Originally published on 27 August 2015 – Re-posted for the Risk School series
This is a three-part blog. In part one I look at the irrationality of hazard-based regulation. In the next blog, I will identify the type of person who promotes it – someone I will call the “contrapreneur”. Finally, their success will be explained as only possible in a vision-less world where expediency is the political virtue.
You can find the French translation to this blog here.
Today, no doubt, most of us have managed the following risks:
- Controlling the exposure to injury from falling down stairs by using the hand-rail or taking care
- Reducing exposure to obesity and other health risks by limiting calorie intake
- Avoiding exposure to a car accident by stopping at a red light
Risk-management is ubiquitous. From the moment we get up to after we fall asleep, we are managing our exposure to hazards with every decision we take. The formula is very simple:
Risk = Hazard X Exposure
If you control or limit the exposure to a hazard (eg, not drinking alcohol if you have to drive), you are managing the risk. Variables may be added (like outrage, uncertainty or timing) to qualify our reactions, but the principle is the same whether it is financial, environmental or lifestyle risks; whether it involves investors, chemical engineers or farmers.
If you are not exposed to a hazard (eg, someone outside smoking a cigarette does not affect my health inside), or if the exposure is adequately managed (eg, safety barriers on dangerous pathways) then you are not at risk. If you face hazards (eg, your investments are under threat because of financial hazards), act to reduce or spread your exposure.
While we all manage risks in each decision we take, regulators are the ultimate risk managers as they set the standards and inform the public so that exposure to hazards may be reduced. Hazards exist everywhere (even staying home and hiding under our beds) so in order to enjoy benefits, progress as a society or allow individuals the freedom to enjoy certain lifestyle decisions, regulators must manage risks (by reducing exposure to potential hazards), hence the term: Risk-based regulation.
So why then are there individuals in Brussels who think that a regulator’s job is to remove all hazards, regardless of our ability to control exposure to the hazard, regardless of the limited exposure levels, regardless of the lost benefits? For these lobbyists (often activists for environmental-health NGOs), a hazard is considered as identical to a risk (regardless of exposure) and the regulatory goal (for them) is to remove all hazards. They support the approach known as: Hazard-based regulation.
Hazard-based regulation implies that the only way to manage risks is to remove the hazard. If synthetic pesticides are hazardous, remove them. If we cannot be certain that a chemical has no effect on our endocrine system (at any dose), then deny authorisation. In hazard-based regulatory debates, the intention is to avoid discussion about exposure levels (any hazard is an uncertainty, regardless of the exposure) or about our ability to manage the exposure. For the activists, man, especially industry, cannot be trusted – point!
For me, the hazard-based approach defies common sense, so after years of seeing them campaign (and be successful in Brussels), I need to understand their motivation. Since before REACH, I have seen activists using terms like “low-dose exposure” where any exposure to any hazard is unacceptable, or “cocktail effect” where we just don’t know what a safe level of exposure is (especially given that safety is a relative, normative concept). At every turn in a regulatory issue, their goal is to limit the perception of our capacity to reduce exposure (by raising doubts on the science, bringing in vulnerable groups like foetuses or babies, showing that the hazards are far too great or cataclysmic and the alternative much safer …) and, in doing so, make the risk management process simply the act of removing hazards.
Of course, the hazard-based proponents only use this approach on issues they are campaigning against – they would be complete idiots if they applied this approach in their daily risk management process. They are not arguing to ban well-known hazards like stairs or steps, remove all high-calorie foods like fruit or pasta or ban all mobile means of transport. And this is the point: in the real world, a hazard-based decision-making tool makes no sense … Brussels though, is not the real world so when they come to this town and squeak out such claims, regulators take them seriously.
I am baffled by this but suspect there are two reasons why they have managed to get away with it: 1) risk specialists have failed to articulate ALARA and 2) Precaution has been cleverly packaged as both a principle and as a risk management tool (two things it is not!)
