Standing in Front of Speeding Cars and Other Modern Pastimes

By Madronna Holden

Andrew Light, director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University, observes that just as we look both ways before crossing the street, we should exercise precaution in releasing new technologies.  Failing to do so is like assuming that if we don’t look as we cross a busy highway, no cars will be coming. In the European Union, the precautionary principle remedies this irrationality with its REACH program, which mandates that new chemicals be proved safe before their release.

The current US policy, by contrast, allows the release of over 2000 untested new chemicals annually—some of them taken directly into our bloodstreams through the use of untested Nano-carriers, as in sunscreens and cosmetics.   In this scenario, our own bodies become the experimental subjects with which to test these chemicals, creating what social historian Ulrech Bech terms the risk society”

Bech notes that untested technologies hurtle us into a fatalistic world in which society is at the mercy of technological effects rather than controlling them or nature.  In  a recent interview, Bech asserted that our survival dictates we reverse this “organized irresponsibility” through a global program of justice– giving those affected by new technologies a say in their release.

It is, after all, a basic premise of democracy that we get to approve or disapprove social choices that affect our lives.  Essential to such voting is knowledge. This is why the labeling of genetically engineered foods is so important—and the concerted campaign of the US biotech industry to stop such labeling is clearly undemocratic.  In a democracy, you don’t get to hide what you are doing just because your market research says you might lose profits if you reveal it.

Likewise, corporations fighting the passage of the US Disclose Act (which would require disclosure of funding sources of campaign ads) are clearly acting in bad faith. So are those who oppose the Safe Chemicals Act currently before Congress. Putting profit before ethics sets the stage for amplifying the “risk society” Bech outlines.

We need both the precautionary principle—and a change in worldview– to create a secure society instead. We are several centuries behind modern knowledge when we adhere to the worldview that sets humans apart from and above nature—asserting with Francis Bacon that all scientific technology is automatically good in its control of nature.

Take the case of the scientific management of ocean fisheries– in particular, of the cod fishery in Newfoundland studied by Dean Bavington. Bavington makes the case that the fishery collapsed as a direct outcome of management stemming from a dualistic worldview.  Such management quantified fish as “biomass” and ocean habitat according to its “carrying capacity” in an attempt to yield a rationally managed, predictable and sustainable cod fishery. But this representational approach to the fish missed a good deal, discounting the “anecdotal” observations of onshore fishermen that the cod were actually disappearing.

It turns out the onshore fishermen were right.  In attempting to smooth out the variation of the cod runs by location and year, management by numbers missed the destructive effects of their own technology, which took fish during spawning, allowing for huge by-catches as it scooped up whole schools of offshore fish, and changed the genetic populations of cod to smaller fish at older ages, even as it caught “mother fish” principally responsible for breeding.

Notably, the traditional fishermen—both in Newfoundland and in Britain—lobbied against the use of new technologies such as bottom-trawling nets on the basis of their destructive potential.  In effect, they asserted the precautionary principle.  But their voices were not heeded.  Pointedly, what Bavington refers to as an ethic of “honor” between the fish and fishermen caused them to observe essential factors that “value-free” management overlooked.

In fact, that management wasn’t value free: it was based on an ethic of dominating the natural world —and the assumption that living creatures could be adequately represented and dealt with as numbers. Today the once abundant cod fishery is in limbo, the result of a moratorium on cod fishing imposed by the Canadian government in the hopes that the fish will come back. But that moratorium has been in effect twenty years, waiting for the cod to come back.

Bavington cites a recent Dalhousie University report indicating that by the year 2050, ocean fisheries worldwide will go the way that the cod fishery if we don’t change our approach quickly. He concludes that wild fisheries are incapable of being “scientifically” managed—and the attempt to do so in a way that objectifies fish as catch numbers is leading to the precipitous decline of ocean fisheries everywhere.

One response has been to create fish farms that are more susceptible to human management:  but these have problems of their own, including the fact that farming carnivorous fish means drawing more protein stores out of the ocean to feed them than they actually yield.

Bavington proposes a return to “honorable” relationships between wild fish and fishermen to save the fisheries:  a return to the worldview, that is, of traditional Newfoundland fishermen, who once worked with the diversity and agency of the fish, rather than reducing them to numerical masses.

Science historianBruno Latour seconds this view:  he asserts that if we do not heal the dualism that sets ourselves apart from the natural world as its supposed “managers”, we are headed for sure disaster. We need a stance of both caution and care to replace the worldview of domination.

The need for such caution—or “fore-caring” (caring for the future) as the precautionary principle has also been called– is precisely why it is so important that we pass the Safe Chemicals Act instituting the precautionary principle in the US.

Even if we choose to stand in front of speeding trains, we have no right to push other lives in front of them.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

73 Responses

  1. The concept of even attempting to “manage” the natural world boggles my mind. In my personal opinion, technology has never been good for nature, or humanity, although it has been efficient. It is really sad to see animal populations and nature disappearing. It is funny because if the human population were disappearing due to technology, we would stop whatever we were doing, but yet we cannot see the value in nature.

    On the topic of chemical testing, I found this article to be very informing. I did not know we were test subjects for new chemicals in the USA. I honestly find that really scary, and I for one agree we should push for a Safe Chemicals act because the long term effects of these chemicals are completely unknown.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah. It does take considerable hubris, I think, to assume was can “manage” the natural world. `
      I do think there have been good technologies– culture itself is one of them.
      And on the subject of test subjects: we are not intentional test subjects: thanks for helping me clarify this. Bech’s point is that we become experimental subjects when chemicals effect us because they are released before they are tested– so that we find out the harms after they cause them on us.

    • I couldn’t agree more with what you said. Technology is great and I sometimes feel that I couldn’t live with out it. But if we really think about it, life before us managed pretty well without technology. Our health and surroundings are taking a hit due to the technology. However, some of it has been beneficial.
      And I agree with the general population being test subjects for these chemicals is very scary. I can not imagine what it will be like for the future if the Safe Chemical Act does not pass. We mind as well just swim in chemicals.

      • From an anthropological perspective technology means “tool”, Will–and not only could our species not do without it (language and culture are tools for instance), but many other species use tools as well.
        The key issue is what kind of technology– whether it is tested, how it fits into natural systems–and what ends it serves and for whom. I don’t think technology itself is the problem–though the answers to the questions above are problematic with respect to too much modern technology.
        To me that means we need to change our technology rather than attempt the impossible act of abolishing it.

    • Working on a farm attempting to manage the natural world makes sense to me. Composting, pulling weeds, sowing seeds, and most of farming involves stepping in and trying to manage certain processes in nature which wouldn’t happen without someone’s intervention. I can see that technology has become perverted, but I try to remind myself that technology comes from the Greek word for art and so real technology is not only something useful, but beautiful and fits into surroundings in a way that is beautiful too.

      • Thoughtful points, Andy. I think that your examples are not about “managing” any more than traditional fishermen “managed” the catch–but about acting as a catalyst in a natural world that you are working with as a whole living system. The kind of management that Bavington points out as so destructive is that which attempts to dominate and command nature.
        There are indeed many things that would not happen without our labor (and our art) but that does not mean that they are managerial (except perhaps in the organization of our own actions?)
        I like your idea about technology as art.
        Thanks for your comment, Andy.

  2. As this country keeps reminding their citizens that we are a democracy and so forth, I can not agree more to what you mention about how we should be able to vote to have these chemicals tested and proved safe before distribution. The more I hear about what the EU is doing, the more i feel that we should learn from them and start to implement some of the actions they have taken.
    Over 2000 chemicals annually distributed untested is mind blowing. To imagine the damage that these chemicals can cause. There are so many things running rampant these days in the US that I am not sure what to trust. From food to standard items that I need. I am not sure what to trust and how safe it is to use. My body I understand is deteriorating and dying everyday. However, I would like to let the process run slowly and naturally. I wouldn’t want chemicals that are untested to be speeding that up. Like you said, it would be like me standing in front of a speeding car. Suicide.

    • I am sorry that you–or anyone in this society today-has to face such dilemmas, Will. I do think that some of the links under “consumer info” here give you cues as to safer choices.
      But it is sad to live in the “risk society”– especially as a young man beginning your personal career. I am hoping that your choices and those of like-minded thinkers begin to change things on a nation-wide level. Wouldn’t it be great if we not only followed the EU’s leadership–but even began to exercise leadership in the global community ourselves.
      Two definitely important starts are the Safe Chemicals and Disclose Acts– both of these links give you ways to support them as a concerned citizen.
      Thanks for your comment.

      • I couldn’t agree more. Myself and many of my friends are pursuing a career in the medical field and many of these chemicals need to be tested and proven safe for us as providers to give the best treatment to our patients. I don’t believe that using our patients are test subjects is a very smart idea. In addition, I think you mention how many of these chemicals find their way into our bloodstream immediately. This is very problematic as health professions because we aren’t ready for a treatment. Things dumped into nature without being proven safe is going to cause many cases of unknown diseases that aren’t going to be able to be cured. I fear that if this keeps going on. health insurance is going to be even more ridiculously expensive.
        Also if the US is so keen in sticking their nose into every little thing in the world, this would be a great thing for the government to stick their nose into. Try cleaning up the world and nature, instead of destroying it with war and letting politics dictate everything.

        • Great points, Will! I agree that we could certainly express more leadership on some issues that really count– the way you put this made me smile!
          There is much data that indicates precisely what you indicate here, that the health costs of using these chemicals is astronomical. If we figured these into that “weed and feed” we are putting on our lawns, we might be paying thousands of dollars for application. But what happens instead is that the costs are borne by the public sector and the bodies of those who suffer environmentally caused illnesses.
          As you point out, all these chemicals create diagnostic and treatment conundrums for health professionals. You might be interested in joining the CHE community of worldwide health professionals trying to keep abreast of some of these issues:

  3. There are so many issues to consider in here. What is startling is the information from Bech around untested chemicals, technologies and nano-carriers that are in our foods and products, hence, in our bodies. As Bech states these bad and immoral policies and lack of oversight “hurtle us into a fatalistic world” and “organized irresponsibility”.
    The fact that the E.U. is so far ahead of the U.S. in using precautionary principles on behalf of their people only highlights the lack of concern and absolute abandonment of principle displayed by the politicians who are opposing the Safe Chemicals Act. Are they really that ignorant or so they believe the dollars they receive from corporate lobbyists and the corporations themselves will somehow buffer themselves and their families?
    Bech’s statement that we are, to paraphrase , being hurtled into a fatalistic world through untested technologies, speaks volumes about the individuals who are blocking the Safe Chemical Act in the Senate. It is a national disgrace and crime that corporations are calling the shots regarding our health and welfare. This is, as Bech states, is definitely “organized irresponsibility”. We are centuries behind.
    (Thanks for the reminder I went on to the Care 2 site and signed the petition to resurrect and pass the SCA during the lame duck session.)
    I was surprised returning to Grad. school to find the old, worn science of Bacon and Malthus still present in so many of my classes. Why are we, in social and environmental sciences, still adhering to such outdated and antiquated philosophies? They are still revered in academia, as is Hardin of Tragedy of the Commons fame!
    In regard to the fisheries, how sad that fish species such as the beautiful and powerful blue fin tuna are almost extinct. I find hope in the fact that fishermen in Britain and Newfoundland are embracing “an ethic of honor between the fish and fishermen”. This is a testament to healing the dualism between humans and the Natural world.

    • Thanks for raising many issues to consider here, Maureen. I have often pondered the mindset of those who are willing to plunder the environment that sustains us all for the sake of short-term profit for a few. You have a thought in that money is so important in our society that they perhaps think it will somehow buffer them from the harm they are producing.
      There was a conversation with a grape farmer in California who turned to organics after his son got sick interviewed in a Bill Moyer special entitled “pesticides and children”– whose issues are sadly still current after two decades. The farmer stated that he didn’t know what he would say to his son if he continued to use pesticides– “Using these chemicals was more important than you?”
      I also take hope in the moves in local communities– as the City of Eugene right to know initiative– that are forging ahead where the federal government is falling behind–mostly as a result of high dollar lobbyists. Those who observe things on a day to day level are sometimes more willing to create change (like the Newfoundland fishermen) than those who see the world represented as numbers, as Bavington’s study indicates.
      Thanks for adding your name to the petition: I don’t know how many signatures it will take for particular Congressmen to understand that at some point the voters might be more important than the lobbyists with the money behind them. Though we in Eugene have a Congressman with some integrity and keep electing him despite big bucks on the other side, many others may well feel their jobs are on the line with campaign monies unless we also pass the Fair Elections Now Act (see our action list.)
      Thanks again for your thoughtful points.

  4. This was an interesting article for me to read. Of particular interest to me, was the section based on cod fishing. As a fisheries and wildlife major, I am well aware of both good and poor management practices. Technology has always been both a blessing a burden on the outdoors. With nearly every pro effect, there is almost certainly a con. They key to all management practices is moderation and looking on a broad scale rather than a smaller or local. It should be required that all technologies experience a bigger battery of tests before being put into the publics hands. If we apply the theory of the commons to technology, people will want to maximize their yields and proftis while paying little regard to others or the environment.

    • You have some well taken points about moderation, testing, and the commons, Andrew. On the issue of the local, Bavington’s research indicates that the view of the whole (when reduced to numerical representation) actually missed key information that local fishermen were more aware of (that they dismissed as “anecdotal”)– and may have even prevented the cod fishery collapse if they had been taken into account.

  5. It’s very disheartening to read about what a desperate situation cod is in right now. It is my understanding that many experts are worried that Atlantic cod stocks may possibly never recover because of a permanent change in the food chain. It’s because the prey fish that the cod use to feed on have experienced a population explosion and are now consuming cod eggs at a much higher rate, preventing the cod population from recovering. I think this article does a good job of showing how there are no shortcuts when dealing with nature, even if we think we have the technology or understanding to manage any unforeseen contingencies.

    • Great insight that “there are no shortcuts in dealing with nature”, Roman. This underscores once again the interdependence of our world– we can’t just reduce a species to numbers and weight and attempt to manage them in a vacuum.

