Science Has a Toxicity Problem !
One of the great, although not easily or immediately visible issues of our times, is the tendency of science and economic entities (e.g. corporations) to create products and practices that are in some way useful and helpful to us - but that later prove to have intolerable, even potentially deadly downsides.
We can't fault science for trying to solve human needs - or corporations for trying to make solutions available. But there must be ways to refuse, restrict or be protected from harmful products/practices.
This problem surfaces in MANY industries today ; and again and again, projects rapidly to worldwide scale :
- In telecommunications (with health and environmental effects of 5G networks and smart meters as recent examples)
- In agriculture, with near universal application of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides
- .In adulteration of foods through excessive processing, additives and preservatives.
- In toxic environmental substances in personal hair, skin and body care products, cosmetics, household cleaning and construction materials, and much more.
- In our massive and one-sided use of vaccines and antibiotics to deal with infectious diseases in humans and animals ; while ignoring downside effects and alternate approaches ; and dismissing - or even suppressing - citizen concerns.
Clearly these all need to be identified - and dealt with one by one. The Precautionary Principle offers a way forward
Scientist invents something, a product or process that's useful, or seems to solve some problem. It's taken up by some economic entity and produced for public use. It's generally felt to be a good thing, and fills some important need. This is a product developed on the basis of science, by scientists and approved by scientists as sound and safe.
But now at some point it's discovered by other scientists, or by members of the public affected by it, that the product, or practices associated with it's production, distribution etc, has serious downside effects , for instance on health or the environment.
This may be something scientists can, and may in fact correct. The economic entity concerned may find itself with some liability for harm done, take responsibility for this, make revisions to the product/practice or discontinue it - and move on. Despite an inconvenience or even a loss, it does the right thing.
But this is also a point where serious problems can arise. Here's an example :
The economic entity - for simplicity's sake, say a corporation - now finds itself with a product it's deeply invested in, and may be making significant money on - and does not do the right thing. Perhaps it's an agricultural product, a chemical with properties that seem highly valuable : it kills weeds, or certain insects, or a fungus that harms crops. But it's then also found to kill birds, bees or other helpful insects, or some microorganism crucial to the health of the soil itself. Or it gives rise to super weeds, more invasive than the first ones. Or it's found to have, or strongly and plausibly suspected to have, a serious impact on human health.
Again, in the best case the product or practice is handed back to science for revision - or some traditional practice is revived, or a new practice is found, that requires no chemical at all. But where great liability and profits are at stake, strange things can happen.
The economic entity doubles down. It's product or practice, it's emphasized, was developed by scientists on the basis of science, approved as effective and safe by scientists. Scientists are found to defend it. The original studies are emphasized, and the new ones attacked. New and more favorable studies are commissioned, university departments and positions funded. The product is praised in national media, the absolute need for it emphasized, criticism noted - and lightly dismissed. The concerns, complaints and actual harm reported by lay persons are minimized, denied or even attacked as scientifically misinformed, irresponsible or economically motivated. Tropes, caricatures and familiar villains are developed, and overwhelmingly amplified by public and social media.
As a result we find ourselves, as only one example, with an agricultural system that feeds us in the short term - but poisons the whole earth over time. This is a pattern - the seemingly useful product or practice, that also destroys us. This pattern repeats again and again today, and has become a hallmark, a mega-phenomenon of our times.
All created by science, approved by scientists, vouched safe and defended by SOME portion of scientists - but gravely flawed and dangerous.
THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE for Protecting
the Environment - and Human Health !
On January 15, 1998 the precautionary principle was defined at a weekend meeting at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin. Subsequently known as the Wingspread Statement, the precautionary principle was defined as follows :
"The release and use of toxic substances, the exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions ; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials
We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to adequately protect human health and the environment - the larger system of which humans are but a part
We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary
While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors
Therefore, it is necessary to implement 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
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"
The roots of the precautionary principle can be traced to statements by Aldo Leopold (1949) and Sir Austin Bradford Hill (1965). It's also addressed in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992. The term itself arose from the German "Vorsorgesprinzip", when in 1988, Konrad von Moltke described this for a British audience, and translated it to English as "the precautionary principle."
The Rio Declaration of 1992 states that "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty
shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent
The precautionary principle is increasingly recognized as a foundation for decision making to protect human heath and the environment. Its five key elements are to :
"1. Take anticipatory action to prevent harm in the face of scientific uncertainty.
2. Explore alternatives, including the alternative of "no action."
3. Consider the full cost of environmental and health impacts over time.
4. Increase public participation in decision making.
5. Shifting the responsibility for providing evidence to the proponents of an activity."
What Happened - And Didn't Happen - Next
Since 1992, many countries have struggled to turn these principles into policies. There
has also been intense resistance from industries potentially affected by such policies, encompassing the academic and legal worlds, news media and the lobbying of governments against possible restrictions on products or practices.
Among the larger countries and economies, the United States has been among the least receptive to the precautionary principle, on the levels both of policies and action. The
result is a true paradox of our times - one rarely brought to full consciousness, but still
highly characteristic : namely, the unequivocally harmful technology or practice that can almost literally not be stopped .
To see the pattern this represents in our times, take a few minutes to list as many technologies, products and practices as you can think of that match this description - and
write them down for yourself.
Those who would protect themselves or the environment today meet a virtual wall of obstacles and resistance. Rather than a precautionary approach, they're asked to prove an exclusive single cause of harm, before action can be taken. Given the complexity of the physical and biological world, this is extremely difficult. The status of a product or practice under law is thus raised to that of a human being : "innocent, until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
Under this standard, products like tobacco, alcohol and fossil fuels, agricultural products like Monsanto's (now Bayer's) glyphosate escape regulation for four, five, six decades or more, before limits are set. In this time colossal damage can occur in the natural world , and immense loss of human life and health.
For those who insist on safety, the face of science and research, of medical experts, of governments ostensibly "there for our protection", may at first be concerned and
benign ; but when challenged, turn more stern and defensive, standing on their authority. If seen objectively, the results and actions of science, medicine, government in fact amount to indifference, as risks rise unabated.
There's of course no going back on technology, which serves us in many ways, and on which
we in many ways depend. Gratefulness is in order - but technology cannot be allowed
to destroy us.
Economic life, for its part, also serves us, and is essential to human life. But economic
life can also not freely harm people or the environment. Society has a need, right and responsibility to set limits to harmful products and practices.
Protections of this kind are the rightful task of government - among the roles governments
take, there's in fact none more appropriate. Yet often today, government turns this role upside down, so to speak ; so that instead of protecting citizens from harm, it protects products and practices that do the harm. As noted, this is a pattern across many industries.
From the viewpoint of policies and results thus far, the precautionary principle has been effectively blocked and frustrated. In the meantime consequences accumulate, not just
from one, but from many sides. Exposures are most often not single events, but continuous. Harm is often not transient, with a recovery, but chronic or permanent . Effects of harmful influences are now often found to be not discrete or isolated, but to combine with effects from other harmful influences.