least 4 per year) for causing side effects including DEATH, while also seeing an advertisement for the very same pill by the pharmaceutical company. We clearly are run by money in this society and seemingly little else. We would do ourselves a great benefit if we began to critically think about our way of life.

    • Actually, the precautionary principle is gaining some ground as we get into more environmental disasters–the latest being the President’s cancer panels recommending we institute it. I find this very heartening– though, as you indicate, it would be a change of course for us.

  97. This is powerful stuff. Sometimes it really does feel as though we cannot hurt anything by just dabbling around with technology. In the mentality of many people, it only becomes dangerous when it becomes ubiquitous. It cannot possibly be dangerous before it is a part of everyday life, they think. But it really can be. We are not visitors in the technological age. We are in it. We seem to live and breathe technology (where we used to live and breathe nature, but that’s another argument for another day).

    I definitely believe that we could benefit from a “no data, no market” stance. However, our leaders do not seem to be making this into a law. So this leaves us to take matters into our own hands. We need to think before we buy, effectively removing the market when products haven’t been fully tested or are questionably made. I believe that if people finally say “enough,” we will see some effective laws passed that will be beneficial for consumers and the Earth.

    • The president’s cancer panel just came out with a report that concurs with the necessity of the precautionary as opposed to the “reactionary” approach to chemical usage, Amanda.
      Your perception of “not being in it” in terms of reacting to harm is an important one. Perhaps we all live so much in a “video” age that none of this seems to be happening in the real world.

  98. I like the idea of discussing human relationship with fire and how in many ways nature has become dependant on us to provide that in order to maintain healthy ecosystems. I live in Northern California (Eureka), and every summer it is amazing to see smoke billowing from every hill side, I never realized that smoke made it all the way to the Willamete Valley. I think that there are certain ironies towards our relationship with fire especially in densely populated areas. The example I have of this is the shock that comes from the fires that seem to annually occur in the Malibu hills north of Los Angeles. I think that obviously fire in that community occurs naturally and is healthy yet there are so many million dollar homes and it is such a highly populated area that people always seem to talk about what a tragedy it was. It seems to me that like people living on the Gulf Coast with Hurricanes, when you choose to live in a certain area prone to a certain hazard you are hopefully aware of the apparent risks of that environment.

  99. I remember growing up in Northern Idaho and watching the fireworks on the fourth of July. We used to count how many fires were started (since we had a birds eye view from the top of a hill). Then we would go light off our own fireworks and prided ourselves if we didn’t start our own fire. Carelessness seems to run crazy on holidays and holidays with fire is a bad mix.
    The precautionary principle is something I have been trying to implement in my own life. I always do as much research as I can before I make a purchase or action. I think where the problem arises is what is more important when we are doing our “research”. For example, what is most important when purchasing a car? It is different for every person. How do we then apply the precautionary principle effectively? Our country tends to consider economic gain the most important factor with any new technology and even if the potential hazards are known, the economic value supersedes the cons. To best employ the precautionary principle, we have to change our worldviews.

    • It is great that you are working on implementing the precautionary principle, Megan. I think that this is important as individuals –and that we consider the safety of the next generation as well as our own. And it is important to make this part of our government practice too, as the EPA administrator has proposed. Perhaps if we undertook this on our daily level, more of us might accept and work for this on a national level.

  100. As a people we should be more caring of each other. And through that caring we should ‘look both ways’ Carelessness and neglect is just like abandonment. We are all the same, just with variation. We should all care and look after one another. We should take and claim the responsibility of the issues we produce and deal with them in a responsible way. If a dam breaks that is not a natural disaster… it was man made. How can we call that natural?

    • I like your point that we should be more caring of one another, Briana. Could point about sharing responsibility for a disaster– rather than calling it “natural” (which indicates only nature and not humans, are responsible for both causing it and by implication, fixing it).

  101. Here in Portland I feel very firework deprived. Most fireworks are banned in Oregon, you can’t purchase, or use any fireworks that leave the ground. Pretty much you can only buy sparklers and fountains. I usually end up sitting at the beach of the columbia river and watch the fireworks going off in Vancouver, Washington, during the fourth of July. On the plus side, I don’t have to worry about people firing off bottle rockets into my car!

    Carelessness is dangerous, but on the flip side there is a certain amount of luck in the equation. People didn’t know that trying to stop forest fires would lead to larger forest fires, it was their carefulness that caused the damage. Or people creating powerful disinfectants trying to kill bacteria which cause infections and diseases end up killing off the weak bacteria and thus end up breeding super strains of bacterium. Again, in trying to be careful, damage is done. It’s a good idea to test to make sure things are safe before they can reach the market, but unseen impacts are still inevitable. There are too many complexities to fully understand and be able to map out whether something is truly and completely safe.

    With that said, I still support the implementation of the precautionary principle. We don’t look both ways before crossing the street because there is a high likelihood of cars on streets, being the car’s natural habitat. So things that we know to be potentially dangerous should be checked to ensure that they are not causing the harms we worry they might.

    • It is ironic that the attempt to protect ourselves from nature leads to such self-destructive results. It its a matter of how one defines being careful, I think. Ads for chemical disinfectants tell us we need them to protect ourselves from germs: that it is a dualistic worldview that tries to obliterate anything that is inconvenient– this looks like protecting ourselves, but in reality, these disinfectants (see our weblink on “keeping antibiotics working”) are hurting our ability to protect ourselves with antibiotics when we need to. So the indiscriminate rather than careful use of disinfectants is causing us serious trouble. Some household cleaners are also linked to asthma–and potential cancer– so the attempt to be “clean” is certainly not being careful.
      Thanks for your comment, Frank.

  102. I like the connection between “wild” fires and the use of new technology and chemicals. We typically start all of these fires, and then we have difficulty containing them. When we introduce a new chemical to the market, if it is not proven safe much like they do in Europe, we are gonna have a difficult time containing that “fire.” Most harm done to us comes from ourselves. Whether we are introducing harmful chemicals to our environment or starting wild fires, we always end up hurting ourselves. A good example from this essay is when people reside in flood plains or under dams. Sure, they may feel safe now, but at some point there is bound to be some tragic event that will result in death to many people and harm to an entire society. The most important idea I got from this essay was that we need to look more into the future and how our actions now will effect future generations and ecosystems.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kyle. Perhaps more of us will figure out that we only winding up hurting ourselves when we fail to use the precautionary principle. Cultures, like humans, seem to go through stages of maturity–and there is that adolescent stage when one feels one is invulnerable. The rough and tough frontier mentality tells us precaution is not needed– and we can perhaps make that decision ethically for ourselves– but in an interdependent world, we are also make it for other humans and the lives that sustain us. And that is an issue of justice as well as wisdom.

  103. The only point I would make regarding not releasing “innovative technology” until it has been thoroughly researched is that many companies funding for a project might not be able to sustain a prolonged research program. This is especially true of smaller firms, who are running on very tight budgetary restrictions. This could potentially stifle innovation simply because it becomes cost prohibitive at the end of a project. I am not saying that companies should be able to market something with little to no testing, but I lived and worked in England, and many of the EU regulations handcuff small businesses from entering the market because they are so stringent, and the only companies that can afford to meet these regulations are the larger ones, who have already established themselves.

    In essence, there has to be a sensible balance between how much testing before a product can be released. Going from one extreme to the other is never a good thing.

    • My own sense is better safe than sorry– so if the needs for safe research “handcuff” the release of particular innovations, so much the better. Note that the list of criteria on “green chemistry” make it easier and less necessary to test products of a certain sort (more in line with natural processes).
      Jeff Hollender, CEO of Seventh Generation has a different solution for helping small business compete in today’s market– regulate large business more intensively (see link to “Regulate Me, Please” in quotes to ponder here.) Thanks for your comment.

  104. Reading this essay made me think about my own childhood experiences of playing with fire and the lessons they taught me. My own family was decidedly anti-fireworks and so I spent almost every 4th of July at my neighbor’s house watching them shoot off homemade and store bought fireworks and trying to create the biggest BOOM possible. I used to watch in fear and fascination as they played with fire, but as I got older I became more and more flummoxed by the joy people would get as they blew things up. What about the consequences? Aren’t they afraid of getting hurt?

    These are the same questions I ask when we set the fire of war in foreign lands and when we adopt new technologies without considering their impact. Reading this essay I wonder why it is that more people are not thinking the same thing.

    • Thank you for sharing your personal experience, Hannah. It does seem that making a “big BOOM” and playing with fire in general is a bit of child’s play– something we do until we realize there might be real consequences to these actions beyond the comprehension of a child. That does not say much about the maturity of nation’s that go to war before there is absolutely no alternative–and continue at it with considerable loss of life even though neither side seems to be getting anywhere.

  105. Science has a responsibility to help further the human understanding of the cosmos, new technologies and countless other new discoveries. However with this responsibility comes an even bigger responsibility of understanding what science is bringing to the metaphorical table. Just because new technologies can be created or new chemicals can be synthesized does not mean they are safe for the mass population. It seems more often then not more time is needed to really understand what the effects of the new technology or chemical or new discovery really will have on human kind. Just as fire is extremely dangerous when it is used without respect for its power so is science.

    • Good point, Julie. There is no better time than the present to link science and ethics (and self-knowledge), and the more powerful our technology, the more imperative this is.

  106. Professor Holdren,

    I am very fascinated by fire, It is something that can be warm and beautiful but it has an evil side as well. It can take off uncontrolled, scorching and burning everything that gets in its path. It is very powerful and dangerous and must be handled accordingly. I think the most important statement in this essay is “human power strong enough to heal is also power strong enough to kill.” If we use this statement to talk about using fire responsibly we can see that when used safely, fire can be very helpful from an ecological and recreational standpoint, but this power can easily become destructive if we aren’t careful.

    • I like your classification of fire as both powerful and dangerous; it has been a very important technology to many human cultures. It seems that there is something almost archetypal in our love of a cozy blazing fire. But as you note, this technology can easily become destructive. Thanks for your thoughts here, Kurt.

  107. I used to live by a river and the trees bordering it would catch fire every summer. It would always turn out to be some kids playing around with uncontrolled campfires, cigarettes thrown out car windows, or just plain arson. These fires were always hard to get under control as it is always windy, and the fires always climbed up the hill towards the houses. I lived in that are for 10 years, and each summer we would put together a fire kit, because it was inevitable that we would be evacuated at least once during the fire season. I wish the city had come up with a controlled burn plan for the area, maybe the accidental fires wouldn’t have been so serious, Instead, it was just uncontrolled fire after fire, and many houses suffered because of it.

