Suppose I offered you a product that contained 66 chemicals, most with slightly sinister and technical names like “Ethyl-3-methylbutanoate”. Suppose I added that these 66 chemicals included twenty-nine that were classified as hazardous; one as toxic; five damaging to health and four damaging to the environment. And suppose I then invited you to eat it? Would you do so? I suspect not.
Suppose I explained that the product in question was a natural, organic blueberry – widely regarded as a health-food that offers some degree of protection against cardiovascular risk factors? Would you think differently about it? When was the last time you ate a blueberry?
And much the same analysis could be given for a wide range of food-stuffs, not least coffee and tea. We need to understand not only whether a substance is potentially toxic, but also whether there is any significant prospect of the amounts concerned having any damaging effect.
During my first term in the European parliament, the Chairman of the Environment Committee was Tory MP Caroline Jackson. I disagreed with her on many things, but I loved her sharp wit and iconoclastic style. The European institutions love the Precautionary Principle, which says (I paraphrase) that if anything might potentially be dangerous, we should ban it until we can be sure it’s safe. Caroline famously remarked that on the basis of the Precautionary Principle, we should ban two-storey houses in the EU. Statistics show (she said) that a thousand people a year in Europe die from falling down stairs. We can eliminate that risk by living in bungalows.
That illustrates why I believe we should replace the Precautionary Principle with what I call the Proportionality Principle. That is, we should avoid products or activities where the risk of harm is disproportionate to the benefit. Often we are aware of significant risks, but we accept those risks in exchange for the benefits offered by the activity. For example, several thousand people sadly die each year on our roads. But we don’t ban cars, and most of us use them. The advantages of personal mobility are out of all proportion to the relatively small risk of accident or injury.
There is a growing body of evidence that use of mobile phones can cause brain damage. Yet most of us shrug off that risk in exchange for the enormous convenience offered by our mobiles. On the other hand, we seem to be getting less and less tolerant of any conceivable risk that we think we can avoid altogether without inconvenience – like shale gas, or GM crops.
This creates, however, a problem for public policy. It is all too easy for lobby groups or irresponsible media to whip up massive scare stories about risks which are very small indeed. We all remember the “Millennium Bug”, or Y2K, as we used to know it. A huge scare over what proved to be a non-event. Many millions wasted by companies “future-proofing” their systems.
Similarly, we have the fear of shale gas. Concerned residents blocking drilling sites and waving placards. Yet I have been twice to the USA to see shale gas operations first hand, and I found local residents who were delighted with the industrial renaissance, the jobs re-shored, the jobs created in drilling areas, the new businesses springing up, the increase in property prices as growth attracted in-comers. What I did not find was people campaigning against the new wealth.
This is perhaps reminiscent of the nuclear debate, where again and again we find that people living near to nuclear sites, and seeing the economic benefits, are far more positive about nuclear energy than those living further away. But perhaps the better parallel is with coal. Hundreds of thousands died within the coal industry, and on some estimates millions outside died of respiratory conditions as a result of pollution from coal (as indeed they are in China today). Coal mining with its pit-heads and slag heaps created devastation on the landscape (and bigger earth tremors than fracking). Yet we still look back to mine closures with regret.
(Caveat: We in UKIP support coal, which is now very much cleaner and safer than it once was).
When we’re offered a new energy extraction technology, shale gas, which is overwhelmingly safer and cleaner than coal, and offers vast commercial and economic benefits, we should be welcoming it with open arms, not campaigning against it.
Another example of irrational fear is that of GM foods. We have been eating them for decades with no recorded case of harm, yet they arouse fierce negative emotions. At least the Luddites who attacked mechanical looms with sledgehammers in the early 1800s had a credible (if mistaken) argument for their actions. Opponents of GM have none. It’s time to learn to weigh up risks and benefits, and to make decisions which are proportionate, not precautionary.