The Risk-Monger

“Thinking” is rarely an element found in any corporate job description. There is just no time for such idle luxuries and, in any case, such a capacity is not easy to quantify when calculating one’s year-end bonus. This is something I had known all too well several decades back as a philosopher working in a chemical company. I recognised, personally, the need to take time to think rather than to react to situations, to look for the big picture to see how the little details were causing such serious problems. I was lonely … and I am certain I aggravated my colleagues and hierarchy.

This is not a criticism – business has always been directed toward the pragmatic (to improve return on investment, cut costs, achieve measurable deliverables …). I have never understood the image painted by activists of a rich industry with largesse and suitcases of money to pass around freely – the scarce money and budgets I had seen had always been directed to pragmatic purposes, not deep thinking with no evident return on investment. Thus philosophers and academics were not too welcome in a world of cut-throat competition which has been trained to focus on the coming quarter and the issue on today’s table.

Dealing only in the short term and the immediate issues though has badly hurt business. Activists, powered by passion and idealism, have plotted out a clear long-term strategy to discredit industries, undermine trust and box actors into reactive positions that are unsustainable. They are running philosophical circles around industry groups who are incapable of seeing the big picture. A good example is the recent biotech PR tragedy on GMO labelling in the USA. Biotech companies and food producers were forced, reactively, into resisting GMO labelling without thinking that this is an issue that most of them support and that most consumers don’t really care about. Was anybody thinking here? For activists in this situation, gaining public support and funds has been as easy (and as ethical) as clubbing seal pups (see an elaboration on the Risk-Monger’s Facebook page).

In 2005, I arrived at Cefic to take on the Communications post for Product Stewardship (the unit handling the European chemical industry’s interest in the REACH legislation) just before the European Parliament’s first reading on REACH. I had noticed that thinking was going on, but it was in all different directions. I spent my free time in the first two weeks going around asking managers to finish the following sentence: “The chemical industry supports REACH because …”. It sounded basic, but the view outside was that we did not support REACH, and people in the association and member companies were too busy dealing with other pressing issues than to deal with such basics. (By the way, the answer “… because it will promote the safe use of chemicals” was an instant hit with the media when I had put it into the boilerplate of the next Cefic press release, especially as it highlighted the longstanding problem of the supply chain not using chemicals properly).

What was needed was an academic chair in chemical policy management where basic questions could be considered outside of pressing issues and company interests. There needed to be some textbook written on how the different chemical companies and associations conducted themselves during the different twists and turns of REACH, or any other policy process, benchmarking best practices and highlighting failures to guide future policy managers. After my time in Cefic, as REACH was coming to a close, I had recognised the need to establish such a chair (as did many in the chemical industry) – but sadly I had chosen an academic institution in Brussels where there was even less thinking going on, so after some delays, the idea was shelved and we all turned to more pressing demands (philosophy is a luxury in a sector facing perpetual budget cuts and policy pressures). But after My Dinner with Axel, I was reminded that for the chemical industries to tell their story, there needs to be some organisation and individuals in place to be the narrator, recorder, analyst and liaison. Otherwise, all is anecdotal, and meddlers like Axel were free to say whatever they wanted.

What would this chair do? It should be positioned in an academic structure to encourage research (a dedicated professor with doctoral students) on issues that are vital to chemical companies: sustainable development, the precautionary principle, the legitimacy of low-dose and cocktail effects, public perception of chemicals, supply chain stewardship issues, risk and emerging technologies, proper public engagement … It should be multidisciplinary (engaging researchers from chemistry, policy studies, toxicology, agriculture, philosophy, communications and sociology faculties). Output should include analyses on ongoing issues, policy papers, conferences, research engagement within Horizon 2020 and publications on how the chemical industries have or should be involved in policy debates.

What should this chair not be? There are too many “venture academics” (I refer to them less lovingly as “vulture academics”) running around looking for funding for short-term project management plums that will give them titles, contracts and post-docs. Given the shift in academic funding sources, these professors have less time to think than those working in corporations (see an earlier blog of mine) and an ego-impulse that compels them to lecture rather than listen to people from chemical companies and trade associations. It should not be an extension of some academic’s ego (I had wanted to name the chair after a friend who had died suddenly in 2005 and had been a respected philosopher in the European chemical issue management world).

There are some philosophers working in chemical companies today (I usually find them by coffee machines engaged in discussions since their deskwork does not challenge them enough). A dedicated chair will create a meeting place (a much larger coffee machine) where their discussions can be amplified, tested, shared and benchmarked.

There needs to be basic thinking on fundamental issues like why, for example, so many policymakers still do not get the simple distinction between risk and hazard. Or why the public is so afraid of pesticide residues and then drink so much coffee. Issues like BPA and EDCs need more reflection than just reactionary responses to symphonic, strategic long-term activist campaigns. Without such thinking, environmental activists will continue to eat the chemical industries’ lunch.

What is the alternative? Continued loss of trust in a world where companies are looking at short-sighted deliverables while stumbling through traps neatly laid by ill-intentioned activists? More policy tools like the precautionary principle being railroaded by EEA officials continuing their environmental activism campaigns from inside the European Commission? More myopic campaigns by well-funded anarchists from groups like Corporate Europe Observatory to try to limit the right of companies to express their interests and concerns? More denormalisation campaigns on social media and in political institutions like the European Parliament by charlatans who used to work for Greenpeace?

Maybe it is time to bring in some thinkers.


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