  6. It makes sense that corporations should be open about what is in their products and who are funding campaign ads. It’s unfortunate though that they have to be forced to do so by legislation. I think if people were able to take seriously that the actual work they do is ultimately for the sake of others and all they really get out of it is a paycheck to buy things that others have made, things may be different. But, as is so clear in this article, selfish is very much a rule and it’s more important to cover one’s tracks in case something might go wrong, than to come forth and say something might go wrong and if that happens we are responsible and will address the issue. A big aspect of all this is advertising and I think it would be wonderful if adds were to replace trying to sell something with real explanations of the products or politicians so that what sold something was not a clever ad, but was actually the product itself. Fewer people might buy farm raised fish if they were actually shown and told all that it involved rather than a guy with a yellow rain suit.

    • Great vision of ads that might actually be informational, Andy. Wouldn’t it be great if we as consumers bought things according to these standards as well?
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  7. Andrew light has it right when he says that after all is clear you can’t just assume it’s okay to not look again and cross the street. This is very much like assuming something that is tested at first is okay, and then realizing how bad it really is later. You suffer the consequences. We as humans do automatically assume that everything that comes out in the technology world that is NEW is awesome, and are willing to try it, same goes for anything new that comes out related to chemicals that are supposed to HELP the world, or change the environment- the key in this is that they say its going to HELP the world, or change it for the better. Yeah, how can you predict the future? How do you know that it’s going to change our world, and blow our minds with your ridiculous technology? I’m past assuming that everything comes out is above what we place over nature, I believe we should care about the future more than what new laptop we are going to get, because you may not think the decline of fisheries is effecting YOU now, but what about your child’s future?

  8. I really applaud the EU for being proactive by testing chemicals and technology to be sure they are safe for their citizens and the environment before releasing them. I only wish it were happening here in the US. I find it appalling that the US is releasing 2000 chemicals annually without testing and what about all the other products that are being released. I find it disheartening because I think the majority of people in the US have trust that what they buy is safe. This is also the case with food. Many people think if a product has FDA approval it is safe for consumption. Slowly however, I think these views are starting to change as a result of the widespread recalls we have been having over the years when it comes to our food and other products. Even large corporations that were once trusted because of their name are starting to lose the faith of the American people. I only hope that people will tire of this and demand that products and food are tested and are completely safe for the natural world and all its inhabitants before being released.

    • I agree entirely. If the EU can do it, we not only can do it as well, but should do it on both moral and pragmatic grounds. You have a point about the trust of our citizens; that is why it is so important to get information out–and to pressure our government to do its job in securing the safety of our citizens.

  9. I agree that the domination viewpoint needs to be abandoned if we are to preserve the environment in the future. At the rate we are going, our future generations are going to be dealing with our failure to create a long term solution. We need to accept the fact that we are all part of the natural world, and not superior to it. If we start showing respect to nature, then we are less likely to destroy it for profit. This includes testing ALL new technology to make sure it is safe for the environment, and mainly the future. We must take the future into account now, because we are running out of time. Good article, and it is good to see the EU making a difference.

    • It is a great tragedy to ravage the resources that our children and grandchildren need for survival as you indicate, Kyle. I like the firmness of your stand on the precautionary principle– that is a stand I hope we all will echo once enough of us get the information on which to make that choice.

  10. I don’t know what it will take for the citizens of the U.S to understand the detriment that this society is placing on this planet and every living being. I feel the NIMBY attitude is too prevalent within the nation and it is going to take more than natural disasters to make people aware. It seems the U.S is last to understand and in the phase of ‘money/business’ is more important than humanity itself. Europe seems to be understanding it and doing something about it concerning the precautionary principle; but the one nation that really needs to get with it and support our planet is the United States. It isn’t going to matter pretty soon who dominates when it our children and grandchildren who will be left without a planet.

    • Thank you for sharing your concern for the lives that share our planet– especially our children and grandchildren, Tina. One thing it will take for the US to “get it” is for many more like yourself to raise their voices–and act according to their values.

  11. What a personal dilemma this creates, as it should if I am to continue my quest for a nature-centered life. How do we balance eating healthy wild-caught fish against the declining fish populations that humans have caused? I guess I go vegetarian all the way, instead of only my personal ban on eating anything with eyelashes.

    • Yummy eyelashes. Yeah it is truly hard to tell what we are eating. How do we know that the companies selling the products are telling the truth? Every time I look at a package of ground beef, it makes me want to vomit because for most ground beef packages I know what could be in it.

    • Don’t forget to go vegetarian with only “no pesticides added” grown vegetables! Even if you want to be nature-centered some things are not your choice because pesticides, hormones, and even mercury are in the environment and our food supply even if take precautions!

