The Potential for Catastrophe
Americans are bombarded almost daily with news of potential and actual
catastrophe, ranging from individual automobile accidents and homicides to collective
disasters such as famines and earthquakes. War and terrorism are not rare either, with
nuclear conflagration now the ultimate fear. Increasingly in the past two decades,
however, a different sort of potential catastrophe has gained prominence-environmental
threats that could lead to massive human health problems and to irreversible deterioration
of the global ecosystem. This volume focuses on these environmental threats and on efforts
to avert them.
Particular sources of environmental threats are legion and headlines
shift accordingly, year to year, month to month. In 1962 Rachel Carson's Silent Spring
sounded an alarm about DDT poisoning in fish, wildlife, and humans. In 1971 opponents of
the supersonic transport asserted that the jet's exhaust could disrupt the upper
atmosphere, with potentially severe consequences for global weather patterns. In 1974 two
scientists reported that fluorocarbon aerosol sprays might deplete atmospheric ozone and
cause millions of cases of skin cancer. Other scientists meanwhile warned that harmful
bacteria could escape into the general population during the conduct of new biological
Shortly thereafter reports from Love Canal sparked inves-
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tigations into thousands of abandoned waste dumps containing chemicals
that might cause birth defects, cancer, and other serious illnesses. Nuclear power plants
became increasingly controversial during the 1970s, and fears about their safety escalated
after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Public attention subsequently shifted to
acid rain and then to the pesticide EDB. In late 1984 several thousand people were killed
and nearly two hundred thousand were injured when a pesticide chemical leaked into the air
from a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India-the worst civilian technological
disaster in history.
This long list of incidents has had a substantial effect on the public's
perception of government's capacity to cope with risky technologies. For example, while
pro- and anti-nuclear factions disagree on almost every substantive issue, both generally
agree that the nuclear regulatory process has not been working. One side sees the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission as hamstringing a vital industry offering a viable alternative to
limited supplies of fossil fuels. The other side perceives the Commission as so biased
toward the industry's viewpoint that public health and safety are endangered. Roughly the
same perceptions characterize government action on toxic chemicals. Across these and many
other areas of risk regulation, a common view is that government has bungled, and bungled
The many actual and potential environmental dangers raise concerns about
the way we interact with our ecosystem. Prominent environmentalists and other social
thinkers have issued dire injunctions about fundamental changes we must make to avoid
ruining the earth. Barry Commoner, for example, wrote in The Closing Circle in
1971: "We are in an environmental crisis because the means by which we use the
ecosphere to produce wealth are destructive of the ecosphere itself. The present system of
production is self-destructive; the present course of human civilization is
suicidal." In The Coming Dark Age, the Italian
intellectual Roberto Vacca argues that "vast concentrations of human beings are
involved in systems that are now so complicated that they are becoming
uncontrollable." Theodore Roszak's Where the Wasteland
Ends speaks of
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the varieties of annihilation . . . the thermonuclear
Armageddon, the death of the seas, the vanishing atmosphere, the massacre of the
innocents, the universal famine to come. . . .
Such horrors should be the stuff of nightmare or the merely
metaphorical rancors of old prophecy. They aren't. They are the news of the day, by now
even growing stale (for some) with reiteration.
And the respected historian of technology Lewis Mumford claimed in 1970
the professional bodies that should have been monitoring our
technology . . . have been criminally negligent in anticipating or even
reporting what has actually been taking place. . . . [Technological society
is] a purely mechanical system whose processes can neither be redirected nor halted, that
has no internal mechanism for warning of defects or correcting them.
Such opinions are extreme, but many other thoughtful observers of the
human condition have expressed serious forebodings about environmental catastrophe. There
is also another reason for concern, and that is that preventing an ecocatastrophe cannot
always be accomplished by trial and error. Social scientists who study decision making
generally agree that trial and error is a necessary component in human decision making
about complex problems. However sophisticated the analysis and planning is that goes into
a decision, uncertainties at the outset ordinarily are so great that errors are
inevitable. It is by paying attention to these errors once they become apparent that
individuals, organizations, and governments learn how to improve their choices. Unfortunately, the environmental problems that can lead to
ecocatastrophe have several characteristics that make them unusually difficult to
ameliorate with a trial-and-error approach.