Our Failure to Articulate ALARA
Risk managers have not done a good job articulating what the risk management process is about. We take risks because we want to enjoy the benefits, and the greater the benefits, the greater the risk taking will be (has anyone been to a Botox party lately?). Many benefits are social goods (like producing enough food to feed a growing population or finding cures to life-threatening diseases) while others are personal goods (like enjoying public safety or improving the quality of life as life-expectancy increases) or economic goods (providing jobs, trade and income) – it is the responsibility of regulators to manage the risks in order to deliver the benefits. Often we hear the activists try to show that we don’t need to produce more food or that green jobs will deliver a better future – vain grasps at straws to make the hazard-based approach less ridiculous.
The main tool for any risk management situation is ALARA: As Low As Reasonably Achievable – that to enjoy the benefits from social, personal or economic goods, we need to find a way to reduce exposure to hazards to as reasonable a level as possible. What is ‘reasonable’ becomes the question.
- As my years pass by and I become less sure of foot, there will come a time when I will need to consider whether it is still reasonable to live in a house with stairs (such a hazard exposure is bound to get harder to manage).
- Regulators who see obesity prevalence rising to unreasonable public health levels, need to make decisions to try to reduce exposure. In this case, determining what is reasonable (and achievable) is a controversial subject: Imposing a fat tax? Better education? Banning certain ingredients? Investing in civic sports infrastructure?
- Mobile phone manufacturers understand that the radiation emitted from their devices can expose users to certain hazards. In order to ensure the benefits of our connected society, they need to lower the emissions as much as reasonably achievable (I have expressed my issues with the industry as they have abandoned ALARA with 4G).
Regulators tend to confuse reasonably achievable with what is easy or expedient and often don’t really understand their role in the risk regulation process.
Surely removing all stairs, cars and energy-rich foods is not reasonable (to most of us), but what about plant protection products that allow us to grow more food? What about means to provide affordable and reliable energy sources in face of the challenges of reducing CO2? What about allowing people to develop or have access to life-saving drugs? In these cases, benefits are great, but so could the hazards be, and our exposure to them needs to be managed to a reasonable level.
Activists though tend, in my opinion, to be unreasonable (and keep trying to pull off clever tricks to make their irrationality seem more mainstream) on pushing their “hazard = risk” platform of ALARA denialism. They do not trust that man can manage risks (that man can be reasonable) and thus the solution is to remove any hazard that can be removed.
- On plant protection products, campaigners feel that stopping all synthetic pesticides (removing hazards) is the only way forward. They do not see the unreasonableness of food security crises, loss of production or the ability of farmers to deliver crops to market. The regulators’ attempts to use ALARA (by reducing the maximum pesticide residue levels) are rejected with activist scare stories of increasing cancers, endocrine disruption or tales of apocalyptic bee losses to make the idea of removing all synthetic pesticides seem reasonable.
- Activists keep pushing to abandon fossil fuels, nuclear and hydro-electric power sources while pretending that we can support our economy on wind and solar energy, refusing to recognise the cumulative CO2 needed to develop renewables or the financial and social consequences of a low-carbon economy. Like the good Neo-Malthusians that they are, they argue that the destruction of the climate since the Industrial Revolution makes adopting a new economic model imperative – hardly reasonable.
- Vaccines, which themselves are inherently precautionary, can kill or create complications in a very small number of individuals. The pharmaceutical industry continues to progress in reducing exposure to ill-effects (but they will never get to zero negative consequences). But it is rather unreasonable (and I would even suggest criminal) to raise public fears or campaign against vaccines (especially given the benefits they provide).
So why would activists argue that certain benefits and public goods like energy and food supply don’t matter, that no exposure to any hazard can be managed or that without certainty in 100% of all cases, life-saving medication or vaccines cannot be allowed? I have met quite a few of these hazard-based regulatory people in my time in Brussels and at first sight, they do not strike me as that vile in their hatred to humanity. But they are locked into an opportunistic regulatory mindset that forces them to try to justify some truly horrible and inhuman consequences for the sake of eco-doctrinal purity.
