The first section of Part 2 looked at how docilians undermined our risk management capacity. What factors over the last two decades have led us into such a vulnerable position? How did this untelligence come to be the dominant force in our risk management policy process? Understanding this will help us to see how quickly it came unravelled in the face of the COVID-19 coronoavirus crisis. Understanding the sources of our failure will help us in a establishing a blueprint for a future risk management strategy.
This docilian mindset came about over the last two decades through a perfect storm of four transformative events:
- 1) regulatory transition towards participatory governance,
- 2) activist demand for precaution,
- 3) the influence of social media echo-chambers and
- 4) several decades of prosperity brought about by technological advances and the lack of any global famines or catastrophes.
1. Consensus over Expertise
In 2001 the European Commission published its White Paper on European Governance to outline the strategy to address the perceived loss of credibility EU institutions had suffered in the 1990s. It included a demand for more public consultations, stakeholder engagement and participatory policy mechanisms while shifting away from decisions made by experts in white coats behind closed doors. Consensus and transparency were seen as trust-building tools (more than facts, expertise and consequences). See my history of the decline of dialogue over the last two decades.
NGOs were invited to the table and all views were considered “worth considering” in the policy consultation and consensus-building process. This open engagement approach was welcomed until about five years later, when the REACH Directive (on chemicals governance) overwhelmed the EU decision-making process. Soon, with anti-lobbying transparency campaigners, the NGOs would only come to tables where industry was not invited. Then they demanded that industry research and scientific data be excluded. Recently activist groups like Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth and Testbiotech wanted to exclude the policymakers from the decision-making process, leaving it to a series of citizen panels. Until the coronavirus outbreak, EU and German authorities were giving more ground to the activists’ demands. I shudder just imagining how citizen panels would have managed the COVID-19 crisis.
This two-decade long policy transition has largely excluded science, facts and evidence-based policymaking. The European Commission’s inability to reauthorise glyphosate for 15 years showed just how handcuffed the fact-free participatory policy approach had become. Gene editing technologies that would make agriculture more sustainable were relegated to the repressive 2001 GMO Directive because a group of French peasant associations demanded it. Brussels, in particular, became a place where facts, science and common sense came to die amidst the mud of activist interest groups.
2. Reliance on Precaution rather than Risk Management
My last article looked at how the precautionary principle failed to protect populations from the coronavirus. There were no risk reduction measures, little protection of vulnerable populations, no testing and controlling until the coronavirus had overwhelmed populations and the only response then was the precautionary measure of locking down populations until the disease went away.
Precaution developed in the EU as an expedient tool to make issues go away. It essentially short-circuits the risk management process by rejecting any substance or technology that could not prima facie be proven with certainty to be safe (two emotional, non-scientific concepts). As uncertainty management, the precautionary principle was ill-suited as a risk management tool, especially during a pandemic where locking down populations (stop all actions if you cannot guarantee safety) was the precautionary risk manager’s only option.
The Precaution Princess
The best example of how precaution failed as a risk management tool with COVID-19 was during the Diamond Princess Yokohama debacle. When several passengers on the cruise ship fell ill with the coronavirus, the uncertainty was met with a precautionary lockdown of all of the thousands of passengers in the same viral soup. Precaution’s simplistic “remove the uncertainty” strategy put far more people at risk.
How would a risk manager have handled the situation? After drawing up a number of scenarios, efforts should have been made to reduce exposures to the risks (perhaps creating a larger dockside isolation zone, mass testing and phasing out the confinement). The more vulnerable (high risk) passengers should have been identified with protection immediately given to them. All decisions would be made under ALARA – managing exposures downward to as low as reasonably achievable, with the focus on reasonable and the expressed objective of continually lowering exposures. There was absolutely nothing reasonable about how precaution was used in mismanaging the poor passengers on the Diamond Princess.
The precaution-only approach to the Diamond Princess event is a microcosm of the global lockdowns, now largely extended into the summer. At a time when we clearly need risk managers to protect the most vulnerable, most of us have become more vulnerable.
Risk management often involves making hard decisions; precaution makes the easy decision (making uncertain things go away) without concern for any consequences. Now, as I had sadly predicted, the “bodies are piling up” and we need to recognise that this did not have to happen. If the authorities had properly applied risk reduction measures, managed exposures, protected the most vulnerable, engaged in mitigation procedures from the first day, while vigorously testing, isolating and tracking individuals with the virus, if the authorities had practised proper risk management, then we would have avoided the disasters we see today in most Western countries. Instead, little was done until it was too late with the only risk response being precautionary: locking down large populations and effectively strangling every benefit and social good Western society had.