    • Thanks for sharing this personal experience, Jessika. Obviously we could not call such fire natural disasters–and there was little care for others in the starting of these fires. My daughter and I once put out two smoldering cigarette butt fires in a sawdust path we were hiking on a single summer’s day.
      For some reason, folks through out cigarette butts as if the were not lit– or if they put them out, as if they were not garbage, when the ingredients in the filters they toss are dangerous to birds who mistaken consume them and to the environment in general.
      I also wonder if there would have been natural fires (not human started) in an area that seemed so prone to burning.

  108. I think that the notion that the precautionary principle is not already ingrained in most people minds is strange. I remember being told very early on to look both ways before I crossed the road, to look before I leaped, or to think before I spoke (a lesson I am still working on, sadly). I once attended a presentation as part of the Ideas Matter lecture series at Oregon State and one speaker pointed out, I’ll paraphrase here, that there are lots of mistakes you need a Ph. D. to make.

    I believe that the pursuit of financial gain, notoriety or simply the excitement of doing something new, which engages the most basic of human desires: to create, often gets us swept up in what we think ought to happen without thinking about what is happening.

    • Excellent perspective, Thomas. If we expect to make mistakes (we all do–perhaps those of us working with ideas have more of a chance to make them than others), then that humility will allow us the wisdom of learning from those mistakes. I agree that the precautionary principle out to be ingrained– even if we have a right to be careless with ourselves, we haven’t that same right with respect to the rest of the world.

    • This forethought you are talking about couldn’t be a better suggestion, while also being so difficult to accomplish. The human nature is for self-satisfaction and to better my situation. In the example of technology, their creators are experiencing the need to “better” the technology already in place to make it easier to use, or implement. This cannot be the solution that is always sought. It is almost as if the entire human population needs to be “reprogrammed” to have the type of change we need to achieve what you mention in your comments.

      • I am not sure ALL humans need to be “reprogrammed” since there are so many cultures and individuals in our own culture who don’t behave so recklessly to garner profit for themselves. I think rather that we need social conditions that (as Nigerian Chinua Achebe puts it) “fight the instincts of self-destruction” (like greed– which our society tends to encourage instead).

  109. I remember growing up in the San Francisco bay area that almost every summer there would be wild fires along the hills of the east bay. Charred and blackened hills would go for miles scarring the landscape after they were put out. i can remember being told back then that our fire safety, especially in forested areas like those on the west bay with the redwoods, was actually causing these wild fires to burn longer then they normally would be if these smaller fires were allowed to tend to the underbrush. Yet even now fires come and go on the west coast, and our lessons are still not learned. We seem to be hard to teach and easy to forget as a culture. Whereas these indigenous peoples (as the author pointed out) had 10,000 years to achieve harmony, we do not. our impact on our environment is more grand and more devastating. If we can learn that our actions have consequences beyond the immediate, then perhaps we would take more precaution when it comes to the natural world. Unfortunately, we throw this caution to the wind and prefer to live above the environment rather than within it.

  110. When I’ve thought before about not allowing new technologies or inventions out until we know they are safe, I was led to the conclusion that many things would just not be available. And this wouldn’t necessarily be because they were found unsafe in some way, but because it would almost be impossible to experiment on something to such an extent for every possible thing that could go wrong or every possible harmful effect. Even if we could, it would take forever to go through all the possibilities.

    So I wonder what is missing and why is it so hard to know if something is potentially harmful. Obviously some people don’t care if what they are doing could harm others or the environment, but then everyone else goes along with it because they also see a benefit more than they see downside. It seems that we are able to easily disconnect from any healthy instincts we have and make choices which, at the same time, are very selfish in the moment and lack all consideration of ourselves in a larger context. Even if we place ourselves in a larger context, we could still very easily make mistakes. I feel that, more than being careful, it would be important to know what this destructive element is in people, both conscious and unconscious, and why it seems to have arisen only relatively recently.

    • Hi Andy, thanks for your comment. You bring up a particular issue with modern technology, some of which we cannot assess until we actual produce it: current philosophers of science assess this problem, including Ulrich Bech, who terms ours a “risk society”, since the current scale of our technology inhibits testing of it prior to its release (he says that under these circumstances, society and earth’s systems become the experimental subject). Your question anticipates the topic of this post I will have up in the next few days!

  111. The precautionary principle seems like such simple common sense it’s amazing that the United States has not yet adapted it. This is especially true for chemical and biological fields because the effects can often not be fully predicted and the changes they cause can not be fully contained if something does go wrong. I believe it’s mainly large corporations’ pursuit of profit that stands in the way of us adapting the precautionary principle just like the European Union. The capitalist principle of the the market correcting itself begins to fail when a huge corporation is has the power to make such bad decisions that it’s capable of permanently damaging people and the environment on a global scale.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Roman. I am putting up a post on precisely that topic later today!

    • As in my comment to Professor Holden’s essay, I would like to ask the same from you. What “large corporations” exactly are commercially producing chemicals with no background research because of money driven agendas? It seems like there is a general concept that all major U.S. businesses are only concerned with making a pretty penny. The U.S. has very strict safety rules and regulations when it comes to producing potentially harmful materials. Consider the FDA, whose rules prevent GE foods from being put into production for 7-10 years, when they have such tremendous benefits, especially in compensating for the damaging effects global warming has caused in the agriculture industry.

      • Emily, read “dandelion wars” for the ways in which pesticides, for instance, that are known to cause cancer by the EPA, are still allowed to be produced and sold in the US– though they have been banned for many years in the EU and are now banned in areas of Canada. I would love to believe that “strict safety rules” actually apply to our doing business– but there are, unfortunately, too many loopholes. I suggest you view even a part of the documentary, “Toxic Secrets”– which uses industry’s own internal communications to show how a consortium of chemical industries, beginning in the 1950s, concertedly hid data that their worker’s bones were dissolving as a result of manufacturing their chemicals.
        These are just a couple of unfortunate examples which yield the results in a recent study- which found over 200 chemicals in the umbilical cord of US babies– some of which are known endocrine disruptors and others of which are know to be cancer causing– or, like mercury (in a recent confirming study), which adversely affect brain tissue and functioning in even the smallest amounts. Mercury, incidentally, comes from coal fired plants (which migrates into the food system, especially into waterways and fish, but also rice in China) and from amalgam fillings in our mouths–which were outlawed on the basis of the precautionary principle 20 years ago in the Scandinavian countries but not in the US. And what about the problems with BPA in teethers and baby bottles (again, the EU is taking immediate action to ban the use of BPA, while the US is still debating the issue)?
        I am not saying that all US industry is automatically bad (see the wonderful counter example of the folks on CSWire under our “links”, who not only uphold standards in their own businesses but act as watchdogs for others–they are the ones that now show “Spellcasters”, for instance).
        What I am saying is that our current system is obviously ineffective in providing for safety: length of time to get a food product released does not correlate with its safety as the system now stands.
        Thanks for your comment here and in the previous response to this post.

  112. If I remember correctly, the California wildfires you mentioned were by majority, a product of humans. The of these humans who set the fires were out-of-work wildfire fighters if the news articles were correct. This is yet another example of people doing whatever they can with little regard of others. I think that no matter what our society can do to curb this type of behavior, there can be no way to completely change thought or behaviour patterns without evaluating our total capitalist society. Money is money, and there is no way to change that. The change will have to come in the way we treat that same money, and the way we treat each other. Only then can we achieve the change we need and live the way that you want to.

    • Important point on the way a capitalist society goes with a worldview enshrining the dollar– as a recent comment by Maureen in the most recent post here (“standing in front of a speeding train”) also brings up.
      As you indicate, we need a change in worldview to set our priorities in order here.
      Thanks for your comment, Andrew.

    • Great point on the california wildfires. I think it’s worth noting that as our technologies advances the negative consequences of our reactive attitude towards our surroundings will become more and more severe. We will have to clean up bigger and bigger messes that we made and if we don’t stop making a mess we will eventually not be able to clean it up.

  113. I agree with the basic viewpoint of this article that we should be careful with what we are releasing into the environment. Although, I also believe that our society as a whole does carefully research and test new products and technologies. I would have appreciated more specific examples about exactly which chemicals that are being carelessly released into the environment are being referred to. I have to comment on the statement that our society needs to apply the precautionary principles to genetically engineered foods. The FDA has extremely strict policies and regulations to approve newly developed foods or seeds. The approximate time it would take to get any sort of product such as GE seed through the FDA is 7-10 years, although, you can usually expect closer to ten years. New products such as these cannot be expected to be tested until all minute risks are out ruled because possibilities are endless. Just the process of creating a plant with the desired traits can take 7 years; it is then, sequentially, sent to growers who produce a registered seed, then a certified seed is produced and only then can it be sent to commercial growers. I am just curious what GE seeds have wiggled their way out of the strict FDA regulations and put into the commercial market hastily.

    • Emily, new chemicals that are not food related require no testing at all before their release in the US.
      And unfortunately, the EPA is not able even to test products on its own, since Reagan did away with all its labs many years ago. As I understand it, there are ways to suspend the rules for particular products (if corporations can argue their usefulness or have friends in high places, they can be given provisional licenses).

  114. Getting a community together to be on the same page with the precautionary principle sounds like an enormous task that will take vast amounts of time to succeed.
    Too many of us have that idea expressed in this essay that if we are on vacation then the rules do not apply. Responsibility is overlooked and the same mistakes are continually made. I absolutely agree that when we get too excited on one thing, whether it be vacation or a new technological advance, we feel invincible during the process and the negative consequences of positive actions are all ‘out the window.’
    Every time I am on vacation I am guilty of this affliction; if i’m in a new place doing something for the first time, I feel as though nothing can go wrong and I let my guard down. This is an interesting occurence because the opposite should be happening in this situation to ensure safety in the future.

    • Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Kara. The vacationer’s mentality is one reason why Hawaii, for instance, has so many environmental problems resulting from tourism.
      Since the precautionary principle is already in place in so many places (including in the US), there is hope-though it may indeed take some work to get other communities together on this point, as you note.

    • Kara, I totally agree with you that getting a community together to be on the same page with the precautionary principle is a greatly difficult task. I wonder if it’s part of human nature to be reactive instead of proactive, but we see this problem everywhere.