      • Indeed, I recently read that rice in China is currently the highest single source of mercury in the Chinese diet– why? Because of the prevalence of coal-fired plants there, which release mercury into the atmosphere, which in turns rains back down on rice fields.

      • Good point Brad. We can do our best to take precautions, but with 2000 untested chemicals being released annually, it seems almost impossible to avoid them all or even be aware that we are putting them in to our system.

        • We would definitely need to do some catch up work in terms of research– especially given the synergistic effects of some of these. We might have to call a halt to dumping any new ones in our environment– or do this with extreme care as a start.

  12. This article makes me think about our current ‘management’ of natural resources and food sources such as fish. It seems like the best attempts to manage nature still don’t work in the long run unless we truly understand the interconnectedness of natural habitats, species, and everything around us. The use of fish farms just seems like another technological attempt to repair what we destroyed in the first place. The rush to come out with the newest product, best chemical, or flashiest technology without proper knowledge and testing seems to be the problem in our world today. I think the biggest challenge is not the smoke-stack pollution that is visible to us all, but the build-up of chemicals and bio-magnification of pollutants that are altering the world and us at the same time!

  13. This article brings up a valid point, that if we do not stop separating ourselves from nature, things could turn disastrous. We are not “managers” of nature, and therefore should not act like we dominate it. As Bavington states, we should have an “honorable” relationship between nature and ourselves. It is only through a partnership-model, where we value nature, that we will find success for both the future of nature and ourselves.

  14. What I find most frustrating about these stories is our apparent inability to learn from past mistakes. After DDT and thalidomide and other chemicals that were used in the environment before their side effects were known, why are manufacturers able to produce nanoparticle sunscreen and other products without adequate safety testing?

    Fish and wildlife “management” has a longer history – we have been interacting with schools of fish for far longer than we’ve been designing custom molecules. Yet here too, our fascination with new technology prevents us from paying attention to historical wisdom about taking more than the ocean can sustain.

    • I share your frustration in demonstrated inability to learn from our past–at the very least, this track record ought to motivate us to institute the precautionary principle.
      “Fascination with new technologies”, as you put it, seems to have blinded us to paying attention not only to past wisdom but to the holistic assessment of the effects of our actions. The effects of climate change on our ocean systems are dire indeed: Sandra Steingraber has outlined some of this in her book (just out), Raising Elijah, dealing with the conundrums parents must face in attempting to protect their children in a world in which we are enacting so many destructive environmental actions. She has done remarkable scientific investigative work:

  15. I feel like his essay is showing how science and technology need to be controlled by a sense of morals. I think you make a strong and valid point that we need to test things before we release them to consumers. I feel like slowly the Western world is starting to realize this point. When I first started reading this story I thought of one of the movies in “The Terminator” series where Sarah Conner tries to stop the kind-hearted but naive scientist from releasing the technology that starts evil Skynet and the beginning of the apocalypse. I think this movie shows that the concept of being war and careful of technology, and the things being created by it, is starting to become more real for mass society. I hope it means that creators are starting to think about how the things they make are effecting us. Of course, as this essay states, this is not happening enough but at least there seems to be signs towards starting to change, in my opinion!

    • I agree there is a strong bond between science and technology but there does need to be a balance of morals. I agree with the statement that “We need a stance of both caution and care to replace the worldview of domination.” Our worldview is developed around our wants and needs in modern society – we might have forgotten some of the basics such as respect, honesty and holding onto our values. It is almost scary to picture our society and environment in a few years if we do not make some drastic changes.

  16. I am so grateful that these essays are here and that I have access to them. I have learned more from these essays than I have in many classes on campus. I have to say however, they are so upsetting! I want to move to Europe. I have studied the precautionary principal in addition to the REACH program. It is so frustrating to be a member of the United States and feel that you have no say. Yes we live in a democracy and have the right to vote, but we vote people into positions who don’t have to keep their stances on subjects or can change their views on issues once elected. Where does that leave the people? This goes beyond just America. We as the people don’t have much say (except who we put into office to hold the power and make the decisions, which can go either way), but neither do those people across the globe who are also being affect by our actions. We don’t know what the untested chemicals will do to us tomorrow let alone in a few years or in a few decades. Aside from our health – what about the environment? We don’t know how this will affect our crops, and tresses, plants and animals. There is something to be said for testing (numerous times) and providing solid evidence that it is safe for everyone and everything.

    • Thank you for the feedback, Ellie. I am so glad you find these words useful–and I appreciate your own contributions in commenting on them.
      You make a solid case for the precautionary principle: I think that if we did not have a system which allows lobbyists so much power– lobbyists that were never voted into office and have no responsibility to voters– the precautionary principle would have been enacted long ago.
      I hope that you aren’t so upset by these essays that you lose sight of how important your personal choices are. We may not have elected those lobbyists– but what we buy can influence how well their corporations do. And certainly, we must use every chance we get to weigh in against corporate power that might undermine our democracy.

