Thanks to Viviane Lerner for this reflective opinion piece on the "new spirit of distrust.. among the sorcerer's apprentices of neo-scientism" that concludes:
"It is not that people have illusions about total safety or zero risk. They are simply and legitimately uneasy about the way that public authorities choose to put commercial interests and corporate egos before the common good"
Fears of the year
by IGNACIO RAMONET
Le Monde diplomatique December 2000
The historian Jean Delumeau suggests that in the history of human societies,fears may change, but fear itself is always present (1). Prior to the 20th century humanity's woes were caused mainly by nature - bad weather,flooding, drought, and diseases such as plague, cholera, tuberculosis and syphilis. People in the past inhabited an environment that was threatening.Disaster was always just around the corner.
The first half of the 20th century was scarred by the nightmare of two world wars. Death on an industrial scale, mass killings, deportation camps and extermination camps. In western Europe, the second half of the century saw a lessening of armed conflict and the growth of a more or less generalised prosperity. Conditions of life improved spectacularly. Life expectancy rose to levels unknown in the past.
One day historians charting people's ways of thinking may inquire into the fears of the year 2000. They will find that we are no longer so concerned about things political and military (local conflicts, wars, nuclear weapons etc), but care more about ecological issues (disturbing nature, destroying the environment) and issues of personal well-being (health, food) and identity (artificial procreation, genetic engineering).
These new fears - particularly the fears about mad cow disease and genetically modified organisms - arise from a sense of distrust and disillusionment with technological progress. People no longer automatically accept that scientific development is necessarily beneficial to humanity. Particularly because that progress has become inextricably tied up with money, hijacked by companies greedy for profit.
The conflict between business interests and the public interest has too often been resolved in favour of the former. Worship of the market economy and the re-emergence of social instability and widescale social inequalities have, in the past 20 years, only strengthened the feeling that technological progress has broken its promise of a better life for all. It is not hard to see that the social institutions (parliament, government, experts etc) which should have been overseeing public safety have repeatedly failed us. They have acted unwisely and negligently. In addition, our decision-makers have developed a bad habit of mortgaging our collective futures without first asking us, the people. The basis of the democratic pact has thus been altered (2).
As a result, people have become more and more suspicious. They are increasingly unwilling to give the powers-that-be the authority to play with our collective futures by rubber-stamping scientific innovations that are risky and insufficiently tested. A new spirit of distrust is abroad among the sorcerer's apprentices of neo-scientism.
The mistrust is well-founded, particularly when spectacular revelations after the event have uncovered the tragic incompetence of authorities and experts alike. In France the list is long: contaminated blood supplies; asbestos, currently causing about 10,000 deaths (of workers) a year; "iatrogenic" infections - contracted during stays in hospital - contributing to another 10,000 deaths a year (more than the 8,487 killed in road accidents in 1999); air pollution, 60% of it due to road transportation, causing (as we now discover) a horrific total of 17,000 premature deaths every year (3); and dioxin, a carcinogenic toxin emitted by domestic waste incinerators, causing between 1,800 and 5,200 deaths a year (4).
You need only read the report of the United Kingdom public inquiry into BSE published in October to understand why Europe no longer trusts beef. Wrong-headed procedures were adopted, vouched for by "experts" and flouting both the laws of nature (5) and the most elementary precautionary principles. This was followed by lying and dissimulation when it became clear that the disease was spreading among animals and extending to human beings. Delays, misinformation and denials, combined with the irresponsible attitude of the authorities, meant that UK public opinion felt cheated. Since the behaviour of the authorities in the rest of Europe has been basically identical, why should any of us trust our governments? Particularly when, as in France, they see genetically modified varieties of maize being so readily authorised for sale.
It is not that people have illusions about total safety or zero risk. They are simply and legitimately uneasy about the way that public authorities choose to put commercial interests and corporate egos before the common good. Shouldn't we all have a say in defining what is acceptable risk, and not just leave it to the "experts"?
(1) Jean Delumeau, Les malheurs des temps, Larousse, Paris, 1987.
(2) See Olivier Godard, "De la nature du principe de précaution", in Le principe de précaution. Significations et conséquences, ed. Edwin Zaccai and Jean-Noël Missa, Editions de l'Université de Bruxelles, Brussels, 2000.
(3) There are other social problems: two legal drugs cause even more deaths in France - alcohol 42,963 deaths and tobacco 41,777 deaths (1997 figures).
(4) Between 1975 and 1995, as the number of domestic waste incinerators increased in France, so did the number of cancers - by 21% for men, and 17% for women.
(5) In 1923 Rudolf Steiner, a leading proponent of biodynamic agriculture, was already warning of the dangers of turning cattle into carnivores. Le Monde, 6 May 1996.
Translated by Ed Emery