  115. I grew up in the gorge along I-84. There have been several grass fires in the last few years right along I-84 and dangerously close to houses. Once people buy their houses and put up their fences they stop caring for the grass and tress around them and expect everyone else to take care of the landscape. Unfortunately, no one does and in the summer gasoline leaks and even sparks from passing cars can start huge fires. Hood River is a small town and once I-84 closed to put out the fire, every vehicle, including semis, had to drive through downtown Hood River, causing major traffic jams, accidents and long lines. It’s sad that we don’t take responsibility for, or even notice, the environments around us until we are forced to acknowledge the problem.

    Fireworks, especially, are trouble for Hood River. The firework show is held at the marina, very close to I-84 where all the dead trees and grass grow. Although the firework show is safe enough, people set off their own fireworks, and because it’s a holiday and a time for celebration, most overlook the consequences and dangers they can cause.

    • Thanks for sharing your personal experience in the Hood River area on this point, Kat.

    • Thanks for sharing your personal experience with us. I think the fact that our attitude towards our surroundings is rather reactive instead of proactive can create more and more problems for us. I can see the problems becoming more and more severe as we have more and more technological advances.

  116. Very interesting piece.

    To me, the chance that implementing and practicing the ‘precautionary principle” is successful is quite low. Call me pessimistic, but to changing a world views’ approach to problem solving is a long and strenuous process. For the western worldview to transition to the “precautionary principle” a change in ideologies must take place and a broader and interdependent relationship with the natural world must be developed.

    The facts are: western society still is dualistic, separating the human environment from the natural environment as well as deriving a social hierarchy in the process, and places to much emphasis on the accumulation of personal wealth. Until this changes, the ‘get rich quick’ aka the environmentally unfriendly solution will continue to be the most observable human action. To fully commit to the precautionary principle a society must carry/ adopt an holistic world view, that would respect the rights of the natural world and would not place our own rights above any animal, plants, or future generations of humans.

    The European Union actually adopting the precautionary principles is a very promising thing to see. Historically, eastern europe was an environmental disaster after the fall of communism and scientifically, people directly affected by or living in close proximity to natural problems are more compassionate about and willing to get involved in the solution. I hope the European Union finds success environmentally in their new approach and that their success will provide a shining example to other global governments.

    • Thanks for your response, James. You might find it even more hopeful that a number of municipalities in the US have also adopted the precautionary principle, and though it may not be an adoption of the principle outright, widespread policy in Canada recently banned large numbers of pesticides on the basis of their health risks. The bad news is that those chemicals banned elsewhere are still sold here.

  117. I do believe that we as human have to take more responsibility for our actions. We need to realize that all of our actions have consequences, good and bad. We need to be more socially aware of our decisions.

  118. I think it’s very important that we get our community together on the same page with the precautionary principle. I think we’ve been stuck in the cycle of making a mess and then when we’re left with no choice we unwillingly clean up that mess. However as we make more and more technological advances we make bigger and bigger messes. One has to think that one day we will not be able to clean up the mess we have made and it will be the end of it all.

  119. You know I do work for the Forest Service as an Assistant Fire Management Officer. I was on that fire in Spokane. I remember during the Columbia Complex in 2006 when a local fire district made a comment about they have been so busy they could buy toilet paper for the station. Yes, they ended up with a 100 year supply by people trying to help out.

    What is natural fire? We are learning more and more about fire and its effects. For instance, old growth sage brush is needed by the Sage Grouse. Ten years ago they thought they needed young sage brush and that the fire return interval was disturbed. They thought it was lengthened. Little did they know it was never changed. In the New England states there is a place where aboriginal burning has been done for thousands of years actually changing the environment to a fire resistive site. This site has fire resistive plants that need fire to keep the land clear, so they can survive. There is no recorded lightning fire in the area ever. Is that a natural condition? I have been apart of a fire history study done in my area at one time. The fire return interval for this site was 25 to 35 years. The problem was were fire ignited by lightning or were they ignited by Native Americans. My question is what is natural? You go to the Southeast and people claim it is their God given right to burn the forest.

    • Thanks for sharing your professional experience with fire, Bob. As noted in other essays on this site, fire was used throughout the northwest to manage local landscapes by native peoples as well.
      I think the problem with defining anything as “natural” from a dualistic Western perspective (either is or isn’t– and humans shouldn’t have anything to do with it) is that it ignores the co-evolution of particular habitats with humans of long residence. There is the instance of the honeybird in Africa who could no longer exist without humans; Jim Lichatowich (Salmon without Rivers) makes a historical case for the co-evolution of salmon and humans in the Pacific Northwest over thousands of years. In terms of the complexity of the fire issue ignored by the right-to-burn folks: indigenous peoples in the Willamette Valley burned so carefully that fire lines remained stable over hundreds of years, as Peter Boag has documented– and burning was done (just as salmon was taken) only under the auspices of a religious leader who had particular knowledge of the natural landscape that would indicate when and if to burn (on the edge of the rainy season to foster new plant growth)– and it was done for the sake of fostering other habitat than that of humans– such as deer and elk. It also carefully left particular areas burn free. With salmon, the religious leader would indicate how much and where to take salmon so as to honor the salmon–so that the runs would not be damaged by over-fishing in any given year and at any given place.
      One of the problems with burning in the current day is the traces of herbicides and sometimes other pesticides used in forest management; in the Willamette Valley, grass seed burning dispersed these toxins into the air for all to breathe.
      You might also make a case for the co-evolution (or at least of their abundance) of particular native bulbs in the northwest due to women’s gathering/replanting habits.
      So natural or not, the issue is more complex than black or white. It is about long term knowledge of the land and actions in partnership with other species– and very complex knowledge as well as actions done very carefully and precisely, as this essay indicates.
      Ironically, the land native ecological habits kept open was the land most coveted by pioneer farmers– though they often had not a clue that that land they so coveted was maintained by native ecological practices.
      Thanks for your comment.

  120. This article makes me think about where exactly the line is? When do we go from preventing disasters to causing other ones to happen. It is sad to think that if we don’t interfere, people may die-but if we do interfere, we can make things much worse than they would be.

    • I am not quite sure what you mean by “interfere” here, Samantha. I don’t think building on a wetland is a way to save anyone’s life.
      I would never propose that we fail to intervene to save human lives in the event of disasters– only that we look at the root cause of so many human-perpetrated disasters in order to prevent them so that we are not in a position of always meeting emergencies.
      And I would also propose that we look at this carefully so that we know the difference between what we cause and “natural disasters”. If we just blame it on nature, we won’t do anything about it, but what we cause we ought to be able to fix by discontinuing actions like building on fire and slide-prone hillsides–or logging the tree cover that holds the ground on steep slopes. I know that such logging was done on hillsides on the Lower Umpqua and the result was slides that continually closed the adjacent roads–as well as crushing houses– in the rainy seasons that follows.

    • Samantha, “we” don’t really interfere here and I don’t see where you are coming from either but I believe that the line is drawn at wherever it is needed to be to protect. Interfering as you say, really may not be all that bad. Sometimes it is for the better.

  121. Looking at the example of the Iowa flooding, I feel that not only is a lot of this type of flooding not natural, but we invite disaster by locating humans where they simply don’t belong. New Orleans is a prime example: most of it is below sea level. I have been there to see a ship passing by above the level of my head. It should never have been developed to the extent it has been, putting hundreds of thousands of people in harm’s way. Numerous towns along the Gulf Coast are built on sandbars and residents are displaced when a storm washes their “island” away. Their island is a sandbar, sandbars move! So they dredge sand from out in the Gulf to “renourish” the beaches and hope the next storm won’t wash too much away. If we take notice of the natural cycles: fire, tropical storms,etc. we may protect both the natural world and the humans in it.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful point about natural versus human disasters, Reb. There are two other things about Katrina to note (besides the bad job done by those who rebuilt the dikes and in getting rescue to those in poorer areas of the city), wetlands between the coast and solid ground had mostly been drained there. Where the wetlands were in tact on the Gulf Coast, they helped ameliorate the effects of the storm, so that it was much milder when it hit land. The other thing is global warming: the warmer sea temperature fostered the gathering wind speeds of the hurricane.
      At the very most sand islands ought to be (as with river bottom) temporary or seasonal human residence.

      • Question for you, would you consider industrializing where it is not needed, to be a human disaster? An example of this would be Africa.

        • It depends on what you mean by “industrializing” — if you mean, for instance, introducing consolidated or factory farming, or using gmo seed, that can be a real problem for both the land and local peoples. Some “development” continues to result in exaggerating world hunger (see Bread for the World, for instance). See the video link on the Gamo people in our choice points–and the links on indigenous people of Africa and climate change for further examples.

    • I like your response Rebecca we do tend to invite disaster in some of the areas we live. What do you think do we do this to ourselves out of ignorance or is it maybe a lifestyle choice for some. The thrill of a little bit of danger wither it be threat of hurricane or knowing that the San Andreas fault could send you plummeting into the ocean with millions of other people at any given moment. One having more odds than the other each has a sense of inevitability that it will happen. Personally I wonder if an acceptance to this risk should be natural rather than cold hearted when loss of life occurs. Until then I will not be moving to Florida but may decide to live on the edge if I ever go to Disney World.

      • Delightful comment, Phillip. I think there is something in us that loves a challenge– or a scary ride. We also love to challenge ourselves. I think the problem lies when we take risks that transfer to others (as in toxic chemical release)– or we cry “foul” or natural disaster when there is a negative result of our own actions.

  122. There are many examples of irresponsible behavior on our part with predictable outcomes and for some reason we seem to be surprised when the results end with the loss of human life. You would think that buying a house on the side of a mountain or large hill would give people an idea of risk from mud slides. Closer to home in Sheridan Oregon you would think that houses and businesses would be more prepared for a flood when it is trend for an area to flood out every hundred years or so. So where is the disconnect? Why do we persist in ignoring the obvious and allowing tragedy to sneak up on us through the front door? In my opinion it seems to be a gamble people seem to be willing to take. People gamble that “it won’t happen to me” when they live on a hill side with other houses surrounding them. People gamble when they buy their home in a flood plain thinking that there is safety in numbers due to the population thinking “someone must have made it safe”. But as any gamble many loose on the bet that it won’t happen in their lifetime or that another house is more likely to slide than their own.

