Making Better Environmental Decisions

Making Better Environmental Decisions

An Alternative to Risk Assessment

By Mary O'Brien





For the past quarter-century, government and the private sector have relied heavily on risk assessment for making decisions, allowing widespread environmental deterioration. In this book, Mary O'Brien recommends a simple yet profound shift to another decision-making technique: "alternatives assessment." Instead of asking how much of a hazardous activity is safe (which translates into how much damage the environment can tolerate), alternatives assessment asks how we can avoid or minimize damage while achieving society's goals. Alternatives assessment is a simple, commonsense alternative to risk assessment. It is based on the premise that it is not acceptable to damage human and nonhuman health or the environment if there are reasonable alternatives. The approach calls for taking precautionary measures even if some cause-and-effect relationships have not been fully established scientifically. The process must involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action at all. Equally important, it must be democratic and include potentially affected parties. O'Brien not only makes a persuasive case for alternative assessment; she tells how to implement it. She also shows how this technique has profound implications for public health, for our stewardship of the environment, and for a truly democratic government. Published in association with the Environmental Research Foundation.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262150514 304 pp. | 6 in x 8.9 in


$9.99 S | £7.99 ISBN: 9780262650533 304 pp. | 6 in x 8.9 in


  • Risk assessments are a recipe for the continued degradation of ourenvironment. People who want to leave a healthier planet for our childrenwill find Dr. O'Brien's book an invaluable resource, a ray of hope, and acall to action.

    Bern Johnson

    Executive Director, U. S. Office, Environmental LawAlliance Worldwide (E-LAW)

  • This book reads like an extended conversation with a knowledgeable scientist. The thinking is highly original and the scholarship is deep and original.

    Richard Clapp

    Boston University School of Public Health

  • Scientifically and ethically irrefutable. Mary O'Brien pulls back the curtain of wizardry that surrounds risk assessment and shows us the tembling little men behind it. Even better, she offers us a way out of our current hazard-filled existence. Speak plainly, O'Brien urges us, and, chapter after chapter, she does.

    Sandra Steingraber

    author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment

  • Fresh clean air blows through Mary O'Brien's book, and takes 'risk assessment' away with it. O'Brien argues persuasively risk assessments cannont be improved because they are defective to the marrow. Her alternative is provocative and will win many new adherents. A landmakr book.

    David Ozonoff

    Professor of Environmental Health and Chair, Department of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health

  • Mary O'Brien has produced a compelling treatise on why and how we must shift our attention from assessing problems to devising solutions to environmental, health, and safety threats. Commonsense technology options analysis—or alternatives assessment—transcends value-laden and limited classical risk assessment and is essential for achieving sustainable industrial transformations.

    Nicholas Ashford

    Professor of Technology and Policy, MIT, and co-author, Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes