Great post, Marguerite, and this is a very important topic you’ve raised.
There is a paradigm or approach or enabling mechanism (or whatever it should be called) built into our “way of doing things” in modern society that calls for alot of scrutiny and re-evaluation.
Basically, we’ve jettisoned the precautionary principle. Put another way, (and not using the term in its political sense), we’ve thumbed our noses at any precautionary conservatism when contemplating something new that just might be hazardous.
Here’s what I mean: In most fields, if you come up with New Invention X, or New Product Y, you can launch them into the marketplace without being sure that they won’t cause problems unless they happen to be already outlawed. In other words, you can push the invention or product onto the public without truly knowing whether it’s safe. If, later, the results show that it’s unsafe in some way, that’s when you have to deal with the matter. This is the opposite, of course, of requiring companies to establish and prove the safety of products BEFORE launching them into public use.
In essence, proving the genuine safety of a new invention, product, or technique AHEAD OF TIME is, apparently, seen as a nuisance to the commercial marketplace and to the cause of “progress”. I guess people think it would slow things (the pace and churn of the market, and GDP growth) too much.
Of course, there are a couple of partial exceptions to this. New pharmaceuticals, for example, undergo trials before approval. But, in most industries, with most products, pre-launch testing to investigate potential new risks and hazards is not done. All you have to do is make sure your new product meets the existing conventional standards. For example, with toys for small children, you have to make sure there aren’t any small parts that can cause choking.
I didn’t realize this “lack of precaution” aspect of our system until recently, when I heard a talk and realized the many examples that are taking place today. It’s not something that people think about, but they should. Most people, I think, assume that if some new product is on the market, or some new scientific technique is being used, then some smart person somewhere has tested it first to make sure it’s safe and that it won’t destroy the planet. Well, in most cases, that assumption is incorrect.
Now that we are dealing with big powerful stuff (genetics, nanotechnologies, and so forth), it’s very important to get our precautionary balance right. We have a long way to go.
Yes, I agree, the basic science of what’s now called the “greenhouse effect” was discovered before we began using oil to make gasoline for cars, if I’m not mistaken. (I don’t have the timeline in front of me.) Yet, we plowed forward anyhow. And now we’re hooked and (to a large degree) in “denial”. Also, I just read that one scientist thinks we should use more precaution regarding children’s use of cell phones, until more data and experience are “in”. So many times, society starts and adopts something big, not knowing whether it will cause long-term harm.