Risky Business

One of the issues that the European Union institutions and the environmental pressure groups have spent many thousands of hours arguing over is risk. The long-running campaign against “gender bender chemicals”, the huge furore across Europe concerning genetically modified food, trans fats, alcohol, salt, the list grows ever longer. As a consequence of the different way in which the commercial organisations and the pressure groups tend to see public policy issues, there is a fundamental misunderstanding which bedevils all attempts at “dialogue”.

The commercial organisation tends to start out with the implicit assumption that the point at issue is how risky a substance or practice is. This is probably inevitable given the quantitative nature of commercial culture but it runs up against a completely different vision of the discussion concerning risk; in which the question is not how risky is the substance or practice but, rather, who is to take the risk?

The classic representation of this is the radio or TV studio situation in which the industry representative is asked to “assure us that there is no risk”. Rare indeed is the product or process which carries with it no risk whatsoever. However, the industry spokesperson, in recognising this reality, then finds the subsequent media coverage dominated by just how risky the risky substance is!

The principle being deployed by the environmental pressure group is that individual human beings should not be exposed to risk that they have not selected for themselves. So, the real question about chemicals is not how risky they are but whether industry should be able to put such risk in the public domain. Once it becomes obvious that the substance is entering the human body (“toxic chemicals found in pregnant mothers”) the public reaction is to ask by what right commercial organisations may behave in such a way as to produce such an “outrageous” conclusion.

It is not just “what is the risk?” It is “who takes the risk?”

In other words, the real debate is not simply about relative risk, it is about the public’s perception of legitimacy. That is why such apparently technical and tedious issues can suddenly explode as ones of global media coverage of outrage at corporate behaviour.