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.
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