    • Hi Phillip, thanks for your thoughtful response. “It won’t happen to me can be a dangerous attitude– worse yet, when we think as a society (or a corporation putting out a new pesticide) “it won’t happen to us”.
      Excellent perspective to consider!

    • Good point Phillip! All the stories about beach erosion and the massive amount of money that goes into restoring beaches so homes aren’t washed away are amazing. What gets me the amount of cash we are willing to spend on dumping sand on eroding beaches in order to protect homes. If the home gets destroyed once, twice, three times is it enough to say okay here’s your insurance claim, build your house elsewhere? This will be a huge issue when ocean levels start to rise, how much money can insurance companies and state governments keep forking out to support the wealthy that can afford to live on the beach?

      • Good point, Tiffany. And you might be interested in side issue–way back when scientists were first putting forth the idea of climate change and there were many industry dissenters, it was the insurance industry that pressured the government to take a serious look at this issue as their claims were spiraling up and out of control.

  123. Dr. Holden, I love the comparison to fire to technology. Fire is one of the first technologies that humans figured out and tens of thousands of years later we still don’t seem to grasp it! I agree with you on testing out new technologies to prove their safety. To play devil’s advocate I would like to bring up the argument that exponential increase of new technologies will prove difficult for testing each new product extensively. In a perfect would it would be great to test each new product or science, but it can take years to find out if a certain technologies will be a menace to society. On the other hand, testing would bring safety and higher paying jobs to our society, which would be super.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Tiffany. The EU has managed to do such testing– though some new product engineers are grumbling about it in terms of their releases. One might also make the argument that the MORE new technology we release, the more it needs testing– as we find out more about the synergistic effects of chemicals, for instance on natural systems (and human bodies).
      Also it might help if we shifted our worldview to one that is more sensitive to the interdependence of human systems (including human ones) –rather than the get their first and escape with the money attitude.

  124. It seems to me that the criteria for fire being “natural” or “unnatural” based on the source of ignition is misguided. It is about how “out of whack” the condition of the landscape is overall with respect to fire, other forms of disturbance, and fuels. Ignitions historically have come from humans (unintentionally and intentionally), lightning, spontaneous combustion, and some other rare events. Whether a fire starts by one or another of these causes is of little consequence in the end. I have fought fire on the exact same piece of ground in 2001 and 2003 in southern California near a shooting range where grasses returned after the first fire burned off the brush, cured, and burned again. I have fought fire on the same ridge summer after summer where lightning tends to strike time and again. Either way, vegetation grows on Earth and in many places it also likes to burn. What is challenging is fighting fire where it has been excluded for too long, with fuels built up to the point that lines cannot be easily constructed to contain fire during the heat of summer.

    • Great perspective, Amanda. Indicates the problem with building up fuels through human fire suppression–as well as the perspective of a complex rather than an all or nothing approach to such technological choices as the use of fire.

  125. The Native Americans using fire to help their land propsper through the use of controlled burns has become a biological practice that is used around the world to help improve biological productivity. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has an entire department dedicated to controlled fires (prescribed burns) as a management tool. Through careful annual planning USFWS enhances lands and creates healthy ecosystems with this methodology. Fire is a good example of a technology when used properly is a great asset, and when used improperly can ruin vast lands. To learn more about USFWS Fire Program:

    http://www.fws.gov/fire/

    • It is interesting how widespread use of fire for landscape modification was throughout indigenous territories–and how recently “prescribed burns” became important to forest management practices. I am old enough to remember how very controversial this was not so long ago.
      Thanks for the comment and the link, David.

  126. This is not on the topic of fire, but I notice that a few people have alluded to it: I wonder what we mean when we talk about “ignoring our responsibility” regarding the flooding in Iowa and the potential flooding in Oregon? I am particularly struck by the statement that vulnerable dams are holding back water from flood plains “where currently reside hundreds of thousands of people.” I guess I’m wondering why hundreds of thousands of people live in the flood plain. Did they settle there knowing it was in a flood plain, and if so, why?

    Of course, I have had the same thoughts about New Orleans as some others have mentioned, and I realize that it is a city with a great history and is dear to many people in addition to the natives and residents. And I realize that the wetlands that have been destroyed would have protected it to some degree. But there is no getting around the fact that it is below sea level.

    Another example is Galveston, Texas. Galveston is dear to me, as I spent many vacations there as a child. But after the storm of 1900 destroyed most of the island and killed 6,000 people, the solution was to build a seawall and dredge sand out of the bay to raise the level of the island. And once a decade or so, there is a major hurricane there that causes great devastation. The island is sinking, and is expected to sink another 2 feet this century. Sea levels are predicted to rise 3 feet this century. If it is our responsibility to protect communities that were located rather unwisely in the first place, at what point does it become our responsibility to say “It is no longer economically feasible to protect you, because we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to keeping Mother Nature behind a wall.”? Is this not trying to control the landscape?

    • You bring up some real questions to consider, Susan-and all these are compounded by increasing climate instability caused by the climate change resulting from our spewing carbon into the atmosphere, which results in more storms, more severe storms–and more flooding. Thus what was once a hundred year flood may become more frequent: we have had two of these in the Northwest in the last five years. This makes it especially imperative that we do something about climate change at the very least in addressing these issues.
      And no, I don’t think there was much consciousness on the part of those who settled in the flood plains in areas where you mentioned. In the case of Eugene, where I live, it is hard to miss that two large rivers meet and flow here, but if you walk the area that was flooded annually in the early 1900s, you would never know it now, since the river waters have been held back by dams for so many decades now.
      This is a case of technology that separates us from the contours of the land in such a way that we aren’t making very good decisions about siting our houses. In other cases, we seem to be just plain stubborn in terms of trying to hold back nature. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results– one might well see this in increasingly escalated engineering to hold back the sea in Galveston and elsewhere.
      I am afraid we may well be on the road to learn some painful lessons the hard way.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
      The issue of saving the homes of people where they are becomes a serious matter for discussion: in New Orleans, it was some of the poorest of the population who were in the most vulnerable positions.

  127. I think it would be great if we could wrangle up that community spirit that sends people to each others aid in times of crisis and use it to save the planet from its inevitable destruction. however, i dont think people will realize the terrible state of the earth until it directly affects them. there are some people who still dont believe in global warming! it is obvious that people arent going to band together and do anything to help our planet, which in turn will help themselves and their future families, until they are directly effected by its downfall.

    • It is certainly true that community spirit coalesces in facing crises more than in prevention of them– but it does also seem to me that there are those who are willing to band together to change things–as they are doing now. It is not the majority in power– nor even the mainstream, but I have seen the shift toward more consciousness and care in the years I have been teaching. It is not guaranteed what will come of it (and the tea party scares me), but it does seem we can’t go wrong in spreading knowledge and treating others as if we have the faith that they will do the right thing.

    • I completely agree with you. I think the first step is to educate people about the reality of the crisis that we have all put the earth in. However, like all major crises, many people don’t even see what is right in front of them. Rather than expecting people to band together, maybe our best bet is to try our best to make a personal difference, and take the responsibility of passing on the word to the people around us. While it won’t make a huge impact, it certainly is a step in the right direction.

      • I do not side with those who say that personal decisions do not make an important impact, Jenni. First of all, the personal decisions of each of us make up the whole scene we now have. Secondly, we model behavior for others–and we are interconnected in ways we may not even understand.
        And perhaps most of all, personal decisions are those which we can make and be responsible for.
        That said, I also think we need to work to support good government and sound community policy in whatever way opens for us to do this.

  128. I think one of the major issues concerning technology in the medical field is that consumers fail to understand what they are getting themselves into. Though there are regulations on products, nothing is a sure-deal. We can’t just trust what technologies claim to be true! While I do not support “self diagnosis” (which has become increasingly more of a problem due to the internet and online medical journals), I do think that we all have a responsibility to ourselves to research before we make any important decisions. After all, as much as I wish I could completely trust those who are making an effort to keep medical technology safe, I think I am better off researching myself. The old-age saying “better safe than sorry” comes to mind. I am more safe if I have knowledge before I make decisions, and I will definitely be sorry if I fail to educate myself before being put in harm’s way.

    • Indeed, we need more good knowledge to make decent decisions– for ourselves and for our environment. We can’t make reasonable decisions without it. That is why I am so concerned with manipulation of this information in terms of skewed research (e.g. the medical “journal” financed by a pharmaceutical company for a year before anyone recognized it was advertising rather than science).
      I believe that our visits to our physicians should be collaborative information sharing– which empowers us to make decisions about our health.

  129. I really like the discussion about natural disasters. These are less disasters and more natural phenomenon. People are so concerned with controlling nature that they fail to acknowledge that many of these “disasters” are beneficial. Regular floods enhance the fertility of the floodplain. Forest fires clear small underbrush and assist reproduction of many tree species. People need to consider the benefits these” disasters” provide and tailor their development accordingly. Maybe building in a floodplain isn’t a great idea.

    • Good point about the beneficial nature of such “disasters”, Melissa. Floodplains would certainly lack fertility without floods and small fires clear out the underbrush, as you note. To see this, we need to get out of the mindset of what is convenient for humans alone.

  130. At times, the ‘rights’ of people negate their responsibility for others and the earth. The thought that ‘it’s my property, I can cut down the trees if I want’, ‘it’s the Fourth of July, I can blow up fireworks regardless of the impact the noise has on animals and the potential for starting a fire’ and ‘it’s my dog, I can chain him in the yard if I choose’ reflects the lack of responsibility toward other beings; these attitudes lead to great devastation, all for the ‘right’ that a person feels they have over others, including the earth.

    Similar attitudes and ‘rights’ are evident when people build their homes on flood plains; they believe they have the ‘right’ to build where they choose and expect to be protected. They have a false sense of safety by the human-made dams and levees; once these mechanisms fail, they place the responsibility for the devastation on nature and not on themselves for having built in such a foolish location.

    • Interesting things about such individually-conceived rights is just how individual they are: they are rights some insist they have, that is, to the detriment of the community’s safety.

  131. First, I was very surprised that medical treatment was such a big cause of death. A couple years ago (In high school) I would have not even been able to comprehend that idea, I thought that new technology and medicine in particular was safe and well regulated. After a few years of college, indulging my own curiosity online, and tons of commercials for lawyers talking about harmful products, my eyes have opened a bit. Even so, medical treatment being so un-regulated and under-tested that it is the second greatest cause of death is almost unbelievable.
    I definitely agree with this article. Western society today is much too focused on progress and technological advancement. I love technology as much as the next guy, but it is hard not to see how many easily avoidable problems it creates.

