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Erring on the side of caution

Two recent conferences illustrated the stifling influence of the all-pervasive risk factor on development 'We live longer, healthier and safer lives than ever before. Yet society is becoming more and more anxious about exaggerated risks, about everything from SARS to bioterrorism to transport safety. Why? , ' asked spiked conference convenor Helene Guldberg, introducing one of two distinct conferences on the subject of risk and the precautionary principle at the august seat of learning and rational debate, the Royal Institution.

The first was the Scientific Alliance's 'Powering the UK's future' which addressed the subject of energy and energy policy in a day of debate, pitting the advocates of the nuclear industry, for example, against its detractors. The spiked conference, 'Panic Attack: interrogating our obsession with risk', sponsored by Tech Central Station, examined the issues more broadly; using the historically specific referencing of risk and risk awareness, as an opportunity to dissect its political implications.

Energetic debate

At the heart of the Scientific Alliance event was a debate on the scientific justification for CO2 emissions reduction policy and a discussion of the contribution that different sources of energy supply can make to these reductions.

Admittedly, it took a critical perspective although did engage both sides of the debate constructively.

After a powerful presentation on the weaknesses in the scientific argument around global warming, for example, Dr Ros Taylor of Kingston University looked somewhat taken aback. 'My presentation was premised on the idea that we would all agree that we have to reduce CO2 emissions, ' she said.

Throughout a day of hard-hitting factual analysis and a rigorous dissection of industry science, however, listeners were still left in some doubt about how effective had been the confrontation with risk consciousness. In the debate about nuclear power, even Adrian Ham, chief executive of British Nuclear Industry Forum - who presented a coherent challenge to the ill-conceived way that UK power generation was heading towards gas dependency - was unable to distance himself from the fear of 'rogue states'. As someone coming from the more 'anti-risk aversion' side of the debate, he still had, he admitted, 'serious anxieties'.

Similarly, chairman Martin O'Neill, MP for Stirlingshire and Clackmannan, warned that 'the greatest dangers are to ignore the short-term consequences of unpleasant decisions by only arguing for a long-term perspective.' Professor Michael Laughton, from Queen Mary University London added to the sense of dread by suggesting, in his speech 'The limitations of renewables, ' that the situation was 'like climbing into a bunk on the Titanic'.

To some extent, by debating the subjects in their own terms, one man's lack of risk simply became transposed on to some other subject area. In this sense, the rigorous safety record of nuclear production could not shake off the fear of global terrorism, thus the conference only managed minor confrontations with the broader malaise expressed in the phrase 'the culture of fear'.

Spiked comments

The spiked conference took up where the Scientific Alliance debate left off: avoiding particulars in a broader socio-political interpretation of the problem. The range of speakers was indicative of the extent of the problem embraced by precaution, and included Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist; Jeya Henry, professor of human nutrition at Oxford Brookes University; Jim Bridges, chair of the European Commission's toxicology committee; Carl Djerassi, father of the modern contraceptive Pill; Todd Seavey, editor of HealthFactsAndFears. com; and Robert Nilsson, from Stockholm University.

A straw poll asking speakers to state which invention, technology or advance would not have been made had the precautionary principle been a governing factor drew answers as varied as 'antibiotics', 'penicillin', 'the aeroplane', 'surgery' and 'fire'.

The opening plenary set the scene with a coherent outline of the extent of the problem presented by Mick Hume, Times columnist and spiked editor. Pointing out society's all pervasive obsession with risk, he noted that even otherwise rational commentators often succumb to irrational fears. In his latest book Our Final Century, for example, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees posits that the human race has only a 50:50 chance of surviving the 21st century.

'Not very long ago, the notion that 'The End of the World is Nigh' would have been the preserve of a few religious nutters wearing sandwich boards, ' stated Hume. 'Now it is offered up for serious consideration by the Astronomer Royal. If this kind of stuff is allowed to go unchallenged, the end of the rational world might well be nigh.'

Developing arguments

Throughout the day, the audience worked to tease the rational from the irrational, to confront what was called 'the stagnating influence' of the precautionary principle and to challenge their own pre/misconceptions.

When Geoff Mulgan, ex-Demos and now head of Downing Street's Performance and Innovation Unit joked that the New Labour government was operating a policy of 'organised paranoia', it was too close to comfort to raise much of a laugh.

Both debates played a very useful role in uncovering a phenomenon specific to the last decade or so.While sounding anodyne, risk consciousness, appears to have a corrosive impact on our belief in science, progress and technology.

It was unfortunate that there were only a handful of architects present in the audience to reflect on the implications for development.

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