There is something profoundly wrong with the way we are living today. There are corrosive pathologies of inequality all around us — be they access to a safe environment, healthcare, education or clean water. These are reinforced by short-term political actions and a socially divisive language based on the adulation of wealth. A progressive response will require not only greater knowledge about the state of the planet and its resources, but also an awareness that many aspects will remain unknown. We will need a more ethical form of public decision-making based on a language in which our moral instincts and concerns can be better expressed. These are the overall aims of Volume 2 of Late lessons from early warnings.
Volume 1 of Late lessons from early warnings was published at a time when the world was experiencing an economic slowdown, China had joined the World Trade Organization and western Europe was still a 15-member Union. Global grain production had declined for the third time in four years due mainly to droughts in North America and Australia, and the world saw major recalls of contaminated meat, foot and mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). Global temperatures continued to climb and many bird populations were in decline, but the United States of America had rejected the Kyoto Protocol. We were seeing ourselves through the lens of the first human genome sequence, yet we were trying to manage chemicals known to be harmful to humans and ecosystems, through international conventions and treaties such as the Basel Convention to deal with toxic waste dumping in the developing world; the OSPAR/HELCOM Conventions to reduce the discharges, emissions and the loss of hazardous substances into the sea and the Montreal Protocol, to phase out ozone-depleting substances. The destruction of the World Trade Center had just happened.
Since then, we have witnessed a period of extraordinary hubris. Most visibly, the financial profligacy of the first decade of the century led inexorably to the crises of 2007–2009 whereby the major components of the international financial system were weakened to the extreme by indebtedness, mispriced products, lax monetary policies and mis-engineered protection against risks and uncertainty. The world experienced more not less volatility. Political systems became silted up by vested interests and a determination by citizens to protect assets accumulated in easier times, and beneath it all lay a deeper environmental crisis epitomised by climate change and biodiversity loss.
There was also a collapse of trust, not only in financial institutions but in big companies, as they abandoned staff, pensions and health care schemes. Recent evidence from social psychology has shown that despite rising levels of education and innovation in products and services, people trust only those they know and not strangers. As Stephen Green said in Good value: reflections on money, morality, and an uncertain world in 2009:
‘There has been a massive breakdown of trust: trust in the financial system, trust in bankers, trust in business and business leaders, trust in politicians, trust in the media, trust in the whole process of globalisation — all have been severely damaged, in rich countries and poor countries alike’.
The scientific elites have also been slowly losing public support. This is in part because of the growing number of instances of misplaced certainty about the absence of harm, which has delayed preventive actions to reduce risks to human health, despite evidence to the contrary.
Suddenly, our problems have grown into what Charles W. Churchman in 1967 termed wicked problems — difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements, difficult to recognize, resistant to resolution because of the complexity of their interdependencies and needing to be tackled not by one but via many forms of social power. Solving them requires a new combination of hierarchical power, solidarity and individualism.
What could this mean, for example, for the 100 thousand chemicals currently in commercial use?
To begin with we have more conventions and treaties in place than a decade ago: the 2004 Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure covering international trade of 24 pesticides, four severely hazardous pesticide formulations and 11 industrial chemicals; the 2004 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to protect human health and the environment from substances which are highly toxic, persistent, bio-accumulative and move long distances in the environment, such as DDT, PCBs, various industrial chemicals, and a set of unintentional chemical by-products such as dioxin. But these conventions only address the top-down hierarchical approach to power.
At the same time Europe has put in place legislation to achieve a global regulatory influence including the EU Cosmetic Directive banning the use of chemicals known or strongly suspected of being carcinogens, reproductive toxins, or mutagens causing cancer, mutation or birth defects; the EU Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, which restricts the use of hazardous materials in the manufacture of various types of electronic and electrical equipment including lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, the flame retardents polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and which encourages the substitution to safe/or safer alternatives in the electric and electronic equipment industry; the closely linked 2006 EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive for collection, recycling and recovery of electrical goods; the 2006 Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM); and the 2007 EU Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals, widely known as REACH, to assign greater responsibility to industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on substances. The effects of these regulatory tools are described in different chapters, but once again point to the main economic actors rather than communities or individuals.
One thing that has become clearer over the past decade is that certain chemical substances are highly stable in nature and can have long-lasting and wide ranging effects before being broken down into a harmless form. The risk of a stable compound is that it can be bio-accumulated in fatty tissues at concentrations many times higher than in the surrounding environment. Predators, such as polar bears, fish and seals, are known to bio-magnify certain chemicals in even higher concentrations with devastating consequences for both humans and ecosystems. So exposure to toxic chemicals and certain foodstuffs are at risk of causing harm, especially to vulnerable groups such as foetuses in the womb or during childhood when the endocrine system is being actively built. Even with small dose exposures, the consequences can in some instances be devastating with problems ranging from cancer, serious impacts on human development, chronic diseases and learning disabilities. Here the power to act could be more properly set by well-informed individuals and communities.