    • Thoughtful response, Caleb. I think modern medicine does some great things– but it is not perfect and not automatically an “advance” that is applicable in all cases.

  132. I wholeheartedly agree that the US needs to adopt the precautionary principle way of approving new products and technologies. Do I think that it will ever actually happen? Unfortunately not. Americans are known for their industrial and entrepreneurial spirit. While this can be a good thing, it is also why I think the precautionary principle will never be able to be implemented. We are much more individual-centered where most of the worlds countries focus on the greater good.

    Our history is full of technologies and products that have done more harm then good. I do not believe that in most of those cases all the details were known going in. Take smoking for example, there is no denying the harmful effects that it causes, and besides some stress relief, I’m not sure of any positives. Yet companies are still making money, so they are still being sold. If the precautionary principle would have been in place, they would have never even made it to the marketplace.

    While, I don’t think that it will ever be universally applied in the U.S. I do think that some companies to try and implement the precautionary principle on their own. If more focus and attention could be placed on these companies, maybe it would inspire other companies to follow in their footsteps.

    • I agree that the precautionary principle cannot be applied to older practices and industries. These products, such as cigarettes, are created with good intentions and become a huge industry with many people earning a living making these harmful products. The products become integrated into our culture and when they are discovered to be harmful, it’s too late to undo the damage. An important part in planning for the future will be incorporating the precautionary principle for new products as they come out rather than waiting until it’s too late.

      • In this context, it is ironic (and often tragic) that this is precisely what our current system attempts to do. We let toxic chemicals become intertwined with our economic system before they are proven harmful and we have the sticky problems of disentangling them.
        Unfortunately, there are corporations like Monsanto who rely on this: this is one reason for their intense lobbying against labeling gmos– once they are out there so prevalent in our food system, no one will want to recall them. My question is whether we owe businesses with such express intentions anything economically when the recall time inevitably comes.

    • It is interesting that San Francisco’s precautionary principle law was supported by local businesses: in the long run, it makes good business as well as environmental and ethical sense. And the new EPA director supports it: indeed a bill, the Safe Chemicals Act, that would institute the principle in the US, has been introduced in Congress two years in a row: I think we should support it in any way we can.
      And CSRwire folks are in the business of creating inspiring business models of the type you refer to.

  133. When I lived in West Hollywood, California I drove up through Laurel Canyon to get to work in the San Fernando Valley. I was struck by the roadside signs declaring it hazardous and unlawful to throw cigarette butts out of the car. I thought this was littering anything, but here where it is dry most of the year, the city needs to take an extra step to remind people that cigarettes are fire and fire can decimate hundreds of homes and put peoples and animals lives in danger. It seems like common sense to me to keep your toxic trash inside your car, but this clearly isn’t the case for most smokers. I also, being somewhat hesitate to speak my mind on this subject, think that forcing nature’s hand in procreation is a danger just like overusing other tools that humans have created. Forcing a woman’s body into having a child when she isn’t able to do it on her own seems like tempting fate. This idea scares me because it doesn’t seem natural. There are reasons as to why certain things happen and don’t happen. Some people die young and some live into their 100s…because that is how the natural world is structured.

  134. I love the example of fire. It shows how our own technology can come back to bite us but at the same time, we can use that same destructive technology to prevent greater damage. It’s weird to think that Smokey the bear may actually have caused larger fires to occur. If we could learn our lesson and take up the precautionary principle then maybe we could use our technology in a safer and more manageable way.

    • Thoughtful points to ponder, Mark. Poor Smokey! Part of sustainable technology is defining “care” in terms of holistic attention to natural systems.

    • Yes, I think taking up the precautionary principle like the essay suggested would be a great idea! I think we are close to adopting something like that. The more other nations adopt this sort of policy, I think the greater the chance that the U.S. will follow suit.

  135. If only the precautionary principle were so easy…The problem is money. Pharmaceuticals, for example is an industry that moves at a pace faster–in my opinion–than military research. The first company with the new drug gets the biggest piece of the pie, and those that mimic it struggle to make up for the difference that timing has afforded the innovators. There is too much money to lose for the big companies to listen to anyone telling them to wait. That’s why we see so many recalls and class-action lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies who fail to test adequately the products that do more harm than good.

    The precautionary principle can be applied to those affected by wildfire, flooding, tornadoes, etc. If someone desires to live somewhere, they need to do the research first to determine the possible effects. If someone builds a house inside of a floodplain, they should not be surprised if their house floods. If someone builds a house on a forested hill without adequate buffers, they should not be surprised when their house is consumed by fire–man made or otherwise.

    What about the people who have no choice? What about those who live below the cracked dam? They probably felt secure knowing that modern engineering will hold the water back, and therefor felt their home was a safe choice. Certainly the breaching of a dam isn’t a ‘natural disaster’. If the artificial dam wasn’t there to begin with, the home would not have been built where it was.

    Unless you live on the moon, it is virtually impossible to live somewhere without some threat of natural disaster. You just need to be prepared to deal with whatever may come. Then again, natural disasters are only disasters to those who weren’t prepared for them. To Bluejay, for example, they are just natural processes.

    • Thanks for sharing these considerations to ponder here, Gabe. You might be interested in the Science policy forum summary (quote from our sidebar on the left here), where it specifies that we can make considerable difference in the transition to sustainable agriculture (and away from chemicals that do not fit with the precautionary principle) through the revising of the new Farm Bill coming up in 2012 (the Union of Concerned Scientists has a great position paper on what that might entail). All this potential change for the better is, of course, facing the challenge you mention here: money. Big agribusiness, chemical industries and biotech firms will not be happy to lose their subsidies and we can predict they will send out their lobbyists in force to defeat a progressive bill.
      The Safe Chemicals Act is back in committee again in its 2012 version, specifying we use the precautionary principle for the introduction of new chemicals into the environment. Let us hope it gets further this year than it did last year.
      It is my sense that in a democracy, our votes ought to count as much as the pressure of monied lobbyists– or they have managed to buy that democracy (which must mean it is never truly a democracy anymore?) I saw a recent poll that stated 90 per cent of US citizens want genetically engineered products labeled. Even given polling errors, that seems like enough to tell us something about the power of Monsanto’s money versus the will of the people.
      I think we can link the fact that one per cent of our population controls the majority of our wealth to the fact that some have little choice but to live below the cracked dam. It was the poorest section of New Orleans (not to mention, the African-American section) that not only fell victim to the worst flooding, but were last served by emergency services.
      It is certainly true we cannot avoid risk: one thing I think we must ponder is whether we have the right to pass off risks onto others to create profit for ourselves.
      All important points to consider as we each make our choices as citizens of this country and the earth we share.

  136. This essay discusses a very important point about how we are developing technologies but we are not evaluating how these technologies are affecting the world.
    This essay also reminded of a really neat story. A friend of mine spent a summer in Arizona during college working in a fire lookout tower in the woods. He only spotted one plume of smoke that summer but the next year, he received a very generous check from one of the local indian tribes. They wanted to pay him for keeping watch over their land. Even though this man was hired by the government and was being paid, this local tribe wanted to show him their appreciation. This story really struck me and when doing readings in this class I keep remembering it.

    • Hi Jen, thanks for your comment. What a wonderful story about generosity and reciprocity. We might never know how far our good deeds extend– even those related to our “job”.

    • Hi Jen

      It’s interesting that a tribe expressed appreciation of your friend’s work as a fire lookout. As indigenous peoples historically burned the landscape and in doing so, reduced the fuel load that causes dramatic and catastrophic fires today, I would expect tribes today to understand the dangerous build-up of fuels and prefer to let the landscape burn!

      • I am assuming this is an instance of avoiding dangerous burns with fuel build up– since few were allowed to burn out the fuel load underbrush until very recently– this is a very new strategy. And even in traditional times, fires were extremely well controlled–and it was well understood how a fire started at the wrong time of year (like the 4th of July fire started on the Olympic Peninsula in the mid 1800s) might burn out of control for months.

  137. I think the bottom line is we just don’t think before we act. I really appreciated the statement about looking both ways to cross the street. I don’t understand why we as a people fail to think of basic concepts that are useful for bigger issues.

    The excerpt on the fireworks was interesting. I understand people wanting to have a good time and enjoy themselves, it is sad though that people don’t think about responsibility. No one ever thinks that the fire they start could be the one that kills people or ruins property until it is too late.

    I think “precautionary principles” are a good approach. There is a difference between being an ostrich with your head in the sand and taking time and caution to make sure all is well before diving into a new plan or action. Especially one that will affect a large span of people or places.

    • It would seem that thinking before acting should be the bottom line; we are dealing with too many situations we should never had created had we just stopped and thought first.

  138. I like the point that natural disasters as they are often called today are generally started by humans, and therefore not of natural causes at all. I also think that the reason we refer to them as disasters is that generally we are harmed by them. However if we ignore our own selfish concerns, natural disasters are actually a restoring process for the living earth. Earthquakes and plate tectonics recycle the earth’s crust and fires kill off invasive species and create new habitat. We have to build in a way that we do not become more susceptible to these “disasters” and take special care not to cause them. Things like levees and dams that can create more problems in the future should simply not be built, and safe burning practices should be employed to keep fuel levels down. I guess my point is that I think we have to embrace “natural disasters” as important components of the natural world, and make our best efforts to minimize our losses.

    • Great point here about what we call “disasters” being restorative. There is a pointed similarity in Chehalis folklore in which the culture creator is born from “hot rocks breaking up in the center” of a figure that looks very much like earth. So the birthing throes of earth might well be seen as ours as well– and linked to the volcanic activity in this area.
      Getting ourselves out of the way of birthing throes so stupendous they are outside the range of human life is a good way to go.

    • Perhaps they are called natural disasters because they stem for a natural source (such as fire) and a disaster because they destroy so many homes and businesses. I do like how you look at it though, especially in reference to say a wildfire in a forested area. I think fire has often been thought of as cleansing as it is. Its like wiping the board clean and start new and fresh.

      • Thoughtful, Brandie– though perhaps the idea that the “disaster” is caused by “nature” perpetuates the dualistic human/nature separation, giving us a sense that the disasters were created “out there” in dangerous nature (and human action had nothing to do with it). Thanks for you comment.