The "trials" in some environmental policies often affect very
large areas-even the entire globe-placing billions of people potentially at risk. Thus,
errors in environmental policy can have potentially catastrophic consequences (for
instance, a cancer epidemic) and waiting for errors to emerge before correcting policy
therefore appears to be an unpromising regulatory strategy.
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Moreover, when errors are made, they may result in consequences that
are partially or wholly irreversible; such is the case with contaminated drinking water
aquifers that take centuries to regenerate, the extinction of a species crucial to a
significant food chain, and improper disposal of nuclear and toxic wastes that can affect
humans and animals for very long periods.
In addition, because correcting an error requires that first an error
and its consequences be recognized, the long lag time prior to feedback (that is,
emergence of information about errors) can prevent for many years the realization that a
problem even exists. It took some twenty-five years for persuasive evidence about the
harmful effects of DDT to accumulate; evidence on lead and asbestos required even longer.
It is not only that delayed feedback results in the accumulation of undesired consequences
over the period required for the error to become apparent, but that, as a group of global
modelers reports: "Owing to the momentum inherent in the world's physical and social
processes, policy changes made soon are likely to have more impact with less effort than
the same set of changes made later. By the time a problem is obvious to everyone, it is
often too late to solve it."
Finally, there are so many potential sources of important problems that
the sheer number may interfere with effective monitoring of emerging errors. For example,
there are more than sixty thousand chemicals now commercially used in the United States.
The result, according to a respected group of professional risk assessors, is that
"if hazards are dealt with one at a time, many must be neglected. The instinctive
response to this problem is to deal with problems in order of importance. Unfortunately,
the information needed to establish priorities is not available; the collection of such
data might itself swamp the system."
The predicament is that society is wrestling with risky technologies
whose inherent nature makes them difficult to regulate by the traditional process of
trial, error, and correction of error. Since error correction is the key to good decision
making on complex issues, social scientists offer at least partial support on this
particular point for the concerns of critics of environmental policy.
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Recent Health and Safety Experience
Given the warnings of environmentalists and the theoretical concerns
of social scientists, we would expect to see severe health and safety problems resulting
from the risky technologies deployed increasingly during the twentieth century. In fact,
health and safety trends to date do not match this expectation.
Interpretations vary, of course, and there certainly is ample room for improvement in
health and safety measures. But given the challenge posed by modern technologies, the
record to date is surprisingly good: despite dire warnings, no catastrophes have occurred
in the United States.
Civilian nuclear power provides a good example. Clearly it has not
become an energy source "too cheap to meter," as one early advocate is said to
have forecast. Moreover, the nuclear power issue is a source of tension and conflict in
American society. Yet nuclear reactors have been operating for more than two decades
without significant adverse effects on public health. This record is especially impressive
since it was achieved in the context of a policy-making process centered in the Atomic
Energy Commission that many now consider to have been badly flawed because of inadequate
By all accounts, Three Mile Island was the worst reactor mishap in the
history of the American nuclear industry, and it was a financial disaster for the utility
that owned the plant. But from a safety perspective, the accident was about the equivalent
of a car accident. Some radiation was released, but the average dose to Pennsylvania
residents within fifty miles of Three Mile Island (TMI) was less than 1 percent of the
average background radiation to which they are exposed each year.
The accident revealed a plethora of faults-poor management, maintenance errors, operator
errors, and design errors (see chapter 3)-but even these did not lead to severe
consequences for public health.
Widespread use of toxic chemicals also causes public alarm. The United
States took the lead in introducing into the ecosystem hundreds of billions of pounds of
inorganic and synthetic organic chemicals. At the outset we knew virtually nothing about
the effects of these chemicals on human health, wildlife,
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ocean life, microbial processes, and other aspects of the ecosystem.
