Visionary or the ultimate hindsight? The European Environment Agency’s second ‘late lessons from early warnings’

The European Environment Agency published its first volume of ‘late lessons’ in 2001. Just over ten years later, the second volume covers a staggering amount of new analysis, including PCE, lead in petrol, tobacco, DBCP, nanotechnology, alien species etc. That we already need a second volume fairly soon after the first, is explained by the fact that warnings from the first volume arguably have not been heeded, and that new technologies are rolled out at staggering speed.

It is impossible to argue for or against specific chapters in the volume on scientific grounds – no doubt others will do it (included vested interests). I flag the report on the blog, for it is a treasure trove for risk management teaching and research. Indeed arguably one could teach an entire course using just the report: for the Agency does not only summarise and report on the science, it also infers risk management choices from the ‘late lessons’ learned. Particularly insightful is the review of 88 cases of ‘false positives’: in contrast with the first volume (which had been criticised for this), the second volume does look into 88 case-studies where precautionary action was alleged to have led to greater actual occurrence of harm, rather than prevent it. The EEA concludes that in only 4 cases, this was indeed the case.

Critics argue that the 88 cases are inevitably selective. They also argue that going back in time, there are many more such examples (which I must say undermines their cause somewhat, for some of the examples quoted effectively go back to the times of witchcraft – or suspicion thereof). One could also argue of course that many developments which never raised suspicion and which have changed human life for the better, are not reported on either. However there is of course no reason why humanity should not be able to adopt an and /and approach: one which encourages harmless technologies as well as protect us from harmful ones. This is not a zero sum game (compensate the misses with the hits): it surely ought to be overwhelmingly positive.

The EEA today, incidentally, in a press release feels vindicated in its stance on neonicotinoids. The European Commission, as a result of a comitology (dont’ ask; this is EU administrative procedure; very very relevant but I shall not explain it here) quirkiness banned three neonicotinoid insecticides from use in the EU, after Member States failed to agree to either adopt or reject the proposal.


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