The Risk-Monger

The Death of Dialogue

The following is the base text to the keynote speech I gave to the PlasticsEurope dinner event on 5 November 2013. The views expressed are mine and do not reflect any positions held by members of the plastics industry (as I argue, they are too nice, and that is the problem). Several participants (not tied to the organisation) had asked me to post it as it challenged many at the dinner to think about how to deal with an increasing problem. My apologies for the rough text – the speech was delivered without notes so it may vary from this document.


Good evening. I must start with an apology for my rather scruffy look – I am celebrating Movember to raise awareness and funds for men’s health issues – particularly heart disease, which I suffer from. Problem is that I have not tried to grow a moustache since my high hormonal teen years – it was a pathetic attempt then, and given the amount of endocrine disruption I clearly have since suffered (if we take seriously what we have heard today), my Movember efforts will likely be quite sad. Still, men’s health issues are important – that’s what I keep telling my wife!

I want to go back in time … no, not to today’s conference (I think we are all tired of thinking for one day) – I want to go back to what you have just eaten. I hope you enjoyed it. Your main course likely contained around 10,000 chemicals, and right now these chemicals are all swirling around inside of you forming one gigantic cocktail with combinations that may make you sleepy (especially when I am done with you) or might give you energy. I won’t touch the wine you drank and the levels of toxins you have ingested. Your coffee will help pick you up, but there we are looking at around 1000 chemicals – if we follow from Bruce Ames, from a few years back, we had only tested 35 of them, 19 of which were found to be highly carcinogenic to rats.

Of course just one well-tested synthetic substance worries us far more than thousands of untested natural chemicals. Because, well, we just don’t know what that one chemical, even at an incredibly small dose, will do when combined with another synthetic chemical.

We know this is absurd, but we need to know why others increasingly think this way.

Also, your dinner most likely had some soybeans in it (I had the vegetarian meal, so I know mine did). Up to 60% of UK processed foods today contain soybeans in some form. This is a trend that started around 50 years ago when a strain of soy was developed that was more palatable for human consumption. It grows well and has many uses, and, although some may have qualms about US soy being genetically modified, it is natural. But soy also has very high levels of isoflavones, a known (not suspected, but known) endocrine disrupter. So do many other legumes and beans (like coffee beans!). More and more people, like myself, are using soy as a main source of protein, and some are feeding it to our infants. A study in New Zealand estimates that if you feed only soymilk to your infant, that would be like feeding that baby the equivalent of five birth control pills a day. The phytoestrogens from isoflavones are also linked to early onset of puberty and breast cancer. And because soy is natural, we are not worried about how much we are consuming – we would never consider controlling its use as a food additive.

OK, so 60% of UK processed foods contain soy – 50 years ago, we consumed none and we do nothing to study this link. But heaven forbid, if BPA, after all of the testing, in miniscule amounts, would be found in the baby bottle with our soymilk or in a tin with our processed food. BPA must be banned because it is a synthetic chemical, and it might, at a low dose level, be an endocrine disrupter.

We know this is absurd, but we need to know why others increasingly think this way.

Don’t worry – I won’t talk about your wine – they tell us red wine is good for us, and since we have abandoned the Paracelsus Principle, at least today, you can believe that.

We know about the natural-synthetic fallacy – I mean, I am speaking to a room full of plastics manufacturers – so I’d better choose my words wisely. But it is more than that. For the last two decades, I have been studying what makes us believe absurd things in the field of risk management, and be irrationally afraid of little things that should be of no concern. I have even started blogging about it.

It is not about the precautionary principle (although having it as a regulatory principle is a pretty absurd idea). Precaution is a normal, dare I say, natural thing – when an infant learns to walk, the hands normally come up in a precautionary manner. This is not a principle but a natural reaction to protect oneself – before a toddler can speak, he or she understands how to take precaution. I wore a seatbelt yesterday in my car and I brought an umbrella today. Precaution is a result of a lack of trust, quite simply. So for today, let’s not look at treating the precautionary principle as a disease, but look at preventing the cause – It is about a lack of trust. But as precaution has become institutionalised, this distrust has become a reflex. Trust in industry is declining rapidly – we don’t need to see the last Edelman Trust Barometer to see that.

The question of precaution then is all about trust, and this is the big challenge for industry.

  • But what makes trust so elusive for industry and so easy for NGOs to keep?
  • What makes us trust untested natural substances and not well-tested synthetic substances?
  • What makes us trust policy decisions that were made without evidence or risk assessments?
  • What makes us believe that things are getting worse regarding health and the environment?
  • What makes us trust unscientific NGO declarations over industry or government scientists?