Ecocatastrophe might well have resulted from such unexamined and widespread use of toxic
substances. To date, however, it has not. Because pesticides are designed to be toxic and
are deliberately sprayed into the ecosystem, they provide an especially good example of a
potential ecocatastrophe. By most standards, the average consumer in the United States has
less to worry about from the effects of pesticides during the 1980s than in the 1960s or
perhaps even in the 1940s. The same appears to be true in
occupational and consumer exposures to toxic substances, although the data on this are
But what about rising cancer rates? Have we already made millions of
people ill by our toxic substances policies? There is no question that cancer is more
frequent now than it was a century ago. But the change in cancer rates since synthetic
chemicals came into common use is of a different nature than many realize. Lung cancer has
increased rapidly, primarily from cigarette smoking. Digestive and cervical cancer have
dropped significantly, and breast cancer death rates are stable. These types of cancer
together account for about 75 percent of all cancer deaths. Rates of some other forms of
cancer have declined slightly, and some have increased moderately; only a few types of
cancer, such as mesothelioma (from asbestos) and melanoma (skin cancer), have increased
dramatically. So there is no overall cancer epidemic, and some of the observed increase is
due to increased longevity. In some occupations and in certain geographical areas, of
course, exposures to asbestos or other dangerous substances have been much greater than
the nationwide average, and higher local incidences of cancer have been the result.
To the extent that cancer is caused by environmental exposures,
chemicals were the prime suspects in the popular media during the early and mid-1970s.
Most cancer researchers, however, put industrial and consumer chemicals relatively far
down on the list of carcinogens. Tobacco comes first, closely followed by the high-fat
modern diet; alcohol and radiation (primarily sunlight and natural background radiation)
rank next. Then in fifth place comes occupational and consumer
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use of chemicals, along with air and water pollution; this amounts to
4 to 10 percent of cancer deaths according to most careful estimates.
Much of this fraction is caused by such occupational hazards as asbestos, mining, welding,
woodworking, and coke oven emissions. Some of these cancers involve chemicals, but they
are not the synthetic organic chemicals that we ordinarily associate with the toxic
chemicals problem. So the overall effects of synthetic chemicals to date have not been
Recombinant DNA (rDNA) research offers another example. During the
mid-1970s, the prospect of splicing genetic material from one organism into another
triggered fears of new and virulent epidemic diseases. Yet rDNA research has a perfect
safety record to date; there have been thousands of experiments without any known health
problems. However, the field is still in its early stages and is now moving from the
laboratory into the environment where there are new risks. But experience to date is so
reassuring that the burden of proof is now on those who believe this research involves
unreasonable risks. Such critics are few, though some observers fear the release into the
environment of newly created organisms (such as microbes that eat oil spills), and others
are concerned about the increase in scale of recombinant procedures from small
laboratory-scale experiments to industrial-size vats. Nevertheless, to date, the safety
record is a good one.
It is possible to cite other examples, but by now the point should be
clear: despite justifiable warnings and widespread public fears about the risks of complex
new technologies, our society so far has escaped most of the predicted damage to human
A System for Averting Catastrophe?
How has this relatively good health and safety record been achieved?
It is not the outcome many people expected. One possibility is that we simply have been
lucky. Or perhaps the unhappy consequences from these technologies have not yet fully
emerged (cancers from use of chemicals in the past
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twenty years still could show up, for example). A third possibility is
that idiosyncratic reactions to particular dangers have served to avoid the worst
outcomes, but there has been no carryover of learning from one type of risk to another. If
this is true, there is little assurance that the next danger will be averted. Finally, it
is conceivable that the good record somehow is a systematic product of human actions-the
result of a deliberate process by which risks are monitored, evaluated, and reduced.