  17. I had no idea untested chemicals could be used in consumer products. This seems totally unsafe. If we have no idea what kinds impacts these chemicals have on human health, how can we possibly allow people to rub them on their skin, put them in their mouths, or wash their children with them? Products containing these chemicals should at least need labeling to alert the consumer that they could be potentially unsafe.

    • I agree that using such untested chemicals is totally unsafe; we can’t bank our children’s health on the fact that they might be all right– not with the past record we have.
      Interesting point about labeling: I would at least like to see gmo foods labeled.

  18. “Even if we choose to stand in front of speeding trains, we have no right to push other lives in front of them.”

    This is precisely what people in western society are doing to themselves and to people worldwide. Essentially, through our actions, we’re stepping in front of speeding trains and dragging others out with us. Excessive use and untested chemical introduction, genetically modified foods and corporate farming are negatively impacting the earth and ourselves, yet there is little being done to stop these practices due to the amount of money they generate. By allowing these practices to continue, we’re freely giving our lives to be test subjects; as well, we’re giving the lives of people elsewhere that will pay for the greed of those that are practicing these methods and producing these chemicals.

    • I think it is an appropriate analysis that humans–and other species– become inadvertent test subjects when we put such chemicals into the environment without thorough testing. Thanks for your comment.

  19. I agree with the author in this article and it is amazing to me that what should be obvious to most people is not. Rather than recognize that putting advancing technology above living things to include ourselves may have dire and unimagined results on the world, we continue to blindly use technology and methodology that is unproven and often does not work. I was appaled that my body is a testing ground for untested chemicals. It feels as if I don’t know who to trust- perhaps I should use the ethical consumer link more often to find brands I feel safe buying.

    • I completely agree with you, Raquel. It makes me incredibly angry to know that I cannot trust my government to protect me from untested chemicals. Why wouldn’t you want to protect the people you represent? The values in this society are so askew it blows my mind. The FDA doesn’t make anyone prove a food additive is safe before it hits the market. Why? If you go to the FDA website, their slogan says “Protecting and promoting your health”. How in the world could they possibly make this claim if there are no testing requirements prior to releasing a product? It is my understanding that even if the FDA knows a product is unsafe, they cannot force a manufacturer to recall it.

      I do make an effort to buy all organic products, right down to my lotion and shampoo for this very reason. However, I still have a certain level of distrust as to the truth in labeling. To me, this is the saddest part of all. I don’t even trust that the stuff that labeled is what they say it is. Does that make me crazy or realistic? :o) Honestly, if I had the time and knowledge, I’d make all my own stuff. That’s the only way to really know what’s going in and on your body.

      • Very logical, Anna. The link between ourselves and those we elect to represent us is too often broken by lobbyists who insert themselves (and campaign financing) between us.
        There is a touching story on a “safe chemicals” blog about Lisa Jackson, the EPA director, as a “mom” who is working to do the right thing. So things are not ALL bad.
        I think there are those we can trust– like those on the site above which is a very large coalition working to get toxics out of our environment on every level. It might hearten you to check them out!

    • The ethical consumer link is a good one, Raquel–and exercising such pressure on businesses may urge them to change their policies.
      Motive is a very important issue to analyze in assessing whom to trust–and if someone wants to make money from you, I somehow don’t trust the purity of their motives.

  20. Our society has put profit before safety in almost every aspect of our culture; from our food (GMOs) to our cars (Pintos) to our drugs (Phen fen). One would think a precautionary principal would be common sense, and I seriously have to wonder what the difference between our society and that of Europe is so different that they were able to get their government to actually care about their safety and ours does not. What is the harm in requiring companies to honestly label what makes up their products? Campaign contributions lost? It sickens me, honestly.

    This is an interesting little aside. My mom recently started working for a dermatologist’s office. She had to do an allergy test on a patient last week. It came up that she was allergic to lotions and perfumes. However, it’s not what you think. The actual substance this woman was allergic to is formaldehyde which is contained in many lotions and perfumes! My mom called me up and told me to throw away all my non-organic lotions and said she had done the same and was prepared to spend more money to buy “natural” products. Go look at your lotion bottle. Does it say formaldehyde? Interesting, no?

    • Not only profit before safety, Anna, but profit for a few over risks for others. This does not seem to me the way that a democracy should be run…
      Formaldehyde, huh? What a great way to beautify yourself! Wonder how they feature the problems with this in a “side effects” bar– actually, they don’t, since cosmetics don’t need to disclose such things.
      Thanks for passing on this info, Anna.

