The Two Paths to Policy

See the French translation

The following is the background text for a speech given to the Polish Union of the Cosmetics Industry on 15 September 2017 at their 15th anniversary conference. As the speech was delivered without notes or support, deviations from this text may be possible. Certain parts of it, with apologies to my interpreter, should be sung.

When we set out on a journey, we often have choices on which road to take, depending on our destination, our needs, the type of vehicle, our situation and the amount of time we have. The travelling itself is usually a good part of the journey. This is also the case for those defining policy routes on environmental health issues – policy is a process with many obstacles and potential direction changes. Having a clear route is desirable but not always possible.

Situations are changing and as policy debates get more entrenched, there appear to be only a couple routes left to choose from. Other paths and destinations seem to have been closed, degraded or found to be unable to support “heavy goods vehicles”.

One route takes travellers on a trip involving innovation, risk-based decisions and a trust in technology and human ingenuity. The other route has set up barriers to many innovations, prioritising safety and precaution. The route policy-makers take defines the journey we will have, the destination we reach and the opportunities waiting for us when we get there.

Route One: The Realist Road

Realists know that the world is not perfect but have trust in science and man’s capacity to solve problems and improve the human condition. This road was built by Francis Bacon, has regularly been developed and expanded and today offers its travellers many opportunities, destinations and comforts that previous generations could never have imagined.

Whenever there is a bump on the road, scientists seek the best means to fix it, manage the traffic and get people on their way with limited inconvenience. The road maintenance on Realist Road is via private funding, creating incentives for those who can offer the best service.

Realist Road takes a risk-based approach to policy management. We know that travelling involves uncertainties and hazards, but the destination (the benefits) are seen to be essential, so reducing our exposure to these hazards is a priority (risk = hazard X exposure). In order to have an efficient road that provides continued comfort and service, the road managers need to keep the exposure to hazards as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA – our main risk management tool). If there are too many bumps in the road, cars will get damaged; if there is no road (assuming no means to have the perfect road), no travellers will be able to arrive at their destination. Policy-makers have to determine what is reasonably achievable and then continually strive to improve upon that.

The type of commuter on Realist Road is inquisitive, open and enjoys the innovations and comforts man has developed. He or she recognises the challenges we continue to face, and in a fight or flight situation, would likely strive, optimistically, to use technology and ingenuity to solve problems (rather than running from them).

The risk-based policy approach has served us well and the centuries of scientific achievement have delivered a world of continuous improvement, well-being and comfort. Today we are living longer, more protected from the ravages of nature and finding solutions to so many of the problems, diseases and threats that used to cripple humanity.

Or has it? Others have taken a different route.

Route Two: The Possibilist Parkway

Not everyone agrees that building bigger, better roads are good things. The speed of human progress has created uncertainties and hazards that they see as undesirable and that should be dealt with via an exclusionary or eliminatory process. If a risk is possible, however small, it must be prevented.

The Possibilist Parkway enforces a strict speed limit and runs in a single direction (towards “nature” which is the assumed destination of choice of all travellers). Many avenues and junctions are deemed unsafe, and rather than managing the exposure to these hazards, barriers and deviations are put in place.

If there is a bump on Possibilist Parkway, the road is closed. This is the precautionary principle (the David Gee/EEA version) demanding that until the authorities can prove that the way is safe (normatively defined), passage on the route will not be allowed. Defining safety itself is relative and emotive. Precaution is the law of the road for possibilists, applied diligently and without flexibility or reasonableness.

The precautionary principle is not a logical concept (not being right is not the same as being wrong); rather it is an emotional approach to uncertainty management whose objective is to remove uncertainty at any cost. Hot button issues from endocrine disrupters, microplastics, nanomaterials and chemical residues demand an absolute proof of safety (an emotional concept) or face precautionary bans. While this creates some inconvenience (as closing roads full of traffic often does), the Possibilist road managers here prioritise certainty and safety over benefits or comfort.

A “possibilist” is a different kind of traveller, craving certainty and recognising that most of man’s innovations and developments are not perfect. If there is a possibility that something may have negative consequences for human health or the environment (however improbable or low the exposure), the possibilist will go into protective mode and move to remove the hazard. Sometimes the possible exposures are ridiculously low (like potential endocrine disrupting chemicals), but if it is possible, then there is uncertainty, and removing that is the chief occupation of the Possibilist Parkway road managers. (Note that I am presently finishing a piece detailing my portrayal of Possibilists … to be published shortly.)

This is the hazard-based approach to policy (where hazard equals risk and there is no question of how we manage exposure – any exposure is unacceptable). Possibilists do not make a distinction between a risk and a hazard – if an exposure to a hazard is possible, then it must be removed (and all of the benefits will be lost). The benefits that matter on the Possibilist Parkway are certainty, safety and a return to nature. Its travellers marvel at the beauty of the landscapes and are prepared to make certain trade-offs to ensure that. If you have the luxury to travel on this route, you are really not interested in solving problems or developing products to make life easier. This route should actually be called the Privileged Parkway!


