Our society seems to have forgotten that old adage that ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ Whether we’re talking about environmental destruction, crime, or health, it’s always better to prevent the damage than try to deal with it afterwards.
This is a fundamental part of the Hippocratic Oath, and ‘do no harm’ is often called the first principle of health care. Physicians may try to follow this principle, but the system as a whole is oriented to treatment, not wellness.
Our current approaches to environmental protection, safety, and public health are examples of what happens when the principle of doing no harm is ignored. In fact, what regulators do is permit harm as long as it doesn’t exceed ‘acceptable’ levels that are often dictated by the industry.
- According to Dr. Kristin Schrader-Frechette at Notre Dame, over 500,000 people die each year in the U.S. from known, preventable discharges of toxic pollution. This exceeds most other causes of death except for broad categories such as ‘heart disease’ and ‘cancer’.
- According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, about 5,000 workers die on the job each year, and many of these cases involve employers’ failure to invest in or maintain even minimal safety systems or failure to follow basic regulations. [2010 saw multiple deaths in the resource extraction fields of coal mining, oil drilling, & natural gas production.]
Preventing or minimizing harm is one of the main ideas of the precautionary principle:
When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically…. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.
But, you may say, this approach would halt progress and be too expensive. Not so—we are already incurring these costs, but they are being passed on to individuals and government instead of being recognized as a cost of business. Every time your taxes pay for environmental cleanup or remediation, these are costs that should have been paid by those who created the problem. Every time you pay for health care that results from pollution of our air, water, and food, these are costs that should have been paid by those who created the problem. It’s time to stop giving business a free ride at our expense.
A good first principle for business is that profits or return on investment need to be earned; that means treating employees fairly—fair wages, benefits, and working conditions—and paying a fair price for products you use or resell so their producers can pay fairly. It means following the same rule that hikers do: leaving the area—in this case the environment—cleaner than before. Isn’t this just the ‘golden rule’ that society and religion have embraced for years?
If a business can’t succeed and earn a good return following this principle, it shouldn’t be in business, because it is not right to harm people just to earn money.