We have studied this over the last decade. I think it is more than just industry missteps or accidents (there have not been that many). I think it is more than just the contrast between industry profit motive versus caretaker motive of NGOs. I don’t think it is due to our bipolar history of Romanticism v Scientific rationalism. I think there is something more that we need to confront.

The rest of my talk will become sour – sorry, the sweet stuff will have to wait for your dessert (note though that I am giving a speech about obesity next week).

I have been known to say things that many people feel should not be said, but privately agree on, so please give me two minutes to be politically incorrect.

I want to talk now about how I feel trust is being eroded – how people with facts on their dinner plate are choosing to act absurdly. They don’t trust industry, industry researchers or anyone who has been involved with industry. Why? The title of this talk is the Death of Dialogue.

First of all, kudos to the organisers and PlasticsEurope for creating the opportunity for dialogue, open exchange of ideas and engagement between different stakeholders. It is keeping within the European Commission’s strategy from the 2001 White Paper on Governance – that better engagement and stakeholder dialogue will build trust and legitimacy. It was the root of Green Papers, ETPs, consultations … You have been very open and tolerant to people with other ideas since then, and we saw that today. Well done – you have delivered what the European Commission had, in 2001, wanted all stakeholders to do. This was the philosophy I shared back in 2001 when we started GreenFacts – the idea that the scientific consensus on an issue could be a source of better stakeholder dialogue (PlasticsEurope was one of the earliest supporters for GreenFacts – thank you again). Other stakeholders do not openly listen to people who disagree with or criticise them.

But over the last 12 years, I have concluded that you cannot have a dialogue with activists who feel you have no legitimate right to be at the table. You cannot have a dialogue by yourself. Many activists have not been faithful actors in the EU process and have shifted the debate from a question of whose ideas and whose interests should be considered, to a question of who should be considered. And the view they portray that they represent the public and you represent a small class of privilege bent on destroying the public interest has taken firm root.

You are the 1% and we, the people, find you offensive.

You are evil lobbyists bent on destroying the planet for your profit. You are against the goals of society and the hopes of humanity.

  • Everything you touch will go bad – the solutions you call innovations will cause more environmental destruction.
  • Everything you touch will go bad – any scientist you fund will never again be able to work for an EU agency or committee.
  • Everything you touch will go bad – any MEP who speaks with you, any Commission official who listens to you has been compromised. There will be campaigns against them.

Groups like Corporate Europe Observatory, ALTER-EU, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are using these lines campaigning against globalisation, international trade and the role of industry in society. What we are seeing today is the growing movement to denormalise industry. I have studied the tactics used to sideline the tobacco industry from decision-making processes, and they are using the same tactics on you (the chemical industry, plastics, biotech, pharma, banking …). You are no longer a normal player – in their world, you do not belong at the table. And they are gaining a large amount of public support.

You want to talk about rebuilding trust and improving dialogue??? Good luck! I tried that more than a decade ago but the people you are playing with do not play fairly. Dialogue today is dead. These trust-busters have run a coordinated effort to sideline you, limit your voice and have you excluded from debates. Your scientists have nothing to contribute, your research funding is poison to academics and any role you try to play in the process will be attacked. They are driven by a passion to win to serve their idealism. I have shown many cases of how they openly lie, fabricate realities and buy journalists. They continue to get away with it so long as you suffer from the trust deficit and they present themselves as acting in the public interest.

So what I am suggesting is to stop being so nice to people who are trying to poison you. These activists are no longer charming idealistic flower children or anarchists on the fringes of society. With social media, they have tools to influence the mainstream, and they are becoming more successful and stronger than you. You don’t need money to delegitimise others, especially if the use of money is the source of this delegitimation.

The March against Monsanto shows how a few people can organise global events against the right of companies or industries to exist, to market their products, to enjoy the public trust. They have twisted reality, manufactured untruths and spread lies so widely that getting a public consensus is hopeless. They have been working at the social level, virally, to shift public opinion, and they have won.

