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During the Great Plague of London (1665-66), the authorities were convinced that the outbreak of bubonic plague was being spread by cats. As cats had then been looked upon by religious leaders as symbols of evil and witchcraft, the crisis created the perfect opportunity for zealots to purge London of this feline scourge. The local authorities had no evidence that the cats were spreading the plague, but via the virtue of precaution, they could be seen to be acting in a time of panic. Resisting public pressure from vocal zealots was not politically expedient, and in any case, who would really care if a few thousand cats were tossed in the Thames. Well the rats thought this was just fine, and as the rat population exploded, so too, obviously, did the plague (spread via rat fleas).
This is an example of a great precautionary principle fail and one that has been repeated time and time again by modern-day environmental zealots. Today we are seeing the best research and technology denied to society by activist witch-hunters and social-media lynch mobs who wish to impose a return to some bucolic, medieval conception of economy and agriculture.
They killed the bees
Religious zealots from Pesticides Action Network, Greenpeace, SumOfUs and Friends of the Earth have used the fear they generated of a Great Plague on the bees to create an opportunity for their anti-pesticides campaign. They focused their wrath in particular on neonicotinoids, the most popular, effective and environmentally benign of the synthetic pesticides. The chemical industry and industrial-scale farmers were their witches and the efficiency of their attacks left Brussels with little choice other than to invoke precaution on neonicotinoids. American regulators listened to farmers and resisted such legislation, but the zealots aren’t done yet.
But this precautionary action, like that during the Great Plague, has come with some deadly consequences. Farmers in certain EU countries that did not apply derogations, faced with severe losses in the first year of the neonicotinoid precautionary ban, have resorted to using older, more toxic and less effective pesticides to save their crops (yields for certain crops like oil-seed rape have dropped significantly since the precautionary ban was imposed). Furthermore, as the precautionary ban is on pollen-rich crops like oil-seed rape, without adequate means to protect their crops, farmers will favour other, less bee-friendly crops. Add to this the ploughing under of meadows and other natural habitats for the necessary additional acreage required for organic farming, and I cannot see how these medieval policies can promote bee health.
The irony of this precautionary fail is that the EU’s own science has recognised that there has been little negative effect on bees, and mostly from cold winters. See a catalogue of evidence that the bee crisis was fabricated in Jon Entine’s recent article in the Huffington Post and by the former UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson. Just as in medieval London, science, reason and facts have little influence on superstition and zealots who spread fear. So they kill more bees.
They killed the sperm
Environmental-health zealots like those fighting for HEAL and EDC-Free Europe are running a campaign against modernity around the fear they have spread on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Any synthetic chemical or pesticide is seen as a potential carcinogen, sperm-reducer or hormone inhibitor, at any dose and in combination with any other (synthetic) chemical. It is impressive what data an ethically-bent lab technician can find with a chromatograph and a bit of funding! The Great Plague crisis here is the fear that our every-day exposure to these chemicals have led to falling fertility rates and higher levels of certain cancers and obesity.
These eco-religious groups have focused on the possible exposures to EDCs in plastics and pesticides according to their alarmist superstition that any man-made chemicals are inherently evil and must be eradicated (although not tossed in the Thames as the fish are also apparently suffering from EDC exposures … but of course, not from HRTs). The EU policy-makers did not think of the consequences when they cowered to these eco-fundamentalist campaigns during the revision of the EU Pesticide Directive and have now locked themselves into a precautionary trap. Very few crop protection products will be given clearance from being potential endocrine disruptors (at very low doses) so once these zealots will have succeeded in pushing most products off of the market, farmers will be forced to return to medieval agricultural practices. A victory the environmentalists can be proud of.
Once again the irony of precaution has set in. The zealots used medieval campaign tactics to create fear while science has too often revealed the opposite. Sperm counts have not been falling (activist scientists have even tried to hide their own findings that confirm this), cancer rates have not been increasing outside of demographic trends and trying to pin rising obesity rates on EDCs has been a real opportunistic long-shot. Certain longstanding campaigns against chemicals have been categorically cleared by scientific bodies from being EDCs (like Bisphenol A), but still, despite the facts, the eco-religious thunder on with their fire and brimstone. The reality is that if there were an endocrine disruption crisis, the source of the problem would much more likely be from our high exposure to natural endocrine disrupting chemicals found in substances like soybeans and coffee than in any low-dose exposure to well-tested synthetic chemicals. This though would not be a good enough reason for the mobs to lynch the products and representatives of the chemical industry.
They killed the seeds
Hard-core zealots like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have done well creating fear of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These Luddites have locked themselves into the intransigence that no GMO would ever be acceptable and are now trying to extend their prejudice to any form of plant technologies. No biotechnology or plant breeding will ever apparently be accepted as it violates their superstition that only natural is tolerable and that anything defiled by human hands was impure and must be destroyed. Like witch-hunts in the last great period of institutionalised irrationality, these activist science molesters have never seen a GMO field trial that they would not want to strip clean (or rather: purify in a sacrificial ceremony to honour the grace of Gaia!).
And such was the case of the Greenpeace-led destruction of the Golden Rice field trials at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Rice is the main staple in many developing countries where dietary deficiencies lead to increased mortality, illnesses and stunted development. Golden Rice is merely rice fortified with beta-carotene and provides additional Vitamin A to people in developing countries who are unable to afford balanced diets. Vitamin A deficiency is a serious disease that causes around 500,000 cases of blindness and 250,000 deaths per year, mostly poor children in developing countries.
What sort of medieval zealot would willingly send 250,000 children to their graves for the sake of religious purity? This is three times more, per year, than the total that died in the last great scourge of ignorance during the Great Plague. Greenpeace argue that these people living in the slums of Bangladesh and the Philippines just need to grow a mixed balance of (organic) vegetables in their window boxes or take vitamin supplements. I cannot find any words to help comprehend why humanity still tolerates this bigoted band of dogmatic idolists.
Precaution: the perfect tool for zealots
Zealots will always exist so long as religions are unable to moderate their fundamentalist extremes, and this is no different with the environmentalist movement. They will use whatever tool, person or argument they can find to force their influence on others, spread the faith and reassure themselves of their righteousness. Precaution is the perfect tool – it worked for the zealots in medieval times and it still works today.
Note that I am not equating the use of the precautionary principle with medieval mind-sets. Precaution is a basic human reaction (no one willingly wants to hurt themselves). But the use of precaution as a regulatory tool by eco-religious zealots to spread fear in order to promote some medieval-inspired conception of agriculture and a communal-based economy regardless of evidence or the negative consequences is not only irrational, but also morally indefensible.
We are living in times no more enlightened than in London of the 1660s. Science has no voice, reason is optional in policy debates, and fear and panic are spread by activists with big mouths and impassioned missions. Policy-makers, then, like today, choose the path of least resistance: the use of a contrived precautionary principle where defensive action is seen as virtuous and inconsequential. Religious zealots campaign in Brussels for more cat-killing without care for any tragic results.
The leaders who killed the cats during the Great Plague were not themselves tossed into the Thames when the human death toll accelerated. But I would be perfectly happy to toss today’s erroneous zealots into the Zenne, the stinking, rat-infested medieval sewer that flows timelessly through Brussels.David Zaruk