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#526 - Here We Go Again, 25-Dec-1996

I would like to be wrong about this. I hope I am. But it seems to me
there's a pattern of perpetual trouble ahead. It's avoidable, but only
with major effort.

It seems as if the entire "developed" world is depending on rapid
industrial innovation to pull its chestnuts out of the fire. The people
who run the permanent government (they're not elected) seem stuck on
the idea that tremendous growth will be required to solve the problems
of poverty, well-being, and pollution within the U.S. and throughout
the world.[1] Even the Brundtland Commission --the prestigious group
that coined the phrase "sustainable development" back in 1987 --argued
that the world's total economic activity would have to increase 5-fold
to 10-fold to lift all humans out of poverty.[2] The need for growth
has become an axiom of modern industrial/economic/political life.

A corollary to this axiom says that rapid technical innovation is the
way to achieve growth. Therefore "sustainable development" requires
rapid growth, which in turn requires rapid technical innovation,
according to the people who think of themselves as managing the planet.

Obviously, this view creates an imperative to deploy new technologies -
-an imperative that is particularly visible, these days, in the fields
of genetic engineering and materials science. (Materials science is the
systematic effort to create materials that nature never made, from
which to construct next year's automobiles, airplanes, rockets, medical
machinery, sky scrapers, foodstuffs, space stations, pesticides,
communications and entertainment platforms, armaments and so on.)

It seems worth mentioning that, in the recent past, mad dashes toward
new technologies have usually created serious trouble:

** Our oil-based civilization seemed like it was giving us a wonderful
life until it started warming the planet: in 1995-1996 the world's
community of meteorologists reached consensus that our devotion to
petroleum has ominous implications for the kind of world we will leave
to our children.[3]

** For 50 years, new uses of mercury proved to be very productive in
scientific instruments, silent light switches, latex paints,
pesticides, and more. But now we find that the mercury content of the
world's atmosphere has nearly doubled and consequently the fish in most
of our fresh waters have become poisonous from a build-up of toxic
mercury in their tissues.[4]

** Lead is a superb pesticide, gasoline additive, paint supplement, and
glaze for pottery, but now we find that, millions --literally millions
--of children in the U.S. and abroad are having their intellectual
capacity permanently diminished by lead poisoning.[5,6]

** The invention of DDT made it possible to control malaria-bearing
mosquitoes without understanding anything about the life-cycle of the
mosquitoes --so easy that we forgot how to employ knowledge of mosquito
ecology to control malaria, relying instead on the heavy hand of DDT.
[7] Now that the side-effects of DDT have become apparent --disrupting
the hormones of wildlife and contaminating humans on a global scale --
DDT is being phased out and malaria (the number one killer, worldwide)
is resurgent. Other infectious diseases are spreading as well, because
of environmental dislocations caused by human technologies.[8]

** Learning how to "fix" nitrogen from the atmosphere was a marvelous
innovation, leading to artificial fertilizers, increased per-acre
agricultural yields, and green lawns. But now "environmental disruption
caused by a planetary overload of nitrogen is emerging as a new global
concern"[9] --a triple threat, warming the Earth, contributing to the
destruction of the ozone layer, and diminishing valuable biodiversity.

** Nuclear energy was sold to taxpayers with the promise of electricity
"too cheap to meter" and nuclear weapons so horrific that they would
make war unthinkable. Nuclear electricity turned out to be expensive,

and today war is hardly unthinkable. Furthermore, in late 1996, the
U.S. Secretary of Energy declared, "The arms race is over. Our struggle
now is to get rid of this sea of plutonium." The world's several-
hundred-ton stockpile of plutonium (a substance described by its
discoverer, Glenn Seaborg, as "fiendishly toxic") has created what the
NEW YORK TIMES calls "one of the most intractable problems of the post-
cold-war era."[10]

This list could readily be extended, but the point is probably clear.