The purpose of this volume is to explore this last possibility. In the
chapters that follow, we examine the regulation of five types of technological risks:
toxic chemicals, nuclear power, recombinant DNA research, threats to the ozone layer, and
the greenhouse effect. In each chapter we will attempt to discern the strategies pursued
in diagnosing and attempting to avert these threats.
At the outset of this research, we approached this subject with the
commonly held assumption that the United States had botched the job of regulating risky
technologies. Yet when we actually delved into how regulators have coped with the various
risks, we discovered a surprisingly intelligent process. That is not to say the outcomes
are fully satisfactory; but the strategies are far more sensible than we expected. The
strategies we found usually were not fully developed. Nor were they always implemented
effectively. And, in most of our cases, some useful strategies were ignored or
underemphasized. But taken together, the strategies we found in use suggest the elements
of a complete system for averting catastrophe. This system has five main elements.
First, an obvious early step is to protect against potential
catastrophes. Part of this effort aims at preventing problems from occurring. But since
the threats usually are too complex to fully envision and avoid, it is necessary to devise
protections that limit the damage. We found considerable effort devoted to this goal in
four of our five cases, although very different tactics are employed in each.
Because of the great uncertainty about the likelihood and magnitude of
potential catastrophes, a second and related strategy is to proceed cautiously in
protecting against potential
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catastrophes. Decision makers can assume the worst rather than expect
the likely. On this count, our cases display a mixed pattern. While there are important
examples of such caution, we believe it would have been better to be more conservative
about some of these risks.
A third strategy is to actively attempt to reduce uncertainty about the
likelihood and magnitude of potential harm by testing whenever possible, rather than
simply waiting to learn from experience via trial and error. Such testing is employed
extensively in our cases and proves useful in preventing or limiting some potentially
severe and irreversible errors.
Because the number of risks is too large to devote equal attention to
all, a fourth step is to set priorities. Explicit procedures to achieve this end have been
developed for some aspects of toxic chemicals, but less formal processes for priority
setting are used for other types of risk. For at least one risky technology we studied, we
found a clear opportunity for better priority setting than has been employed to date.
A fifth element is learning from experience, and we were surprised to
find how much of this has occurred. In part because the ecosystem (so far) has been more
forgiving than reasonably might be expected, learning from previous errors has been an
important component of the system for averting catastrophe.
As we examine the regulatory histories of the five cases of
technological risk, we consider each of these five strategies: protection against severe
risks, erring on the side of caution, advance testing, priority setting, and learning from
error. In each case our objective is to examine how potential catastrophes have been
averted and to learn what strategies have been developed that can be applied to future
Preview of the Analysis
Our inquiry begins in chapter 2 and concerns regulations governing the
use of toxic chemicals. The questions considered are (1) How were toxic chemicals
regulated prior to the emergence of public environmental consciousness?
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(2) What efforts have been made since 1970 to improve on early
regulatory strategies? (3) Do these new programs appear to be succeeding? This chapter
shows the surprising effectiveness of trial-and-error as well as two other decision-making
techniques that improve on this strategy.
Chapter 3 is about nuclear power. The potential for catastrophe here is
strikingly different from that posed by toxic substances: the effects of a nuclear power
plant accident would be highly concentrated. Therefore, the risk-reduction strategies that
have evolved are at least superficially quite different from those for toxic substances.
The chapter reviews safety procedures that evolved during the 1950s and 1960s; the Three
Mile Island accident is then analyzed as a test case of those procedures.
The fourth chapter concerns an aspect of research in genetic
engineering-recombinant DNA-in which DNA is taken from one organism and spliced into
another. During the mid-1970s this procedure was as controversial as nuclear power; it was
feared that some genetically altered bacteria would escape from laboratories and
negatively impact human health or the environment. These and other concerns all but
disappeared by the end of the decade, at least partly because of the development of rules
for and safeguards against this possible hazard. This is our most definitive case, and in
this chapter we come close to realizing the complete catastrophe-aversion system in
Chapter 5 considers a threat to the global atmosphere-chemical assaults
on the ozone layer that filters out a portion of ultraviolet light before it reaches the
earth's surface. In 1970 several scientists suggested that flights by supersonic
transports (SSTs) through the stratosphere might reduce atmospheric ozone. Subsequent
investigations revealed a number of other ways that human activities might deplete ozone
and thereby lead to substantial increases in rates of skin cancer and to changes in global
climate. The focus of this chapter is on the scientific monitoring system that diagnosed
these dangers and on the strategies that evolved to cope with them.
