Making Better Environmental Decisions
One of the break out sessions I attended at the US Green building Council's Green Build conference this past fall was about the Precautionary Principle. During that session, this book, Making Better Environmental Decisions, was recommended by Debbie Raphael, Toxics Reduction/Green Building Program Manager with the Department of the Environment in the city of San Francisco. I chose to include this review in March as a part of the "making decisions" focus of this month's issue of Easy to be Green.
Most people will agree that we need to change our life and work habits to create a more sustainable way of living by changing the choices and decisions we make. But, it isn't easy and it isn't clear how to tackle a problem that is complex and often overwhelming. Mary O'Brien gives clarity to this challenge. The main focus of the book is decision making by companies and decision making within the public arena where risk assessment is a commonly used tool. Mary argues very convincingly that alternatives assessment in combination with some risk assessments is a better idea than risk assessment alone. She explains the strengths and weaknesses of both risk assessment and alternatives assessment. The book points out the underlying reasons risk assessment has become so common and especially why it is embraced by people with a stake in the status quo. But, if you come to agree with Mary that a shift in the way we make decisions is a good idea then the book also gives readers ideas about exactly how to be a part of making the shift. Simply put, the complexities of responsible environmental decision making are simplified and the overwhelming seems manageable.
The goal of the book is clearly stated from the outset. The first chapter is titled:
- "Goal: Replace Risk Assessment with Alternatives Assessment" and the author goes on to say, "The goal of this book is to help replace risk assessment of a narrow range of options with public assessment of a broad range of options. The book is based on a set of values, principles, and understandings, as well as on scientific and factual information.(p.3)"
As I read the book, the underlying concept of basing decisions on a set of values, principles, and understandings, not just the scientific numbers of a risk assessment really spoke to me. Instead of feeling held hostage by the numbers and feeling the need to either approve or reject something, we should always seek to consider all alternatives, choosing the least harmful whenever possible. And when faced with the "by the numbers" approach of a formal risk assessment, we can still reject the activity or product using our own values and judgments regarding the risk. In this way, the precautionary approach is very much at the root of an alternatives assessment. It speaks to me as well because decisions based on a combination of science, emotion, and values is more consistent with the way most of us as individual people make decisions in our own lives.
I have to admit that I embrace the precautionary approach and alternatives assessment at face value. It is easy for me to reject the strict supposedly "hard science" of risk assessment that is so often used to justify behavior that has caused serious harm and wouldn't otherwise be tolerated. I really didn't need the abundance of examples Mary provided to be convinced. Still, I think even a skeptic for a shift in the way we make decisions would find it hard to reject the many and varied examples given in favor of alternatives assessment and the clear examples that show the negative side of risk assessment. My two favorite examples illustrating the down side of risk assessment are:
- Risk assessments are often paid for by companies and groups with lots of money who want a behavior with some risk to be approved. The assessment is usually long and full of highly technical information. When faced with such a risk assessment that says something would be "ok" what can lay people do? As Mary describes, in Kettleman City, Ca. the citizens were presented with a 3,000 page risk assessment written in English regarding a new Chemical Waste Management-hazardous waste incinerator in their community. Most of the people didn't want the incinerator. The mostly hispanic community challenged the assessment with an 8 page response in Spanish. I think this example shows that we don't have to stay in the paradigm created. I hear the community saying, "we reject this scientific/technical format and we will respond in our language", literally, writing in Spanish, a language possibly as foreign to many of the scientists who wrote the risk assessment as the risk assessment is foreign to the residents. This highlights one of the books criticisms of risk assessments; they are impossible for lay people to respond to in a like manner and therefore are not appropriate for a democratically based culture.
- Risk assessment always assumes that a risk should be considered allowable if it is small enough. That is the fundamental difference between risk assessment and alternatives assessments. Looking at alternatives allows the possibility of a reduced risk or no risk. So an important and fundamental down side to risk assessment is the acceptance of risk. One way we all allow ourselves to accept these risks is that they are quantified and kept as abstract numbers. But, what if we knew who the one out of whatever number of people were who was going to get cancer from say formaldehyde off gassing of particle board. What if we could name the person and it was your sister, brother or best friend? Would it be an acceptable risk then even if that person were say one in a million. And beyond that, what if there were an alternative? Isn't it more prudent and responsible to ask, "Can we avoid knowingly causing anyone to get cancer if we allow ourselves to examine and choose an alternative?". If we, as Mary suggests, think like this instead of in abstract risk assessment numbers, then we can make more responsible decisions.
As interior designers, I think this book is helpful because it gives a solid explanation of risk assessment which is the context in which most of the people we work with and serve may be using to frame their decision making. And, as products of our culture we are likely influenced by it as well. Alternatives assessment gives us as professionals another way to frame decision making. We can remind clients and other team members that avoiding risk when possible and choosing the least harmful product or process can be the most prudent way to approach the decisions we are making that will affect the lives of people for years to come. Knowing that we can approach decisions without getting caught up in the battles over, "Is something safe enough?", can free all of us to find the best options. As designers, choosing the best option is our professional responsibility.by: Sue Norman