The Precaution Plague
The 2020 coronavirus crisis will be known as the year of the Precaution Plague. Seeing hundreds of graves of unclaimed victims being dug on Hart Island in New York City within a month of the outbreak is evidence of how the two-decade policy reliance on the precautionary principle has led to a lost capacity to properly manage risks.
David Gee, author of the EU’s articulation of the precautionary principle, boldly said at a SCALE conference in the Netherlands in 2004 that he could find no cases where taking precaution led to worse situations. I disagree. COVID-19 is not the first plague caused by precautionary incompetence. During the Great Plague of London, motivated by superstitious religious zealots, authorities applied precaution by killing all of the cats, in effect amplifying the plague. Uncharacteristically, today’s eco-religious cultists have remained quiet as the failure of their activist policy tool spreads suffering across the globe with the COVID-19 crisis.
3. The Social Media Lockdown
What the architects of the EU’s White Paper on Governance and Late Lessons from Early Warnings could not have predicted in 2001 was how dialogue would be sidestepped by the emergence of social media: how these tribes and echo-chambers could so easily filter out other ideas and how activist groups pushing precaution could isolate other actors from the engagement process. A messy consensus process with intransigent tribes who refused to accept other ideas left precaution as the only policy tool for the expedient risk manager.
The docilian mindset was born from these social media tribes attacking science, technology, chemicals, crop protection tools, vaccines, pharmaceuticals and gene editing. These communities did not have facts or evidence, but merely opportunistic gurus feeding them a rich diet of fear and outrage. Every SumOfUs email, every Extinction Rebellion event, every Zen Honeycutt tweet was a call to action, to fight the good fight and to signal their virtue. They believed that every source of their fear (industry, pollution, chemicals, vaccines …) could simply and easily be erased via a simplistic precautionary “No!”. American universities from Harvard to Stanford, places of once great academic learning, were awarding charlatans like Vandana Shiva $40,000 a pop to come on campus to generate hate.
And with two decades of relative prosperity, these gurus and activists enjoyed success putting their people into positions of power, imposing restrictive regulations designed to eradicate industry, research and innovation, stop free trade and dismantle capitalism. The rise of Extinction Rebellion represented the zenith of this stupidity as their alarmist advocates were aggressively pushing to overthrow the capitalist system, global trade and finance, replacing governments with citizen assemblies tasked with one goal: applying precaution to all remaining industries and technologies. One of their “thought leaders”, George Monbiot, enjoyed far too much attention with the most incredulous idea of all: to stop all modern agriculture. The lunacy of such a ridiculous Marxist fringe group like Extinction Rebellion should not have dominated media airtime for so long were it not for their adept social media orchestration and the incapacity of regulators to stand up and call “Time” on this bullshit.
Where were the risk managers? Stuck in a consensus-driven policy structure (where dissenting voices had been silenced), they were slowly placating these activists’ demands with precautionary compromises to irrational demands. As useless policy debates without evidence or purpose proliferated (glyphosate, plastic straws, acrylamide, BPA …), good people left the regulatory process. Nuclear reactors were decommissioned (despite climate threats), crop protection tools banned (despite Europe’s inability to feed itself), plastics were phased out (despite unsustainable alternatives), herd immunity to eradicated diseases was declining (despite pleas from public health officials to vaccinate), new gene editing technologies were banned (despite indications of the enormous potential benefits). It seemed like every precautionary free-pass made us weaker.
Docilians were getting what they wanted, controlling the narrative and forcing weak authorities to apply precaution … to everything.
4. Wealth-based Ignorance
Risk managers were unable to protect their populations from themselves and as Western economies were still producing abundant social and economic goods, a policy driven by precaution and the gradual deindustrialisation of Western economies seemed expedient enough. When you’re well-fed, choice overpowers need.
But should government risk managers merely deliver what the loudest voices demand? As tribal irrationality grows, perceived public demands may not be in the public interest. What happens when a majority of a population demands an end to vaccines? Should our leaders deliver what an outraged and ignorant activist cult demands? EU regulators are already complying with activist campaigns and systematically removing plant protection products from the market (around 40% of pesticide products will not be reauthorised under the EU’s Sustainable Use Directive) leaving Europeans with even fewer means to feed themselves.