Now, driven by the perceived need for rapid innovation to promote
economic growth, we find that "We are in the midst of a second
industrial revolution, one in which new high-tech materials are
entering the workplace at an almost overwhelming rate," says Tai Chan,
program manager of occupational health and safety research for General
Motors.[11,pg.703] Of course, after they enter the workplace, high-tech
materials enter commerce and eventually enter the general environment.

government scientific journal) says, "Seeking an elusive combination of
high strength and light weight has driven engineers to develop a
staggering variety of new fibers and particles."[11] And:
"Unfortunately, many of the most desirable manmade fibers have many of
the least desirable health-related characteristics." And: "Typically
composed of various combinations of ceramics, polymers, and metals,
these composites can pose a health risk to workers who inhale fibers
and particulates, and may present health hazards as serious as those of
asbestos." And: "In fact,... researchers don't have a good
understanding of the mechanisms that may contribute to the toxicity of
ultrafine materials." In other words, here we go again.

Carroll Pursell, a technology historian at Case Western Reserve
University says, "Technology should be about the exercise of prudence.
But economic considerations usually push new developments

This is certainly the case with genetic engineering. The genetic
engineering industry hit its stride in 1995-1996 when U.S. regulators
(Food and Drug Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency)
approved the commercialization of half a dozen new genetically
engineered crop species, which are now being dispersed into the
environment by farmers on a large scale. Soon these species will be
sold abroad.

For the first 3 billion years of life on Earth, genes could only be
shared among species that were similar enough to mate and reproduce.
There was no way dog genes could get into cats, or corn genes into
wheat. The gene pool of the mating species limited the genetic
information that any species could contain. Natural genetic variations
have always occurred, and those that promote survival may endure and
eventually cause a species to evolve, but the process up until now has
been glacially slow.

What's new about genetic engineering is that it allows genes to be
shared among completely unrelated species. And QUICKLY. Genes from a
trout can be put into a tomato, for example, to give the tomato some
desirable characteristic that only the trout used to have. Species
created in this way are called "transgenic species" or "living modified
organisms" (LMOs).[12] Now, literally, for $68 any microbiology
graduate student can purchase a gene splicing kit and start
transplanting tobacco genes into mosquitoes, or shark genes into lady
bugs to see what will happen.

In 1996, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a book
urging caution as transgenic species are released into the environment.
The book basically asks, "What will it mean to have a steady stream of
animal and microbial genes entering the gene pools of plants in wild
ecosystems?" Based on principles of ecology (principles derived from
observing the way nature works) UCS warns of the following scenarios:

** Gene flow, in which new genes from insect-, disease-, or herbicide-
resistant species flow to wild plant relatives and weeds, causing
agricultural and ecological havoc unless effective controls are
available and affordable;

** Harms to nontarget species arising, for example, from new gene
products with toxic qualities being ingested by birds and other feeders
in the regions where living modified organisms are cultivated;

** Cascading effects on an ecosystem triggered by the introduction of
living modified organisms, such as pests developing resistance to Bt in
transgenic plants (see REHW #521) or being diverted to other food

** Loss of biological diversity arising when living modified organisms
displace other species, a particularly acute problem in third-world
nations that possess great crop diversity but lack the infrastructure
and expertise to prevent losses.

Yes indeed, here we go again.

We must ask, why do we create such similar problems again and again?
Why do we never seem to learn?

1) Most fundamentally because we believe we are the master species, and
that the rest of creation exists for our benefit. We are free to do
with it as we please. This completely wrong idea, this suicidal
fantasy, is explored with wit and wisdom in Daniel Quinn's
philosophical novel, ISHMAEL (Bantam, 1995). As Quinn sees it, either
we will get rid of this deep-seated idea, or this idea will get rid of

2) Because we have set up our rules so that the people who perpetrate
new technological mistakes profit from them in the short term, leaving
the long-term costs to be born by others.