So stop being so nice. It is time to shine a light on their actions. Here are some points to try to save dialogue from the slow death the activists have been driving for:

  • Not all civil society organisations have the same anarchist objectives so the moderate NGOs within the Green 10 need to be encouraged to speak out against the radicals (the death of dialogue will affect everyone). The Green 10 must be persuade to kick out Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and start to join industries like PlasticsEurope in dialogue.
  • The Commission should stop funding vandals like Friends of the Earth so that they can run ad campaigns against BusinessEurope and other industry groups. It is madness that they receive over €700,000 a year to undermine dialogue and destroy trust in industry, rather than what the Life+ funding was intended for (to engage in dialogue).
  • Activists should not be allowed to act unethically without sanction or public admonition. Because you understand that taking them to court for inaccurate campaigning that cost you public trust and markets will make industry look bad (once again, you are too nice), these activists realise that they can say anything they want without consequence. They openly lie, fabricate perceptions and admit it – and nothing happens to them. There needs to be the same ethical standards as is applied to industry. Why do different NGO groups seem to think they do not need or adhere to a code of ethics???
  • And journalists love to report their fictions – whatever happened to journalistic integrity? Journalists need to be reminded to fact-check before letting sensationalists undermine trust – I’ve lashed out at EurActiv when they have not reported objectively.

There are so many trust-busting stories out there, I have had to take my Risk-Monger blog to the micro level, on Facebook, because I cannot keep up with cataloging all of the lies.

Ethical standards need to apply to NGOs as well. It is very easy to destroy someone’s trust by leading the public into misperception. But it is unethical. We are not looking at how some of these NGOs are funded and their own conflicts of interest in lobbying. We should.

I’m afraid this is the source of much of the rot affecting your trust deficit, and if you continue to prune around the edges with your attempts to dialogue, your tree will die from a deadly virus (spread effectively on social media).

It is time to stop being so tolerant and treat the disease that’s poisoning you.

I hope your dessert will be somewhat sweeter. Thank you.


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  1. Well done, David, high time that the the manipulation by the several activist NGOs quoted were highlighted and hopefully further audited by the EU institiutions when they fund them. Your list of industries under the cosh could also be extended these days to energy firms. One of your final points relates to a lack of integrity among journalists, and you quote EurActiv (thanks) even though we hope that we are one of the less egregious exaggerators. We are certainly proud to provide high quality training both to our own editorial teams across 15 coubtries but also to third party journalists under our EU Journalism Fellowships. You and, I hope, your many readers and followers may be interested to know that there are sustained efforts being made within the media industry to address the integrity of journalism. The Global Editors Network, for one, believes that editors themselves need to be reminded of their responsibilities and EurActiv is currently a mameber of a cross Europe working party seeking to promote quality journalism and a higher regard for transparency and truth.

    1. Thanks Julian. EurActiv was conceived during the philosophical brainstorming Brussels environment of the late 90s, early 2000s when White Papers were flying around on all topics (I miss those days) and what was (one of the) pioneering aspects for a news site then was the EurActiv issue page where all of the stakeholders’ pages and positions were linked on a central source (people in the EC would confess to me, even in the mid-2000s that they used EurActiv instead of their internal site to find dossiers). Since then, EurActiv has generally sought a stakeholder balance but on a few occasions a title or an angle is just too rich for an editor to resist (and I have raised it in my blog). I tried to convey to the plastics industry last night that they should react if that happens (they feel like they are being beaten up all the time).

  2. So David, I’m interested. What are the most frequent arguments that industry lobbyists raise against following your advice? I’ve heard the pros and cons debated several times.

    1. To fight back, given the public perceptions of big industry with suitcases of cash and lawyers and a civil society organisation of innocent volunteers who want to help people, comes across like stomping on kittens or shooting Bambi. But some of these anarchists are anything but kittens. The last example I had seen of this was the discomfort expressed within several industry associations when Sara Lee sued Beuc and the Dutch consumer association for the loss in sales revenue from their attacks on air fresheners (back in 2003). Given the nature of the campaign, Sara Lee easily won the case, but not the PR battle. So I did not tell the industry to litigate, but they should file complaints with the European Commission. BusinessEurope should complain to the Commission that Friends of the Earth is using public funds to run ad campaigns that create distrust.
      There is also the argument of keeping respectable and professional (the alternative: “if you are gonna wrestle a pig, prepare to get muddy”). I am sure that if I worked for any company and said the things I had said on Tuesday, I would find my personal belongings in a box on Wednesday. That’s what happens when you have codes of ethics. Companies won’t confront these organisations to keep their brands out of trouble – trade associations should take on this role but they are trying to keep dialogue channels open. We need to get people to notice that they are acting unethically and this is not acceptable (regardless of their motives).
      The last argument is one I have had many discussions on – by challenging these groups or reacting, companies would be giving further publicity to the activist campaigns – if we ignore them, fewer people would hear their arguments. I often wonder whether my highlighting the stupidity of CEO’s arguments in their articles on my Facebook page doesn’t give them more publicity (and even some sympathy by those I may tend to irritate). This argument was persuasive in a newsprint world, but with social media now, there is little we don’t hear.
      Social media is the main trust-buster today which is challenging the longstanding tradition of playing above the fray.

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