Things are changing in the manner in which traffic is being directed. The ability to rapidly spread fear and uncertainty via social media and the rise in NGO, guru and activist influence means that more public sympathy, and thus more policy, is being directed down the Possibilist Parkway. Given the affluence in western societies, the loss of benefits due to precautionary pot-holes have not been strongly felt. But with the decline in the public trust in science, technology, industry and regulatory authorities, the road conditions will continue to degrade, untreated weeds will break up the surface and accidents will arise.

With so many closed roads, policy dead-ends and precautionary restrictions, we find ourselves today in many policy impasses: from trade policy to chemicals legislation to farm and food regulations. The Possibilists have created a useful structure for their campaigns – either this small population succeed in banning a product along the precautionary pathway or they create a policy deadlock and regulatory uncertainty (same thing).

The rise of the influence of the activists in the policy roadmap has complicated policy-making and changed how research and technology is capable of developing and improving human conditions.

A Fork in the Road?

Possibilists are pessimists to human ingenuity and feel that those on the Realist Road have made a mess of their beautiful world. The realists see the challenges of science and optimistically engage in building a better world while rejecting the idealism of the dreamers. But these two roads also represent two parts of human nature. At times, we consider taking the different routes. Man is wired to choose between fight or flight mode depending on the situation, and in the policy world, this is no different.

What causes us to choose certain policy pathways one time and then take completely other routes the next? There are, I believe, three main influences:

  1. Benefits

If society deems a benefit to be essential, then the policy route will follow the Realist Road. Some examples include environmental health risks from mobile phones, cars and energy production. Any bumps in the road, any hazardous exposures, will be addressed so that we can continue on our journey. We will not take precaution but rather manage the risks and improve the processes in the most reasonable manner. However, if the benefits are not widely perceived (or not perceived to be essential), then even the smallest possible exposure will be enough to land risk-managers in the precautionary purgatory at the end of the Possibilist Parkway. Most people do not understand the benefits from chemicals, seed technologies, plant protection products and food additives.

The role of the policy-maker is to determine which route to take to ensure benefits are safely delivered. The role of the issue manager is to present a clear roadmap to the benefits and how any risks can be managed. But the new traffic warden – the activist –follows a different agenda and has been quite successful in downplaying benefits, raising uncertainties and funnelling policy traffic onto the Possibilist Parkway.

  1. Necessity

Often the decision on the road we take is made for us out of necessity. Poor people can’t afford organic food; a heart patient may need to take harsh medications; a developing country isn’t in a position to shift to green energy … At this point, any innovation and development along Realist Road is essential. Providing solutions and opening choices allows man to develop and live better.

This is the human face of science that the self-absorbed elitists on the Possibilist Parkway don’t like to acknowledge. They will blame the problems on previous poor decisions by man, overpopulation and the dark face of industry and human greed. If we had all listened to Malthus, life would be better today, there would be no climate change and nature would be pristine. It is easy to make simplistic claims when you have no needs.

The role of a policy-maker in choosing the right route here is part moral responsibility, part resource management. The role of the issue manager is to open up the potential for technologies. The new actor in the decision process – the activist – has assumed the role of sceptical social critic (“We don’t need these new technologies!”), offering up an alternative ideal that is both impractical and potentially dangerous.

  1. Historical Narrative

Many of the roads around Brussels were built by the Romans. They have always been there and at times may not make sense for today’s needs … but we follow them. Often risk taking has a cultural history. Scandinavians might exhibit an irrational fear over the smallest chemical exposure but then demand the right to consume highly toxic seafoods that their great grandparents had enjoyed. Many activist possibilists I know in Brussels campaigning against potential carcinogens themselves smoke around a pack a day. Every culture has its own definition(s) of beauty and well-being and varying degrees of tolerance for the tools, technologies and products to deliver them.

The challenge for policy-makers is to choose the route with the most exits, passages and directions to accommodate for the different historical narratives that define our risk tolerances and fear inclinations. The role for the issue manager is to communicate to these populations in a manner that is responsible and respectful. The activist looks for the fear sensitivities in each culture and exploits them to the highest precautionary opportunity.

A Roadmap for the Road Less Travelled

Industry is in a difficult situation today. Over generations, they have delivered essential products and innovations along the science-based Realist Road that have created enormous social goods and human well-being. The Possibilists, however, enjoy the advantage of certain social media communication tools to raise fear and uncertainty, channelling more traffic down the road to precaution, lost technologies and scientific ignorance.

People will be pulled down the Possibilist Parkway if they do not see the benefits, do not feel the necessity or have no historical bond to the beneficial technologies. Possibilists have been brilliant in weaving stories based on fears and half-truths, raising uncertainties and doomsday scenarios personalised via social media tools. How should industry react?

A few points for any industry roadmap:

  • Roads need to be well marked and showing a clear way (transparent);
  • While some roadbuilders may spot other opportunities, care should be taken that deviations for short-term gain do not push the entire network onto the Possibilist Parkway (speak with a single voice);
  • Benefits need to be clearly communicated;
  • Risks need to be put in perspective – is it really worth the worry for a part per billion?
  • Messages must be storified – we remember stories which light us emotionally;
  • The Possibilists are a small (albeit loud) part of the population – try not to elevate them and focus on the main consumer base.

With that I wish you safe travels!

Thank you!

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