  139. Just as an FYI, things have changed a bit since this essay was written in 2008! According to the CDC, current causes of death in the United States are 1) heart disease 2) cancer and 3) stroke. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm

    • Actually, this is not quite right, Amy. According to the Consumer’s Union’s analysis of medical harm, the statistics have not changed for the better since 2008: http://www.safepatientproject.org/2011/03/testimony_of_consumers_union_o_1.html. The CDC stats do not factor medical errors (often unreported) in dealing with these health issues– and in fact, they do not even have a category for medical errors in their stats. Thanks for raising this issue so that it could be clarified. You would think three years after these stats came out there would have been an improvement, yes?

  140. I think it’s wonderful that the European Union has embraced the precautionary principle and I think it’s sad that the US has yet to climb aboard. Again, this all about money. I wonder, even if we did employ the precautionary principle, how frequently businesses would alter data or persuade an oversight committee to allow a product to go to market. I think this happens anyways (just my personal opinion). I think this is also linked to the NIMBY thought. Businesses and those who develop these chemicals and medicines assume no responsibility, probably by telling themselves that they are helping a few right now. Someone else can “clean” up the mess “if” one presents itself.

    • We obviously need the precautionary principle not merely to deal with the current crises in which we have 84,000 human-made and mostly untested chemicals in the environment– and thus inevitably in the future in our bodies– but to model a shift in values from “it’s all about money” (in your words) to its all about things like health, happiness and well-being within thriving ecosystems– which also include humans.

  141. I agree with Brandie that money and the NIMBY attitude do play a big part in this, but I do not think that is the main problem. The attitude is more of a reflection of the lack of responsibility in society. Stuff is happening in peoples own backyards, because of their own specific actions, and there is an automatic expectation for someone else to fix their problem. Cleaning up after yourself causes you to be more aware of yourself since you have to clean up your own mess. We have become dependent on others in so many areas of our lives, that we feel as if our problems are caused by others. We are feeding the money to the “greedy” ones that we are accusing. This attitude is also reflected in the passiveness of the irresponsible father that gave a young child fire without proper supervision. We may not be fully responsible for our dilemma, but we need to accept the responisibility for our part of it and fix it as best we can.
    Money will always come and go but our “health, happiness and well-being” is dependent upon the decisions we make.

    • I think you have a very important point that when we pass off so much responsibility onto others, we also blame them for whatever happens to us (including things we ourselves cause). I think of this as part of what I call a “dominator paradox”– the one on top thinks s/he has power- but in fact shunting one’s responsibilities off on others is pretty disempowering–if everyone else takes the blame, it is as if our decisions did not matter, since we have no personal power.
      I agree with you that no matter how tough things seem to us we have choices we can make– and if we don’t assume responsibility on some level, we have shirked the duties incumbent on citizens in a democracy.
      Thanks for your comment.

  142. I think that we use the term natural disaster too freely. Many things that have been described as natural disasters were in fact human error. We cannot say that New Orleans was totally a natural disaster, the storm did cause a lot of damage but the most damage was caused by the giving away of the levees. But the levees are not to blame. Administrative flaws of the government are to blame. The negligence and irresponsibility of government officials continue to claim the lives of millions of people. We need to stop using unknown chemical, it has been shown that many untested chemicals are causing genetic damage that can be passed down. Such is the case of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the many mutations that have been affecting children of the Japanese people that came into contact with radioactive material.
    I found an excellent article in the USA Today about the term “natural disaster” with Hurricane Katrina and the damage to New Orleans.
    http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2006-05-23-our-view_x.htm

  143. I think what a lot of all this boils down to is a basic respect for all things: fire, people, communities. Having respect doesn’t mean one must agree, but with respect comes understanding. Respecting fire; it’s power and potential, could have prevented many fires. Had the pioneers of the west had respect for the native cultures, use of fire, etc. the lessons we are learning today about controlled burns could have be understood upon settlement. This doesn’t mean pioneers couldn’t have had a distinct lifestyle, but perhaps it could have come with significantly less death and destruction and a bit more compromise. Again, with modern technologies and advancement, having respect for the environment and it’s inhabitants would require ensuring that the technology is safe.

    • This interpretation of the past also gives a vision for the future (as opposed to simply regretting lost opportunities and mourning our other losses created by bad choices). I think that there is something else the attitude of respect might have given us is understanding the importance of attuning ourselves to others in the systems of life, both humans and more than humans.

    • I would agree with you that not enough respect is given. And that people would be better off in understanding not only each other but also other living creatures.

  144. As a former legal secretary for a plaintiff’s firm who specializes in medical malpractice, I will tell people to avoid surgery unless it’s absolutely necessary. The risk of surgery is too great, and a doctor can be successfully sued many times over for egregious acts and still be in practice. Our technology is only as good as the person wielding it.
    I would include in the limit on marketing new technologies until they are proven safe that we also should not allow the marketing of non-native plants and animals until they are proven to be non-invasive.
    When I was a kid, it was still common practice to do controlled burns of farm land. This, however, led to so much air pollution because of the amount of land being burned, we’ve had to mostly do away with it. But because of doing away with controlled field burns, and because those fields tend to be monocultures, rodents quickly became a problem in rural areas.
    The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, however, also had unintended consequences that the independent toy manufacturers are struggling to deal with while the big toy manufacturers, like Matel, can handle without much issue. Because the act called for testing of ALL toys, even mom-and-pop toy makers who have always made their toys with child-safe, natural, sustainable materials are being forced to have their toys put through very expensive testing several times a year. For many, this has proven to be financially devastating and they have gone out of business while huge corporate toy manufacturers who make plastic toys of materials deemed “child safe” continue on.
    On the topic of community response: in most small, rural communities the local fire department is still made up of mostly volunteers, many of them teenagers, who risk their lives to help their neighbors because, as one of the third generation volunteer fire fighters in Yamhill said, “It’s just what you do. They’d do the same for me.” My life partner was a second generation volunteer fire fighter for that community (we don’t live there currently). He has many stories of being a first-responder to a car accident and pulling his high-school buddies out of their smashed up cars, or jumping through a window of a burning house with another then-teenaged friend to fight the fire within (that friend is now on his way to becoming a high-ranking officer in the Seattle fire department).

    • Hi Neyssa, good thought about the introduction of non-native plants and animals. We are still trying to figure out what to do about wild pigs in Northern California and rabbits in Australia.
      The problems with field burning were not only particulate production– bad enough– but the increase of herbicides and pesticide exposure as these were used on the land and then released into the air on burning.
      The Safe Chemicals Act is being debated in Congress as we write– it never yet passed, so it could not have had the unintended consequences you indicate. I am not quite sure what you are speaking of, since our standards with respect to toys and testing are so lax that large US manufacturers set up two production lines– one for toys being sold in Europe and one for toys being sold in the US without the same standards of safety. And our standards for lead use are so lax that every kid’s face paint tested by the environmental working group this last October had lead in it.
      I do know that our meat industry is set up to deal with industrial production such that it discriminates against small local meat butcherings, whose grass fed animals are almost entirely lacking in e.coli so dangerous in grain fed cattle (see the Omnivore’s Dilemma for a discussion of this). But the issue here is not that we do not need food safety or toy safety laws, but that we need to acknowledge the ways in which differing manufacturing processes and/or differing ways of producing our food cause more or fewer problems. In the case of the small butchers, some were NOT allowed to provide tests to show that their meat was disease free, and instead had to follow rules that caused economic hardship (such as having a dedicated restroom for a meat inspector). These kinds of supposedly regulatory laws are characteristically lobbied into existence in a way that favors big industry as opposed to public safety standards.
      Small crafts are thriving in Lane County, where the Holiday Market is about to open. What business do you know that was financially devastated by the constraint of making safe toys? Be wary of publicity put out by large manufacturers about non-existent “problems” in order to turn public opinion against a much needed act that is not yet even law.
      And by the way, the city of San Francisco put the same precautionary principle into law that the Safe Chemicals Act proposes to use, and the law was sponsored by local businesses, which it favored economically.

  145. The mention of Forest Service policy and Smokey the Bear had me sipping my tea with a rather grim little smile. I grew up in the High Desert of Oregon, and I’ve seen the pictures of what the Ponderosa forests looked like before logging and fire policies changed them (I also remember what they looked like before they were toppled for subdivisions, but that’s another topic entirely). The concern of fires burning out of control is very real, and I agree that like the dams, we would be irresponsible to label them as natural disasters.

    By creating an environment filled with dry tinder and dead trees (beetles seem to thrive on the fire suppression policies), humans set the forests as a stage for particularly destructive infernos. Fires that would naturally occur with some regularity and burn available dry matter did not historically take out many of the Ponderosa crowns, but when the forest floor has amassed such a large quantity of fuel and the forest composition itself is altered, it changes the scenario. I haven’t yet read accounts of Native Americans being forced from their homes by out of control fires, but perhaps that is because they understood fire as a maintenance tool to be respected, rather than an inconvenience that should be prohibited.

    • Good balance here, Adrienne. An all or nothing policy in terms of burning has obviously not served us. Native people were VERY careful with burning. I just pulled together some material that indicates this care with respect to Chehalis traditions for something I was doing.

  146. It is important to realize that technology can create more problems than the ones it solves. Just as pesticides rids crops of insects it also causes mutations and death to other animals once released into the environment. I think that Newtons law of motion should be applied to all areas of life. That we should accept that for every action we make will have and equal an opposite reaction.

  147. I thought this essay makes a good point, that often in history, people and scientists have sought to reach a goal, and in the process have ignored the consequences of their actions. More and more in my classes it is being stressed not only to consider what possible dangers we know of, but to be paying attention for ones we do not expect, and to plan accordingly.

  148. It is very sad that lots of people are careless with fire as well as other things. But just like the dad giving his toddler a bottle rocket at Fourth of July and then to not even watch what the boy was doing with it is so careless. The father is lucky that the whole van full of fireworks did not get ignited. This would have costed the family there van and maybe even their lives. Fire is important and it is used to keep us warm and to cook our food but we need to take responsibility and make sure it does not get out of hand. Very sad to hear that the fires in Northern California were all human caused. I agree that if we could focus on caring for our environment as much as we focus on fighting fires this world would be a lot better place and both the environment as well as humans would be healthier.

