On Owning Nature: Part II

(And the Pleasure of Life)

 Beneath the fog, I miss the hot breath
Of lovers’ abated anticipation
Forgive me, death
I have not forsaken you.
Take caution in your felicitations
For we have not proved our innocence yet

I had intentions of telling you about European trepidation—of French elites clinking glasses of rosé in the Aix-en-Provence countryside. White linens and fresh cheese from the farm.  What a tempting romance—to sing the praises of uniqueness!  Of a fear of globalization and the perversities of strangers it may introduce.  But instead, I want to tell you a cautionary tale.

To speak of prudence in an era of unprecedented technological ‘progress’ is almost blasphemous.  However, there has been growing public dissent in the EU toward genetically modified organisms[1].  Roger Cohen of the New York Times writes that, “the specter of nature being rendered more uniform by scientists in America has meshed with a wider fear of an increasingly undifferentiated planet where national distinctions fade.”  The European approach to implementing technological innovations is characterized by precautionary sentiments where we, here in the United States, have tended to allow innovations to seize the market barring direct scientific evidence of harm. Though this may be in line with the view of individualistic freedom, it places the burden of proof upon the victim of dominating infiltrators; this is characterized in a multiplicitous array of ways from the use of hormones in beef to the ‘drill baby drill’ attitude toward hydraulic fracturing to the proliferation of genetically modified seeds and so on.

It is often in my constitution to run quickly into the sea without surveying to see how deep it is.  But I am willing to concede that in my maturation I have developed a reverence for caution, for anticipation.

The major difference in the approaches across the pond lies in this issue of caution – particularly with regard to risk assessment.  For the EU, in the absence of relevant scientific evidence, one can invoke the precautionary principle.  The precautionary principle does not explicitly require scientific consensus to take action against a policy that is suspected to be risky.  Rather, those implementing the policy or taking the action are encumbered with the burden of proof to show that the action is notharmful.  Paragraph 2, Article 191 of the Lisbon Treaty states: “union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union.  It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.” This is something that makes the EU resistant to allowing GMOs into the market.

Lynch & Vogel point out that “when Europeans think of wildlife and the rural environment, they think of farmland, and for them GM technology appears to be the next step in an unwelcome intensification of agriculture.  Americans, in contrast, think of the wilderness areas their national parks; they regard farmland as part of the industrial systems” (17).  Herein lies a fundamental issue of individual rights versus communitarian values, and a key difference in the U.S. and EU views on genetically modified organisms.  The political pundits and industry leaders have tried to propose that both genetically modified seeds and organic seeds can flourish in harmony relying on the mantra of individual rights.  However, the reality is that the harmful impacts of the modified seeds and their proliferation have shown that we do not live in isolation.

So perhaps I should have titled this ‘Ode to Precaution’.  A thank you note to an under-appreciated and somewhat bullied perspective. It is not sexy; it is not Hollywood; it is a cap over the electrical socket; it is slowing down at a yellow light; it is turning off the radiator when you leave the house.


[1] ”GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism–this is an organism that has been genetically engineered.  These are used in a number of fields spanning from pharmaceuticals to research to agriculture.  In my previous post, I wrote about the patent protections of genetically modified seeds.

Photograph by Kevin Dooley

Lynch, D. and Vogel, D. (2001). The regulation of GMOs in Europe and the United States: A case-study of contemporary European regulatory politics. Council on Foreign Relations. 1-39.

Posted under: BlogTechnology & Society

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