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Environmental Lawyer Carolyn Raffensperger Advocates for the Commons

Posted on Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (SENH), says that environmental law needs to move from an emphasis on private property to the principle of the commons.  “We should leave [the environment] to future generations unimpaired.”  Raffensperger discussed environmental law in her public address, “As if the Future Mattered: Emerging Ideas in Environmental Policy,” at Sabin Hall Auditorium on Feb. 8. 

Raffensperger argued for leaving the environment to the future in “as good of shape or better.” 

“The way we do it is not by privileging private property or private corporations on the assumption that it’s good for everybody, because it’s not,” Raffensperger said.

“There are other ways we can make decisions. Slavery, child labor, prostitution – those were great for the economy,” she said.  “We got rid of them because they were wrong.  What if we began making decisions based not on economies but rights?” 

Raffensperger noted inspiration from the Native American ethic of making environmentally sustainable decisions that consider the rights of the “seventh generation” into the future.  That same idea gave rise to the Precautionary Principle, which reverses the burden of proof in environmental decision making. “Right now we give the benefit to the economy,” she said.  “We should give the benefit to the clean environment.”

Some corporations, such as Dell and Samsung, have adopted the Precautionary Principle to eliminate toxins in the manufacture of their electronics, Raffensperger said.  Municipalities like the city and county of San Francisco use the principle for environmental decisions, and the European Union operates with the ethic by not permitting chemicals from being marketed unless they are firs tested for safety.

Raffensperger likened the Precautionary Principle to folk wisdom such as “a stitch in time saves nine” and  “look before you leap,” and said the principle can be the guide to creating a healthy commons.

Earlier in the day, Raffensperger was a guest in the Advanced Reporting: Reporting Iowa’s Environment class co-taught by CEEE director Kamyar Enshayan and Communication Studies professor Chris Martin.

As an environmental lawyer, Raffensperger specializes in the fundamental changes in law and policy necessary for the protection and restoration of public health and the environment. She is co-editor of Precautionary Tools for Reshaping Environmental Policy published by M.I.T. Press (2006) and Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle, published by Island Press (1999). Together, these volumes are the most comprehensive exploration to date of the history, theory, and implementation of the precautionary principle.

Raffensperger has been featured in Gourmet magazine, the Utne Reader, Yes! Magazine, the Sun, Whole Earth, and Scientific American. Along with leading workshops and giving frequent lectures on the Precautionary Principle, she is at the forefront of developing new models for government that depend on these larger ideas of precaution and ecological integrity.

Raffensperger’s speech was sponsored by the UNI Center for Energy and Environmental Education (CEEE) and the Department of Communication Studies.