    • It seems that we are in the midst of an epidemic of carelessness, Christi– flowing from the worldview that we can do with the world whatever we please. The opposite worldview is grounded on the value of care– which was stressed to me by a grandmother with whom I worked, for whom “care” was the standard of quality in everything from basketmaking to monitoring one’s actions with respect to the landscape.

    • People are constantly saying how common sense has gone by the wayside in today’s world. I’d say that it’s impossible to judge whether the overall level of common sense exhibited by people has went down, stayed the same or actually increased. The reason I say this is that now we have 24-hour news, facebook, twitter, youtube, blogs, etc. allowing instant upload of events and experiences. In the past, no one (or relatively few) would have known about certain moments of foolishness. This in no way excuses anyone from their actions of course, but should serve to do the opposite and make us more attentive and aware of what we are doing.

      • Interesting point, Trent– so we are now documenting rather than editing all our moments of foolishness (which you seem at least to partially define) as speaking before considering?

  149. I worked in a state park system one summer and a favorite saying of the staff was that when people go on vacation they leave their brains behind. And that often seemed to be the case, leaving us shaking our heads and wondering “what were they thinking?”

    Overall, I would say humans are decent, well-meaning people, we just don’t always have all of the information we need to make good decisions (or we don’t want to make the effort necessary to find out). Quite often it seems we aren’t aware of how much we don’t know. (Where is Socrates when you need him?) We take action without knowing the full story and we ignore or are unaware of people who do have knowledge about the situation.

    Examples of our shortsigtedness seem unending. How many of the invasive plant and animal species in the U.S. were brought here on purpose? Plants escape their garden boundaries, tropical fish are dumped from aquariums. Burmese pythons, imported by the pet trade, are dumped when they get too big (people see the “cool, beautiful” part and ignore the “can reach 5 meters in length” part). Many have ended up in the Everglades where they are devouring some native species and removing the food supply of others.

    Why can’t people see the consequences of their actions? I know some people can, but many of us don’t. Do we not know how? Is it just too hard? Inconvenient? Is it OK because other people are doing it? Maybe it’s OK because we think we are the only ones doing it? Or, maybe it’s denial – it won’t happen to me/my actions won’t produce those results because I’m different/special.

    • You must have some laughs over questions– which of course it is not professional to make fun of– but really, one tourist at Ocean City, Washington told the local coffee shop owner that they had planned their vacation from Colorado on the full moon, so that they could experience a tide, since they had the idea that the tides only changed once a month. But they are beat out by the couple who asked the folks at the Ocean Shores interpretation center what was wrong with their wave machine, since the surf was so mild that day.
      You ask some important questions about our failure to see the consequences of our actions– not a good survival strategy for a democracy or a species.

      • Tourists are hilarious and often times the most stupid people! They crack me up…some of my favorite questions I get is: They have just docked from their boat and walked up the gangplank “So how high up are we? Where’s sea level?” or “Oh dear I must be getting altitude sickness, I can’t bicycle, how high are we?” they are around 3,000ft. Sometimes I wonder did they leave their brain behind or did they not have one to begin with?

    • To J. Duffy, I like the questions that you ask, and the issues that you bring to the floorboard. I do agree that some humans are decent, well-meaning people but find it more true that people do not care enough about making sure every action we do take is done with good means as the ultimate goal in mind.

      It is also very interesting to ponder the question of why people can’t see the consequences of their own actions. As a child I was taught to try and guess what would happen in different scenarios but even today, I have not been able to asses the consequence of every action I take. For me, I know there has been times when I wish I could have seen something coming, and there are times when I was fully aware of the consequences. My point here is, as an added thought to your response, that sometimes knowing fully what lies ahead is not possible, (even if the consequences seems obvious) and we will still be at fault of acting oblivious.

    • You ask some really great questions – some that I ask myself all the time. I have often wondered how people can look at the world and think if an animal or plant thrives in one setting it could thrive anywhere. And why would they want to bring it over? Why not see what natively grows within the new land that you would find beautiful? Last winter I was doing archaeological fieldwork on a Caribbean Island whose land is being taken over by Corallita creeping vine which was brought over from Mexico – within something like 40 years the vine has managed to strangle out nearly all of the islands natural vegetation and changed the landscape drastically. It is so sad to see pictures of what it once was and pictures of the island now.

      I too shake my head at tourists for their stupidity and their idea of being on vacation means a free-for-all and they can do anything. Although they provide me my job, I am always wondering how we’ve become so dead inside (for lack of a better phrase) and so unaware of our physical selves and of people around us. Is it from working so hard and living a boxed life without wonderment or adventure that slowly or each year – as we realize the older we get and the more sucked into this life you are and not living the dreams you once had for yourself – that slowly all passion for life and living just burns out. Then one day you wake up and your 70 and don’t have a job anymore and you say well “I guess I’ll travel” but by this time you are so old and tired that all you want to do is sit on a boat, then sit in a bus and see the world behind a big glass sheet – never really experiencing the environment. Tourists have taught me who I do not want to become but I get so sad and sometimes angry seeing all these people walking around arguing with each other and not seeing the world around them and not caring to see the world around them and just dying slowly inside.

      • Perhaps because we so easily transplant ourselves, we think all other animals and plants can be moved about in the same way?
        I would never argue with the idea that whereas working for a goal may be very important, putting off living itself– or living “behind a glass sheet” is another matter altogether.

  150. I think it’s wonderful that the European Union has embraced the precautionary principle and I think it’s sad that the US has yet to climb aboard. Again, this all about money. I wonder, even if we did employ the precautionary principle, how frequently businesses would alter data or persuade an oversight committee to allow a product to go to market. I think this happens anyways (just my personal opinion). I think this is also linked to the NIMBY thought. Businesses and those who develop these chemicals and medicines assume no responsibility, probably by telling themselves that they are helping a few right now. Someone else can “clean” up the mess “if” one presents itself.

    • We obviously need the precautionary principle not merely to deal with the current crises in which we have 84,000 human-made and mostly untested chemicals in the environment– and thus inevitably in the future in our bodies– but to model a shift in values from “it’s all about money” (in your words) to its all about things like health, happiness and well-being within thriving ecosystems– which also include humans.

    • I agree! I believe that a big problem with businesses and those developing products that hurt the environment is that they don’t see how their actions are hurting themselves. People believe in the reality that there are products that do hurt the environment. However, they aren’t realizing how it directly affects themselves. For instance, when we build industries in China to reduce the cost of manufacturing, we see how it might benefit ourselves. In turn, this also is damaging to ourselves. Some of these factories create substantial amounts of pollution/damage to the environment, even in our own backyard.

      • Good point, Brianna. This comes back to our interconenctions with all other life such that, as you point out, what we do that hurts others also ultimately hurts ourselves as well.

  151. As a fire manager with 17 years of experience setting fires, I loved this essay! Fire is a great example of a tool that we have learned to use in such a way to derive great benefits and also to control damage. Unlike the west, the southeastern US (especially Florida) is always being burned and management is creating a beautiful management. But the lessons only came after great harm had been done to the state – productively is high due to extended growing season and lightning strikes occur at some of highest rates in the world. So as the state developed, the fire fuels had to be managed out of necessity.

    I am disturbed that so many chemicals and manipulations of our food is allowed, and that we do not have to be informed about it. In particular, nanotechnology greatly concerns me because they are starting to put it in speciality sports bars and other foods, as well as products. For instance, shirts that offer extra protection fromthe sun are made of nanomaterials. Nanotechnology involves manipulating tiny elements (nanometer or less) so they have different properties entirely. Insecticides and rodenticides are also pretty scary, especially when you have pets or children. Most dosage recommendations are based on an avergae adult male, so if you are a small woman or a child, the toxicity level could actually be more damaging to you.

    I love the precautionary principal. My former boss and myself refered to it often when managing public lands. This kind of caution is why neither of us have a job anymore! Maybe someday the US will come around. I am very glad to hear some municipalities are starting to use it to regulate potentially damaging activities. I asusme most are either along northeast cost or northwest coast!

  152. Just because we can do something most definitely does not mean that we should and it comes as no surprise that the these things are always inherently dangerous. I can think of numerous things I could technically do, but I most certainly should not because I’d be endangering my life or others’. Even though we all lament over the fact that few take responsibility for their own actions, it remains to be true. Careful consideration and precautionary practices should be the norm versus blindly forging on. There is such a saying that “curiosity killed the cat”, but I think it’s a little bit too convenient that we forget how many humans have died because of our curiosity.

    This convenient oversight allows us to continue our current course of carelessness with which we feel we somehow even out with our outpouring of compassion when disaster strikes. Many feel the benefits are worth the risks in the long run, but this seems illogical as there ought to be other ways that carry no risks.

    Admittedly I have one example of when I threw caution to the wind when I was on vacation. I don’t think I was in all too much danger, but it probably wasn’t the best thing to do. I think that the only reason I did it was because of the place I’m at in my life right now vacations are a rarity and so I want to experience everything to the fullest and never miss out. I really should not have crept out to the edge of a 130 foot waterfall in Kauai, but the pictures are incredible. Never would I endanger my children, but my children need their father and so I will not be doing anything again. That’s a great quality humans have, to learn from our experiences and alter our course.

  153. A precautionary principle is a vital piece of self-checking we need to do in order to ensure that what we are doing, saying, and trying to prove to others in good and right. Without this principle in constant question, we will lose sight of what is true and right, but it is a concept many will not bother to implement let alone think about. There will be some people we do not understand, and some people that for one second listened to their ‘alter-ego’ that feeds off of greed. For example, pharmaceutical drug companies do not use this principle because, we would assume their first priority is to make a sale, and not really to safe guard the lives of millions. I think the only thing we can do is reward those who do follow this principle and those who do ensure their products are 100% safe, but there is no problem that will ever be fully solved when there is also humans who will be vulnerable to materialistic things.

  154. It is amazing to me how many people just don’t think before they act. People respond or behave in manners that don’t show a lot of thought. I believe that thought processing is very important. For example, the story of the toddler with the bottle rocket is a prime situation of how humans don’t use their minds to there full capability and almost don’t care how their actions affect others or themselves. The baby could have died. Fire isn’t a bad thing. It’s apart of survival. However, when not put in the proper hands it can be dangerous. For example, forest fires are sometimes started by careless teenagers that are out smoking or being funny/silly, and again not thinking about the future affects or risks of their behaviors. I don’t think that the goal should just be to take care of our environment, but to use our brains to the fullest by thinking before acting. I think that by using thought processing there is a direct correlation/outcome of developing the brain to want to care. Therefore, care for our environment.