What could we do differently? We could put the burden of proof on those
who want to deploy new technologies, similar to the way we put the
burden of proof on people who want to sell new pharmaceutical drugs. An
elegant, conservative scheme for shifting the burden of proof has been
proposed by economist Robert Costanza. He calls it the "precautionary
polluter pays principle." (See REHW #510.) Basically, it would require
technical innovators to post a performance bond up front, to cover the
worst-case costs of what they're about to unleash on the world. Would
it slow the pace of technical innovation? Surely it would. Do we need
such a slowing? Only if we desire a future for humans.

Happy New Year!

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] The term "permanent government" was coined by Lewis H. Lapham,
"Lights, Camera, Democracy!" HARPER'S MAGAZINE August 1996, pgs. 33-38.

[2] World Commission on Environment and Development ["The Brundtland
Commission"], OUR COMMON FUTURE. Oxford: Oxford University Press, April
1987, pg. 213.

[3] Bette Hileman, "Climate Observations Substantiate Global Warming
Models," C&EN [CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS] Vol. 73, No. 48 (November
27, 1995), pgs. 18-23.

[4] F. Slemr and E. Langer, "Increase in global atmospheric
concentrations of mercury inferred from measurements over the Atlantic
Ocean," NATURE Vol. 355 (Jan. 30, 1992), pgs. 434-437. And: Thomas
William Clarkson, "Human Health Risks From Methylmercury in Fish,"
also Janet Raloff, "Mercurial Risks From Acid's Reign," SCIENCE NEWS
Vol. 139 (March 9, 1991), pgs. 152-156.

[5] See, for example, Robert A. Goyer, "Results of Lead Research:
Prenatal Exposure and Neurological Consequences," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 104, No. 10 (October 1996), pgs. 1050-1054. Goyer
describes major steps taken by American society to reduce lead exposure
during the past 30 years, but concludes [pg. 1051], "In spite of the
measures reducing lead exposure to date, large numbers of children in
the United States have high exposure to lead and are at risk for
impaired cognitive and behavioral development."

[6] See, for example, "Prevalence and Determinants of Lead Intoxication
in Mexican Children of Low Socioeconomic Status," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 104, No. 11 (November 1996), pgs. 1208-1211. The lead
problem in Mexico affects the middle class as well; see Paulina Farias
and others, "Blood Lead Levels in Pregnant Women of High and Low
Socioeconomic Status in Mexico City," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES
Vol. 104, No. 10 (October 1996), pgs. 1070-1074.

[7] John Wargo, OUR CHILDREN'S TOXIC LEGACY (New Haven, Conn.: Yale
University Press, 1996), chapter 2.

[8] Ginger Pinholster, "The Specter of Infection," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 104, No. 7 (July 1996), pgs. 694-699. And see Laurie
BALANCE (New York: Penguin Books, 1994).

[9] William K. Stevens, "Too Much of a Good Thing Makes Benign Nitrogen
a Triple Threat," NEW YORK TIMES December 10, 1996, pgs. C1, C12,
describing a report bearing "the imprimatur of the Ecological Society
of America" to appear in the journal ECOLOGICAL ISSUES in January.

[10] Matthew L. Wald, "Agency To Pursue 2 Plans to Shrink Plutonium
Supply," NEW YORK TIMES December 10, 1996, pg. 1.

[11] Scott Fields, "High-Tech Hazards," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 104, No. 7 (July 1996), pgs. 700-703.

[12] Michael Baram, "LMOs: Treasure Chest or Pandora's Box?"

[13] Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon, THE ECOLOGICAL RISKS OF
ENGINEERED CROPS (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996).

Descriptor terms: growth; brundtland commission; sustainable
development; petroleum; global warming; mercury; lead; DDT; nitrogen;
nuclear power; materials science; genetic engineering; union of
concerned scientists; ucs; ishmael; daniel quinn; jane rissler;
margaret mellon; loss of species; occupational safety and health;

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