The relationship between knowledge and power lies at the heart of Volume 2. In many chapters, the implicit links between the sources of scientific knowledge about pollutants, changes in the environment and new technologies, and strong vested interests, both economic and paradigmatic, are exposed. A number of authors also explore in greater depth, the short-sightedness of regulatory science and its role in the identification, evaluation and governance of natural resources, physical and chemical hazards. By creating a better understanding of these normally invisible aspects, it is hoped that this volume will enable communities and people to become more effective stakeholders and participants in the governance of innovation and economic activities in relation to the associated risks to humans and the planet.
Much of what we are able to learn from the histories of past environmental and public health mistakes is also directly applicable to the better regulation and governance of global institutions and financial and economic risks. Robin G. Collingwood argued in his Autobiography (1939), that:
‘History can offer something altogether different from [scientific] rules, namely insight. The true function of insight is to inform people about the present…we study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act… the plane on which, ultimately, all problems arise is the plane of ‘real’ life: that to which they are referred for their solution is history.’
In this volume, we go further. Whilst still drawing lessons from such widely accepted tragedies as leaded petrol, mercury poisoning in Japan’s Minamata Bay and older pesticides which sterilised many men who used it, we have ventured into the uncertainties of potential yet contested harm, from genetically modified products; nanotechnologies; chemicals such as Bisphenol A; new pesticides and mobile phones. There is also an examination of the 80 or so potential ‘false positives’ where there had been indications of harm but where it was subsequently claimed that there were in fact no risks to prevent: these cases too can provide information that can help to improve future decision-making about innovation and emerging technologies.
A major part of effective decision-making lies in the way issues are framed. In the case of climate change, the first order question is whether it is worth worrying about at all. US Vice President Al Gore chose to make the question a matter of choice between believers and sceptics. However, problems arose when the public was asked to make a scientific decision when too few people had the qualifications to make any kind of reasoned judgement. They were in fact asked to make a false choice. Instead the question should have been framed around which areas should people and governments make decisions and which should be delegated to experts.
In the end there are few certain and enduring truths in the ecological and biological sciences, nor in the economics, psychologies, sociologies and politics that we use to govern them. One, however, comes from the work of Elinor Ostrom, a late and widely missed colleague, who showed from her work on managing fisheries and ecosystems that complex problems can be solved if communication is transparent and open, visions are shared, trust is high and communities are activated to work from the bottom-up as well as from the top down.
As we navigate the Anthropocene, the epoch named in recognition of our impact on the planet, we will need to encourage more people to become involved in solving the wicked problems of our times. Whether through gathering local information or becoming more aware of the many uncertainties and unpredictabilities in our surroundings, the power structures of knowledge will need to change. And if we are to respond more responsibly to the early warning signals of change, we will need to re-design our style of governance to one which reflects a future defined by the local and specific rather than only the global and the average. We hope that Volume 2 of Late lessons from early warnings with its many lessons and insights can help us all meet such a challenge.
- The precautionary principle and false alarms — lessons learned
- Lead in petrol ‘makes the mind give way’
- Too much to swallow: PCE contamination of mains water
- Minamata disease: a challenge for democracy and justice
- Beryllium’s ‘public relations problem’
- Tobacco industry manipulation of research
- Vinyl chloride: a saga of secrecy
- The pesticide DBCP and male infertility
- Bisphenol A: contested science, divergent safety evaluations
- DDT: fifty years since Silent Spring
- Booster biocide antifoulants: is history repeating itself?
- Ethinyl oestradiol in the aquatic environment
- Climate change: science and the precautionary principle
- Floods: lessons about early warning systems
- Seed‑dressing systemic insecticides and honeybees
- Ecosystems and managing the dynamics of change
- Late lessons from Chernobyl, early warnings from Fukushima
- Hungry for innovation: from GM crops to agroecology
- Invasive alien species: a growing but neglected threat?
- Mobile phones and brain tumour risk: early warnings, early actions?.
- Nanotechnology — early lessons from early warnings
- Understanding and accounting for the costs of inaction
- Protecting early warners and late victims
- Why did business not react with precaution to early warnings?
- Science for precautionary decision‑making
- More or less precaution?
- In conclusion.
- Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000, Environmental issue report No 22/2001, 09 Jan 2002.
- Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation, EEA Report No 1/2013, 22 Jan 2013.
- Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: 2nd Endocrine Society Scientific Statement, 2015.
- Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: 1st Endocrine Society Scientific Statement, 2009.
- Watch our DES and EDCs research gallery on Flickr.
- Watch our EDCs video playlist on YouTube.