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Republican Chemicals

Book Review of  Democratizing technology: risk, responsibility and the regulation of chemicals, by Anne Chapman, London, Earthscan, 2007. Journal of Risk Research, 12(7-8), 1035-1037.

What does the regulation of chemicals have in common with the work of Hannah Arendt, the philosophy of technology, or UK building regulations? In her book Democratizing Technology, philosopher and environmental activist Anne Chapman brings together a remarkable range of intellectual resources to question how we assess technologies. In particular, she analyses the regulation of chemical hazards under the EU programme for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances (REACH). Chapman convincingly shows that what passes as objective and neutral risk assessment, actually rests on politically charged and ethically disputed assumptions.

            The systematic regulation of chemical hazards has been a contested issue since at least the 1960s. Regulatory assessments of chemicals have slowly shifted towards more precaution, hesitantly expanding the ‘endpoints’ considered in licensing schemes: from acute to chronic toxicity, from lethality to carcinogen effects, from mammals to wildlife, from physical harm to persistence. Every expansion has been hard-fought and has only come about after long periods of negotiation and stalling, with the watered-down REACH compromise as the latest settlement in Europe.

            Precautionary elements have gradually proliferated throughout these regulatory schemes, but, as Chapman points out, the basis of chemical regulation remains profoundly utilitarian and liberal: the premise for any regulatory action is an indication of harm. If no harm is to be expected, then no regulatory action is required. The premise of regulation is one of freedom for the producer, unless if the state needs to intervene to protect others – a basic liberal principle. If there is sufficient reason to suspect harm, then harm must be weighed against expected benefits of new chemicals. In essence, the format for such an evaluation is that of a cost/benefit analysis, comparing aggregate detrimental and beneficial effects, with a strong preference for quantifiable ones.

            Most the book is devoted to extensive arguments against these principles. For example, Chapman questions the validity of the individualist logic at the root of the liberal case. Not only does she mobilise communitarian challenges against the liberal autonomous individual, but, more importantly, she questions the equation of corporations with the individual, which liberalism is so eager to protect from state power. Consequently, the book explores notions of (corporate) responsibility to see how they can resolve the difficulties of holding corporations and government institutions to account.

            A second objection that Chapman raises is that ‘risk assessment’ does not adequately address the problem of ignorance. If harm needs to be identified in order to take regulatory action, then lack of knowledge can work in favour of inaction. She points out that the problem with new chemicals is, precisely, that we do really not know in what unexpected ways they will interact with each other, nor with the complex processes of the planet. We may have safety factors or assessment protocols that extrapolate toxicity to untested organisms or that extend exposure duration, but we cannot reliably apply assessment factors to completely unforeseen types of effect. Chapman mentions CFCs and the ozone hole, or endocrine disruptors as examples. Current regulatory practices for environmental chemicals rely on ad hoc monitoring practices (in contrast to pharmaceutical reporting of side effects, for example), effectively turning the planet into a testing ground. Lack of knowledge may constitute ‘riskiness’, even when there is no risk in the narrow sense of the term. Chapman argues that we should consider this riskiness rather than just risk and I think she has point here.

            Another objection against the liberal foundations of chemical regulation is the limited range of effects that are considered harmful. Following liberal principles of legality, only explicitly codified harms are taken into account for licensing, such as human and environmental toxicity. This is the basis of a stubborn misunderstanding between industry and NGOs in the chemicals debate, as well as in conflict over genetically modified organisms, biofuels, and increasingly also nanotech: industry claims a ‘no harm’ case, while civil society is concerned about harms that do not even appear on the regulatory radar. Such effects include changed relations between farmers and their industrial suppliers, shifts in North-South power balances, or threats to food diversity. While corporations claim that such issues are not their responsibility, building on a liberal constitution of society, civil society insists that these issues should be considered somewhere, while governments claim problems are already addressed by existing regulatory regimes. The result is a stubborn mutual misinterpretation, much of it strategic and intentional.

            The alternative Chapman suggests starts from republican rather than liberal values. While a liberal constitution promises its members freedom from coercion, republicanism stresses freedom as responsibility for the common good, while aiming to avoid domination. This is where Hannah Arendt comes in, insisting on our responsibility for the common good, the res publica beyond the sum total of individual interests, even if we do not agree on what this common good is. This seems very remote from chemicals, but the most impressive achievement of Chapman´s book is that it establishes stepping-stones in the river that separates political theory from alternative chemical risk regulation.

            Chapman points out that technologies, including chemicals, are world building: they change our living conditions, intentionally or unintentionally. As the philosophy of technology points out, they ease our life, change the setting for relations between people, and make life harder for some of us. Thus technologies change the state of the res publica, even if they do not cause harm in the narrow sense of risk assessment. The stepping-stones Chapman suggests are seven republican principles for assessing technologies, which will sound very alien to current risk assessors. For example, one is that technology should facilitate human interaction. Another is that technology should enable responsible individual action and should not increase dependency, or that technology should produce beautiful, durable things. These principles do not prescribe how the common good should be shaped, but rather specify repertoires for discussing it.

            What would these principles look like in practice? This is where the last element of this remarkable effort comes in. Chapman shows how UK building regulations and planning laws allow for a more positive conception of the common good, rather than a negatively defined freedom. In the end, I found this parallel wanting. The book raises expectations for concrete policy suggestions, but ultimately fails to produce realistic proposals. The republican principles are only stepping-stones and definitely not a bridge just yet. Nevertheless, I do believe that this is an important attempt to create new regulatory principles for chemicals, where most criticism so far has remained firmly sheltered in the trenches of opposition. I hope that others would explore what can be built on these foundations.

            So there you have it: the remarkable journey that leads past REACH chemicals, Hannah Arendt, the philosophy of technology, and UK building regulations. I will leave you to explore some of the many other stations on this thought-provoking journey.


Author Posting. (c) Informaworld/Routledge, 2009. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Informaworld/Routledge for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Journal of Risk Research, Volume 12 Issue 7, December 2009. doi:10.1080/13669870903123298 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13669870903123298)