  21. You would think that in a ‘fre world’ like one we supposedly live in today, it would be illegal for the government to not tell us what is in our air and our everyday products. This right here is killing of the human race; the many cancers and other various diseases many humans (and even animals) are contracting have to do with the fact that there are so many chemicals in the air and around us are they are slowly killing us, BUT the government is making money so its all okay…right? Wrong!This is the epitome of ‘putting profit before ethics’ because we all say we have a code of ethics but then we go and do this to each other becuase we want to make money not abide by our ethics or morals. It is a good thing that some countries are standing up like Newfoundland and especially Britain because Britain is a leader in this world and many other countries will follow suit if they come up with new and better plans.
    We need to forget about the ‘ethic of dominating the natural world’ and make an ethic of wking with the natural world because then it will work back with us and we can work together in harmony.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Cyria. An important point about the intersection between money and government. We obviously need to get big money out of political campaigns and ads if we want integrity of government. I would also say it is time to institute the precautionary principle here as the European Union has done–and we might do without the pressure from corporations who manufacture toxins to keep them on the market. I think you have an important point that our freedom is reliant on the right to know what we are putting into our bodies–and the right to avoid the personal violation that occurs when their manufacturers get to dump them into air, water–and ultimately, into us.

  22. Not only are there so many poor practices in the production of food, it is so challenging to know what to look for to be an informed consumer, especially of products produced in other countries. Not only are we looking for well produced food, but additionally well produced packaging, shipping and marketing practices. I find it really hard to determine the best choices! However, one of my favorite tools are the Seafood Watch Cards.

  23. It is interesting that our country, so focused on “democracy” does not think about applying the concept to knowledge or technology that effects our lives. The huge number of chemicals that are released each year is scary and the thought that so many of them are in products we personally use often and directly such as sunscreen is really nerve-racking.

    I think the unfortunate part of this is that people, myself included would not think that sunscreen would be so harmful. Obviously it would be difficult to have every person have a say as whether or not to use every product in the world, but trusted boards or officials may be step in the right direction. On the other hand as our current state is, officials and boards seem to be untrustworthy or driven by greed. I guess people will truly just have to take the initiative, read labels and protect themselves until more people are willing to collectively and honestly make decisions.

    • I am with you on your implication here that it is not very “democratic” to let industries make money from putting toxic chemicals in our air, water–and bodies. You are right that people will have to take the initiative and read labels–and protect themselves. Maybe enough of us will do this to cut into the profits of those making money on producing such things–and get them to change their ways.

    • I agree whole-heartily that people need to take initiative and read labels in order to protect themselves. Most consumers (not all) barely pay attention to ingredients or warning labels. Many (not all) who do pay attention do it because of allergies or diet restrictions. The ignorance is bliss argument will only last until something happens. Taking control of what we put in/on/around our bodies should be something that we take time to think about.

  24. The idea of releasing untested chemicals in products we use and not labeling GMO foods as being undemocratic was very eyeopening. I must say that in many ways I have never seen the American decision-making system as democratic because of the overwhelming issues with financial incentives, bribes, and the like. But this is no place for a political discussion. What is important is that a nation founded on the principles of democracy is preventing said democracy from actually functioning. It is great that there is discussion of issues, as this exhibits that democratic opinions and standpoints are being addressed. The problem is that one opinion is trying to block the democratic right of an entire nation of citizens. We deserve the right to know what we are consuming. Just as the ethical code for medical research mandates divulgence of all possible risks associated with a research study, we as consumers deserve to know the possible risks associated with out consumption, and we cannot do that if we are unaware of the contents of said product. We are not lab rats (don’t get me started on the absurdity of non-human animal testing) and should not be subjected to such risky situations for the economic gain of someone else. We have the right to examine the technologies that enter our mainstream because they directly affect us, but on a deeper level, they affect the entire planet on which we reside. I have spent a lot of time here discussing the threats to and rights of us as humans, but I think it is also important to examine the effects on others. We humans care a lot about what we do to ourselves and how things affect our lives, but we must remember that the choice to establish a new power plant or off-shore oil drill, whether it is democratic or not, affects the environment directly. What we tend to overlook is that even if we are not directly harmed by this new technological introduction, the negative effects eventually make their way to directly affecting the human population. The planet gives us life; therefore, there is an undeniable and inevitable system of reciprocity function between humans and nature: what we do to the environment eventually comes back to us in the form of toxic food or acid rain or infertile soil. We tend to project these types of consequences, if at all, far into the future, but the reality is that they are already here. We must begin the process of “fore-caring” for not just seven generations from now but also for tomorrow.

    • Thoughtful and compassionate response, Amber. I agree with your point about beginning the process of fore-caring for future generations, for ourselves and for the planet now. And we do indeed have the right to make decisions about chemicals that directly influence our quality of life– not to mention all the natural lives of the future. It is sad (but I think true) that our decision-making process over that is far from democratic. I hope we will change this in your lifetime if not in mine. Thanks for your comment.

