Environmental McCarthyism and the precautionary principle
Throughout history, mankind has been quick to suspend rules of reason when the public good was perceived as unduly threatened. This has often been to devastating effect, such as during the ‘McCarthy Era’ of the mid 20th century. One had simply to be accused of being a communist, and the onus was on the accused to prove otherwise—a virtually impossible task. In more recent times such sentiments have shifted to environmental topics, with agrochemicals as the suspect in a water quality relationship it is said might negatively affect humankind and the entire ecosystem. Under the ‘Null Hypothesis’ of classical science, unless a change can be documented, nothing beyond reasonable chance is assumed to have occurred. Some feel that modern science has failed to identify real agro-environmental hazards, hence the need to invoke the ‘Precautionary Principle’. They say that action is needed now and warn that to wait for absolute proof is to invite disaster. Others believe this philosophy is simply a veiled form of ‘Environmental McCarthyism.’ They caution that such steps are unduly alarmist, aimed at bypassing rigorous scientific technique while imposing personal agendas. The stakes are higher than ever, but the basic issue remains the same — at what point is there sufficient evidence to warrant action, and when is it imprudent to do so? We can learn much from the past while seeking new solutions to current water quality dilemmas. A more open, active dialogue of affected stakeholders is needed, to better define problems and collectively find answers.
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