If the public were to understand that regulatory risk management is just like how they manage walking down stairs or bringing an umbrella on a rainy day, then they would see through the masterwork of these hazard-based rhetorical charlatans.
Precaution as an Uncertainty Management Tool
The only way to understand how such an irrational tool like hazard-based regulation is even considered by some educated people, is that it allows the use of something called the Precautionary Principle. Precaution is a natural reaction to uncertain situations (nobody willingly wants to hurt themselves) – it is uncertainty management. When an infant is learning to walk, it is normal to raise arms to prevent harm from crash landings – that is not a principle.
But managing uncertainty (removing hazards that cause uncertainty) is not the same as risk management (reducing exposure to hazards with the use of ALARA). For example, in financial stock markets, if I am managing uncertainty (and taking the hazard-based precautionary approach), I will sell all of my investments (and given a savings interest rate of 0.5%, all of my potential benefits). If I am managing risk, I will reduce or spread my exposure to hazards, keeping in mind that the benefits are not without risk. Uncertainty management removes the hazards, but also the benefits.
Precaution is a tool that can only be used if you believe that risks (our exposures to hazards) cannot be managed – in other words, precaution only works in a risk-averse hazard-based regulatory framework. If regulators can manage our exposure to pesticides or chemicals to a reasonable level, then the activists would not succeed in banning them … so the goal of the activists is to create uncertainty about our risk management capacity (at any level). This is dishonest (albeit, very successful).
When uncertainties are raised, precaution simply removes the hazard (and any social, economic or personal goods and benefits it may entail).
- Uncertain about our ability to manage exposures from crop protection products, then take them off of the market! Sorry consumers, sorry farmers, sorry countries with insecure food supplies.
- Uncertain about how we will live on a warming planet, then remove everything that emits CO2 (including, according to some groups, humans). Sorry poor people, sorry global economy, sorry for those expecting certain comforts in the quality of their lives.
- Uncertain about CO2 emissions, air pollution and public safety on the roads, then remove all cars. Sorry … well, actually, no! NGO activists know enough that precaution is normative, we love our cars (and phones and coffee) too much to allow irrational regulatory tools so we’ll have to manage that risk.
This is brilliant for the activists. Precaution is a tool that can be applied by lazy regulators to make issues simply disappear rather than get their hands dirty with the heavy lifting of managing risks. If people start to realise the irrationality or notice the loss of benefits, just keep adding fear into the mix, with the right sprinkling of feel-good environmental self-platitudes to keep doubt from surfacing. Social media tools create the perfect communications structure to justify irrationality through collective (un)consciousness.
There are of course cases where precaution makes sense in the absence of our capacity to reduce exposures to hazards. Not driving after consuming alcohol; not crossing a busy highway; or not trying to go down a completely iced-over stairway are good examples where precautionary actions are more reasonable. But in all cases, precaution should come in after other means of risk management have been considered – not in place of it! It should come in when regulations fail, when industry voluntary commitments to lower emissions are inadequate, and after a considerable amount of time was given for man to manage the risks has proven to be unsuccessful. Precaution’s clever reversal of the burden of proof is designed to slam the door on any risk management operations (and any benefits to society).
What we see in Brussels is the manipulative rise of an activist-driven hazard-based regulatory approach, designed to use the precautionary principle to remove all uncertainties that campaigners deem important without the need to have to manage risks. As I have argued before, lazy or cowardly regulators tend to think precaution is blameless and inconsequential, but not only can the loss of benefits be severe and life-threatening, it also cements a fear-obsessed, risk-averse regulatory climate that is starting to seriously influence the political narrative.
My next blog, and the second part of this assessment, looks at the rise of the “contrapreneur” whose challenge to our risk management approach is to create a new order: romantic, backward-driven and anti-industrial. Until tomorrow.
If you still don’t get the difference, see a video on risk and hazard produced by my old science communications organisation, GreenFacts.