  25. This class has been the first introduction I have had to the precautionary principle I have had, but it makes so much sense! The depleted cod fisheries are a shocking and clear example of the power we have over natural life. The fact that the cod have not rebounded over the course of several decades means that we should be ethically charged with making sure such long lasting damage does not occur again. If a largely capitalist and hierarchical society such as Europe can institute the precautionary principle, it is frustrating that the US cannot. Now that we have an understanding that we cannot separate ourselves from technology, the precautionary principle sounds like one of the best ways to prevent future harm.

    • Very sound arguments for the precautionary principle, Mark. I think it is high time we acted on rationality rather than profits for a few–and as you point out, harms that last so long should be prevented before they occur. Thanks for your comment.

  26. This essay further demonstrates the need for the US to adopt the precautionary principle and adjust our practices. I found the portion on fisheries the most intriguing. It reminded me of US Forest Services (USFS) efforts to make rivers more navigable and allow for fish passage by removing large wood pieces from river systems. Only did they find years later that the large woody debris is important fish habitat and necessary for spawning of many endangered fish. Now the USFS is having to go back in and replace the wood that they had removed. It just shows that “best available science” is not always something that can be relied upon and is in some cases even proved harmful.

    • Great examples of the log pieces and river systems/fish habitats, Amanda. I am guessing much energy might have been saved here by speaking with local fishermen. Certainly they observed such things in situ– a process science doesn’t always follow, and why local knowledge is so important– as in the case of the cod.

  27. To me, the idea of fish farming seems like putting a cast on an arm when the leg is what’s broken. We’re wrecking the ocean with pollution, tearing up the bottom with trawling nets, and wasting lives with horrific amounts of bycatch; yet, rather than directing our efforts wholeheartedly towards fixing those problems, instead we create an artificial environment in which we think we can somehow do it better. The result? Fish struggling with disease and parasites that further damage native fish when they escape. It just seems like we’re missing the boat – no pun intended. I can’t even begin to understand how we allow so many potentially harmful chemicals to come into our lives and into ourselves; are we really that jaded that we no longer question these experiments? That’s not just standing in the road while the speeding car is coming; we have jumped onto the hood as it hit us, clinging for dear life, yet never once questioning why the driver hasn’t stopped.

  28. Bech notes that untested technologies hurtle us into a fatalistic world in which society is at the mercy of technological effects rather than controlling them or nature.

    Likewise, corporations fighting the passage of the US Disclose Act (which would require disclosure of funding sources of campaign ads) are clearly acting in bad faith. So are those who oppose the Safe Chemicals Act currently before Congress. Putting profit before ethics sets the stage for amplifying the “risk society” Bech outlines.

    So…cyberpunk is no longer speculative fiction?

  29. The Newfoundland cod example reminded me of the plight of wolves in Alaska. When I lived in Alaska, about 10 years ago or so, the government was in the midst of deciding whether to reinstate hunting of wolves. The problem, as some saw it, was the moose and caribou populations had declined substantially. This decline was blamed on the increased population of wolves in the state. Those opposing the hunting of wolves argued the populations would rebound naturally (as prey numbers decreased predators would starve, then prey would increase and predators would return, and so on). The other argument against the hunt was the objection to humans influencing a natural process. In the end, limited wolf hunting was passed and the wolf population was “taken care of” as people in helicopters flew over populated areas and shot wolves in order to “save” moose and caribou (essentially so they could later kill those animals in a different kind of hunt).
    When I visited Denali National Park, a wolf walked the road in front of the bus. The bus driver pulled over and we all watched him in awe. A scraggly, yet magnificent creature that I had feared my entire life gently padded the ground as he passed our bus on his way. The driver told us the wolves are protected within the Park, but the packs had changed substantially since hunting was allowed again. He said just outside of the Park’s boundary someone shot the Alpha male and female of the dominant pack and since then the pack had disbanded. When this happens, the other wolves are often left without a pack and their futures are uncertain at best.
    My guess is, like the cod example, the laws and regulations were passed not because the regulators did not have a history to look back upon, but because those with a financial interest in the question spoke louder than history. When will we learn?

    • When will we learn, indeed, Micki. Once again, I would love to see us pass on the stories that aid us in this.
      If you search under “wolves” on this site, you will see a few more brief examples of our mistakes in viewing wolves. Linda Hogan (in Dwellings) states that wolves often act as a victim of the projection of all the qualities we fear in ourselves. Something to think about…
      And other animals serve the same purpose in other ways (I am thinking of snakes as one example).
      Thanks for sharing your experience. I can’t believe that some seem to feel shooting wolves from helicopters is any kind of sport– protecting other animal populations is a poor excuse of a rationale for this, given the material we now have on the ways in which wolves contribute positively to their ecosystems. (Their very presence has allowed the return of aspen groves in Yellowstone, for instance).

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