City should adopt the Precautionary Principle on smart meters

In August 2010, during the City Council discussions concerning the placement of an AT&T cellphone antenna above the Ashland Street Cinema, I urged the council to apply the Precautionary Principle in deciding such matters. In brief, the Precautionary Principle states: If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or the environment, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those proposing the action. In other words, as every caring parent understands, when there is legitimate concern about safety and unforeseen consequences, it is better to err on the side of caution.

In the May 2012 City Council meeting which dealt with a similar agenda item concerning safety and privacy issues of "smart meter" technology and the plan to impose punitive surcharges to discourage residents from oping out of its use, I again raised the issue of applying the Precautionary Principle. For clearly the decision to replace perfectly good analog meters with "smart meters" that emit constant 24/7 electromagnetic radiation raises questions both about the economic wisdom of such "cost-cutting measures" as well as the unforeseen costs to personal and ecological health.

After all, as we have learned the hard way from earlier denials that dismissed such concerns (as in the case of the unregulated sale and promotion of tobacco products), ignoring potential health threats which threaten corporate profits or our misguided notion of "progress" has in fact cost our health care systems countless billions of dollars. Learning from such terribly costly experiences and the generations of casualties still paying the price, it is critical to expand our definition of "cost." For how can we not factor "well-being" into the balancing of our budgets and our lives? How can we continue to compartmentalize our decision-making, disconnecting health, public safety and system ecology from our accounting and economic measures?

From this perspective, I (along with many others) questioned the trade-off to save a few hours of meter-reader pay by risking the potential health of our citizens (especially those most vulnerable to EMR sensitivity such as young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems). For it seems to contribute to a potentially dangerous experiment that unintentionally turns those of us living in Ashland's accelerating "radiation field" into guinea pigs. After all, this "smart meter" issue is itself just another indicator of a larger systemic problem that cannot be successfully addressed piecemeal. (Thankfully, it should be noted, the council in its June 19 meeting agreed to conduct a cost-benefit analysis regarding smart meter technology, and allowed residents to opt out without penalty.)

In this light, let us not wait for the science to catch up with the technology to find out what we did to ourselves. In which case, noting the social and ethical responsibility to protect the public from exposure to potential harm, I propose that Ashland enact the Precautionary Principle in all of its future city decision-making processes, joining together with other forward-thinking cities and organizations which have already adopted this principle. For in fact there is a growing worldwide precedent for its application, including the European Union, which has made the Precautionary Principle a statutory requirement.

In addition to this proposal, approaching the matter in the spirit of a more positive, interactive and integrated process, I suggest the following: Recognizing the call from a number of residents at the June 19 council meeting for more creative collaboration and dialog between citizens and council members, I encourage the city to consider creating a citizen liaison body that could meet with the council when such sensitive matters arise. For the appropriate use of such a body could help us avoid conflicts and misunderstandings, point out blind spots as well as build bridges and synergy between the city and its citizens. After all, in these extremely challenging, complex and polarizing times, we have so much to learn with and from one another, so much to heal in ourselves and our world.

Alan Sasha Lithman lives in Ashland.

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