Prudence In Uncertainty

We can see from this discussion just how difficult environmental protection has turned out to be. One of the factors which contributes to this difficulty is the almost overwhelming complexity of the systems with which we are concerned: both the economic systems and the ecological systems. Another crucial factor is the enormous uncertainty which clouds our knowledge about these systems and their interaction with one another. Ironically, this uncertainty has often provided an excuse for disposal practices to continue unchecked for years, even when there was an obvious threat to environmental quality.

An example of this is provided by the disposal of wastes from the titanium dioxide industry. The industry produces non-toxic white pigments which were widely adopted as an environmentally acceptable alternative to the toxic lead- and zinc-based pigments which had been used previously. Despite the relative safety of the product, however, the manufacturing process for titanium dioxide generates hazardous liquid waste streams with high acid and metal content. For a long time the main disposal route for these wastes was dumping at sea.

From quite early on there was evidence of changes in the communities of marine organisms near the dump sites of the North Sea. Studies showed, for example, that there was an increase in epidermal papilloma (a form of skin cancer) among the local fish population. But for ten years no action was taken to halt the dumping practices because there was still uncertainty in establishing a causal link between the dumping of the wastes and the damage to the fish. The early studies focused on the acidity of the wastes as a potentially causative factor. Later it emerged that the likely cause was in fact the metal content of the wastes, with attention focused particularly on chromium. But the upshot of the continuing dispute was that known toxic wastes continued to be dumped, despite opposition from environmental lobby groups, for over a decade. Even when new evidence emerged of a correlation between chromium content in the fish and epidermal papilloma, scientists could still not prove an irrefutable causal link between the waste disposal and the fish disease, because the factors which govern the appearance of disease in any organism are extremely complex.10

This deadlock was only really broken by the emergence of what has since become known as the precautionary principle. Essentially this is a 'better-safe-than-sorry' principle which attempts to shift the burden of proof in disputes about environmental damage. Historically, the tendency has been to assume that industrial emissions are 'innocent until proven guilty' of environmental damage. The precautionary principle suggests that certain kinds of emissions should be regarded as 'guilty by virtue of their nature'. And attempts should be made to reduce such emissions, even in the absence of proof that they have caused particular environmental effects. After all, it is too late to worry about proof of a causal link after irreversible environmental damage has taken place.

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