  155. I also believe strongly in the use of the precautionary principle and since our government has decided it is not yet necessary to abide by it, I try to practice it in my life by not consuming or using products that I don’t feel have been adequately tested. This includes pretty much all new types of consumables and products, such as when Splenda was first released. We live in a society where technology has gotten too far ahead of safety. Didn’t we learn our lesson through the use of chemicals such as DDT? That was used before it was adequately tested and later found to be hugely carcinogenic! And now the widespread use of endocrine disrupters in all kinds of everyday use products. Sure, governmental agencies say they’re safe in small quantities. But when small quantities are present in nearly all the products we use, they build up to unsafe levels quickly. Plus, I have recently read reports that these minute quantities are not as unsafe as they seem. I’m not surprised.
    Just like indigenous societies we need to be cognizant of the world around us and realize that we are all part of one global family. This means that what we do here in the US DOES affect people in other countries such as France, Ethiopia, India, etc. So many times actions are taken without an individual first considering the consequences and how it will affect themselves and others around them. We need to start rekindling our ties to one another that continue to be broken down through the use of technology that ultimately isolates us from direct human contact: email, text messages, Facebook. By creating these bonds with others we can begin to foster compassion and understanding and work together to create a better world and environment. But we still have to think before we act!

    • Thanks for a very thoughtful response, Jillian. These are two essential points indeed: to rekindle our connections with one another, and thinking before we act.
      What a great idea on instituting the precautionary principle in your own life; some municipalities have done this- but this is something each of us can do in our own lives!
      You are right on the issue of small amounts of exposure. As early as two decades ago, I saw research indicating that small amounts might even be more toxic in some cases, as they were below the body’s “alert” threshold, so that they might be readily taken into our bodies than the large amounts our body was more likely to defend us against (if of course, it was not overwhelmed). Moreover, some highly toxic products like dioxins were toxic in exceedingly small amounts.
      Recent research also found that 80-90 per cent of household plastics projects are “estrogenic”, causing cancer cells to grow in a petri dish when exposed to them– all in all, instituting the precautionary principle in one’s own life seems like a solid course to take.

    • After reading your response all I could think about was cell phones. Some things (like Splenda, shampoo, cosmetics, etc.) are easier to control in your life, but what about things that are deemed a necessary technology. What if a whole generation has terrible eye sight when they’re older from looking at the computer too much, or we all develop brain tumors in 30 years from cell phones? Is this the fault of the manufacturers or the regulating agencies, I don’t think so, it’s the fault of a society that values the next cool thing over life itself.

      • I prefer the idea of allocating responsibility rather than fault, Aaron (though I have trouble sticking to this in the case of corporations that intentionally hide their harms and write to one another about this– I think we must certainly find them at fault).
        Otherwise, it is a shared responsibility among the parties you list. There is a pointed research that just came out (unfortunately I can lay hands on the link at the moment) comparing personal lifestyle choices to environmental toxins in influencing our well being. Obviously, we need to work on a larger level as well as an individual one.

  156. In an effort to suppress the chances of a fire occurring, it seems that we only increased it. I think that we need to get over our Western worldview that incorporates dominance over nature. We feel the urge to go beyond safe limits in the pursuit of ever more exciting ways to celebrate. The word caution comes to mind when I think of many of the traditions, such as fireworks on Independence Day, and how we might change them to fit reality. We have discovered many health issues due to some of our practices but we still persist in doing them. Perhaps we hold onto these things due to the memories that are made from them. But we may not have many good ones if they are not changed for the benefit of society and the environment.

    • It is ironic but not unique that certain of our short term control-nature technologies have led to the opposite results that we intended– like fire suppression or control of weeds and insects. In the latter case, a study of Colorado wheat fields found that the insect losses in the fields were twice what they were in the 1960s, before intensive local pesticide use.
      Unfortunately, this process becomes addictive to the farmer who is hooked on a chemical of which s/he needs more and more. That addiction is, of course, profitable for the companies who make the chemical if bad for the farmer, the land, and those who consume chemically-grown food.
      Just as caution comes to mind with the fireworks, precaution should come to mind with our other technologies? At the very least, slowly down enough to see the results of our actions ought to let us, well- actually see those results!
      Interesting points about memories– I think there are plenty of things to “hold onto to” in the memory category that might also teach us the results of our actions. I have never seen such clearly honest and self-critical history keepers than those who shared oral history of the pioneer period in Western Washington with me.
      Thanks for your comment.

    • Chris,

      I agree with you that we live in a society that incorporate dominance over nature, and why is it that we think that we can control nature? Over decades we as humans have been the major cause of environmental issues occurring all across the world simply because we create things that benefit humans without the proper testing of the benefit for the environment. Today we have nuclear plants to create electricity and other sources of power knowing that a nuclear meltdown can cause a catastrophe to the town/city and the environment in which is located. But again we continue to look the other way and approve the use of such things. Goods that are healthy to the environment and humans can be created they just require a lot more time and dedication and the right set of people to do it. Let’s hope that one day we get to experience change that will help the environment.

      Moises

  157. My wife and I use strong precautionary principles so we don’t consume or use products that are not environmentally friendly and that have not been properly tested to show the effect it will have to our environment. Learning from this article and research I find it disturbing that many US manufacturers are make two sets of goods to be able to sell overseas and control and report the amount and types of chemicals that the good has but yet at the same time do not follow the same standard when making goods for the US consumers to consume or utilize, and that they don’t have even the same amount of requirements as they do with goods sent overseas. Its is by far a double standard to present a new items to the market that has not been properly tested to show the effects it will have in the environment.

    Over the last decade, human contact within our own society have diminished due to lack of direct contact because of emails, social networks and electronics, this technology that was created to connect our world even if we are far away or even on the other room has had a great affect in breaking down human contact. We are lacking the ability to work together to create an environment in which we can live without affecting our health or our environment but how do we create technology that can be beneficial to both us and nature? A simple solution is properly testing this new technology to reduce the amount of pollution or waste created and harming our environment. Our society runs more on making a profit rather than making a difference, many manufactures lack the ability to see the difference thing will make to the environment and focus on the difference it will make to an individual and their bank accounts, just like you stated in this article, “We forget that what seems adventurous and profitable in the moment might eventually burn done our neighbors house-or give our children cancer” a true statement that describes just how important values are (not important at all) and just how important our bank accounts are. If we live in a world that caters to profit we will continue to make harm to the environment to an extent that will be irreversible. The time for change is now and the time to allow our technology to coexist with our world is today, the only problem is making everyone else see the real truth. Thanks again for another valuable and truthful article.

    • You are welcome, Moises, thank you for your own thoughtful comment here. Congratulations on enacting the precautionary principle in your own home. If the majority of US consumers did this, many corporations would have to revamp their products considerably in order to stay in business.
      But isn’t this precisely what we want our dollars to do– support those things which we value rather than those which destroy our health and that of the natural world?
      When we reduce the idea of profit to monetary rewards for a few who are able to tweak the system instead, we have a system with profoundly destructive dynamics, as you indicate.

  158. There may be little to say here but by and large, simply, that I agree. Whatever it is, caution and circumspect are certainly values that are worth having. Some of the stories here kind of surprised me, such as the carelessness with fireworks, but I am glad that, as pointed out, even modern forest services understand that sometimes a fire can be used to clear out underbrush in order to defeat larger fires.

    • Thanks for your response here, Thomas– indicating the balance we need in choosing our actions in concert with natural systems–and perhaps in concert with our neighbors when it comes to fireworks or toxic chemical release.

  159. Fire is a good metaphor for the sometimes out of control technologies that get to market without proper fore-thought.Technology without thorough testing and considerations for the possible effects is illustrated well with the story of the families on the Fourth of July. Don’t light the fuse if you don’t know what is going to happen. This is why I feel that it is okay if technology doesn’t move full steam ahead. The author quoted an Olympic Peninsula elder as saying her people had ten thousand years to perfect living with their environment. Well I’m in no rush, I don’t see why we don’t have the same time line for our civilization. For this I will say, “take it easy” stick to what you know, but always strive to know more.

    • Sounds good to me, Aaron. I think society as a whole should take the stance of sitting back and being patient and learning something about what is about to happen if we “light that fuse.”

  160. One thing fire management in the United States has shown us is that when we think we know everything; we find out very fast that we do not. We try to suppress fire because it is something that scorches our lands. But, in reality, fire is an intricate part of Western landscapes. Our ecosystems have evolved from patterns of fire regimes. Each ecosystem has an historic fire regime that shaped it to be where it is at today. When we take this away, it upsets the natural cycle and ecosystems struggle to evolve around it. This is why we see such increases in fires on the Western part of the United States today. I agree completely that calling western fires a “natural disaster” is a misnomer. This only reflects the idea that fire is bad instead of highlighting the importance that is plays in shaping our ecosystems.

    A good example is an Aspen tree, an iconic symbol of the West. In the fall we have a beautiful tree that covers mountainsides with brilliant yellows. They are very fire dependent though. If we do not allow fire to enter their landscapes then the Aspens will have a shorter lifespan. They’ll get old, fall over, and perish earlier than they should. Without fire stimulating new Aspen life, we lose our beautiful trees. But, social ideas of fire force us to manage our systems in ways that are not healthy. Maybe instead of looking at fire as something negative we should look at it for the ways it helps our forests evolve.
    But to do so, it would require us to look at our natural systems in a new and more truthful way. To do this, we have to bring ourselves back into the wilderness and establish new ideas about our forests and what makes them thrive. We have taken ourselves so far away from nature that proper management tactics are far and few between. We manage for aesthetic qualities and not for hardiness of the trees. Our relationship to our systems is based off of our dominance, our needs to control and suppress the natural systems. These patriarchal behaviors only promote mismanagement and confuse society as to the benefits of natural processes like fire.

    • I like your statement that we might better “highlight the importance that fire plays in shaping our ecosystems” rather than just labeling it as bad. Of course, we also have to deal with where we have unwisely located our houses– and a build up of fuel in all these years of fire suppression, not to mention, hotter and drier and windier weather with climate change.
      As you rightly point out, to change our views (and activities relating to) fire in our ecosystems, we will have to look not only at ecosystems but at ourselves in a more “truthful” way. My hope is that, as you suggest here, we can replace systems of dominance with ones of partnership.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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