We have to admit that despite the cowardice of our authorities to stand up to responsibly defend what society needed, to protect the most vulnerable, the docilian demands, the guru manipulations and the activist campaigns were the clear destructive forces of our risk management capacity.
That is … until a pernicious coronavirus broke through the thin precautionary veneer, waking our risk managers up far too late from their expedient slumber. Their failure – the failure of the docilian demand for precaution – is now measured by daily body counts.
A Docilian Awakening?
When an ill-wind from Wuhan blew West, the frivolity of the activist campaigns and guru opportunism was overshadowed. The tightly controlled naturopath narrative quickly unravelled. Unable to say goodbye as loved ones died alone in hospitals, no one was speaking of GMOs, glyphosate and cancer. Instead we started asking farmers what they needed to ensure food supplies. If novel new technologies could help defeat COVID-19 then we were asking: What are we waiting for? Concern about vaccines was voiced by another type of anxious public. Ecosystem collapse was overshadowed by fears of economic collapse and a Swedish teenager was left with nothing else to do but go back to school (if it were only open).
And docilians are waking up. Every country has its new-found trusted scientists dominating prime-time TV with virologists explaining Science 101 to interested populations. People are learning how to make essential plastic parts for hospital ventilators on their home 3D printers. From supermarket shelf-stockers to fulfilment centre workers, a new brand of hero has been recognised. Perhaps COVID-19 was the wake-up call Western societies had needed.
We have woken up to the need to respect science and evidence. We have realised that life is fragile and risks need to be managed. We have felt the loss of benefits precaution used to just impose on those more vulnerable. But what about those cowardly regulatory risk managers from those docilian days of precaution simplicity? Have they woken up?
As a person who has studied risk since the 1990s (for as long as risk has been a field of study), I have to say I am more than just concerned with the lack of proper risk management deployment at the present stage of this global pandemic.
Risk managers need to draw up long-term scenarios, basing present risk reduction measures on consequences, costs and benefits. What I see in most countries, a month into the lockdown (and 15 weeks since alarm bells were ringing in China), is the inability to even manage the present needs (PPE for hospitals, tests for vulnerable populations, protection of residents in nursing homes …). The only strategy seems to be to flatten the curve to manage poorly structured healthcare systems until herd immunity is attained (by either a vaccine or a massive culling of the herd). What will happen if and when things seriously “go south”?
I fear the coronavirus is merely the first stage in a much greater disaster our still docile risk managers are incapable of recognising. Within the next three to four months, expect the coronavirus crisis to mutate into the “coronahunger” (at which point body-counts won’t even make the news).
By bringing global economies to screeching halts, supply chains have started to slowly buckle, soon stockpiles will dwindle and our leaders will be unable to guarantee essential services and supplies. At the moment, US farmers are dumping milk as the production chain is unable to pick up, process and package it. Freezing migration and movement of people, especially of farm labourers, means fewer crops in the West planted or harvested (I’m saying this in April 2020). Meat processing plants in the US are shutting down.
That will not merely mean higher prices in the shops. The last few years of poor harvests and regulatory crop protection straight-jackets (due to precaution) have led many farmers from Romania to France to the US to leave the land, … and while that has brought delight to the organic food industry lobby, it has increased vulnerability on food supplies. We are in absolutely no position to manage a global food crisis.
Cue the locusts.
East African countries like Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia have suffered massive agricultural losses recently from the ongoing locust swarms. Worse (I wish I were making this up), the fall armyworm has devastated maize crops in the region – their staple food (Kenya losing over a third of their maize crop over the last three years). It breaks my heart to think that as little as a year ago, activists were lavishly lobbying governments in the region to reject agricultural technologies that would solve these problems. Incredibly, agroecology events funded by European foundations were convincing policymakers to reject GMOs and conventional crop protection practices. It breaks my heart even more to think that the impending famine in the region will be met with a lockdown on global food distribution as Western economies can no longer feed themselves and will be hoarding food stores. Millions will die, mass migration will ensue and civil unrest will become commonplace. And meanwhile, our risk managers are still trying to figure out PPE for nursing homes.
I fear this catastrophe won’t be limited to East Africa.
And what are risk managers doing at present to prevent this nightmare scenario? Industry has business continuity strategies; most government authorities apparently do not. These “civil servants” think risk management means delivering populations what (is perceived) they want.
Our present cabal of expedient-driven risk managers are in no way fit to lead. If all we are demanding is a return to “normal” as fast as possible, then we are going to get what we deserve: more fragility, more death and fewer social goods.
We need a root and branch “docilian detox”.