The subject of chapter six is a threat that poses no threat of actual
harm for at least half a century-the greenhouse effect, a gradual warming of the earth's
climate and the shift in
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weather patterns caused by increased carbon dioxide and other trace
gases in the atmosphere, due in part to combustion of fossil fuels. This case provides
another look at the implicit strategy of using scientists to monitor technological risks
and considers the real problem of how to balance risks against benefits. This chapter also
raises disturbing questions about government's ability to avert global risks when these
involve central aspects of our way of life.
In chapter 7 we formulate and discuss the complete catastrophe-aversion
system, first describing the major elements of the system, their variations, and how each
was applied in the toxic chemicals, nuclear power, recombinant DNA, ozone, and greenhouse
effect cases. We then consider how our findings can be used to improve decision making
about both risky technologies and other matters of policy.
In the concluding chapter we discuss prospects for improved application
of the catastrophe-aversion system. One major complaint about contemporary risk management
concerns the problem "How safe is safe enough?" Implementation of safety
precautions is a matter of degree, and each additional precaution typically involves
increased cost. One prominent school of thought holds that sensible decisions about
"How safe?" can best be made by improving risk analysis. We explain why this is
a dubious hope, and we propose a more strategic approach to improving the
Before turning to the subject of toxic chemicals in chapter 2, some
clarification about the scope of our analysis is in order. Even though we consider a
fairly wide array of risks, we make no claim to comprehensiveness. This volume analyzes
selected aspects of the regulatory histories of selected technologies. There are too many
potential technological catastrophes to include them all, and each of our cases is complex
enough to justify its own separate work. But an extended analysis of the five
technological risks reviewed here should prove useful in spite of the necessary
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This volume is also selective in that it focuses on the United States.
There is much to be learned about other nations' responses to technologies with a
potential for catastrophe, both for their own sake and to illuminate the strengths and
weaknesses of U.S. responses. But undertaking such comparisons would have required a much
different study than we have undertaken.
We do not attempt to cover the politics-interest group maneuvering,
partisan lineups in Congress, the role of the media, struggles within regulatory agencies,
details of litigation, or changes in public opinion-of each controversy. However
fascinating, these are short-term phenomena, and our aim is to uncover deeper patterns,
namely, regulatory strategies that endure.
The focus of this volume is restricted to civilian technologies that
could result in unintentional harm. We do not include casualties and other damages that
humans inflict on one another through military technologies. The potential for
military-induced catastrophes almost surely is greater than for civilian technologies, and
there is much to be learned about how to prevent such tragedies; this is not our topic
Also, our subject is severe threats. We take it for granted that some
people will be harmed by almost every human activity (coins, for example, are dangerous
household items because toddlers can swallow them). While we use no precise measure to
distinguish severe threats from milder ones, we are concerned with those threats that
potentially involve thousands of deaths annually rather than tens or hundreds. That is not
to say that lesser risks are unimportant or acceptable, but they are not in the scope of
Our analysis is restricted to physical threats to the environment and to
human health and safety. There are other threats raised by contemporary civilian
technologies, some of which may be even more important to human well-being than physical
health and safety. Some unions, for example, are concerned that widespread introduction of
industrial robots could lead to significant unemployment, at least for the short term,
among certain classes of workers. Likewise, some modern biomedical procedures are
perceived by many people to violate
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deeply held values. Such issues are important and deserve more
attention, but they are not part of this inquiry.
Finally, this volume aims to be as unpoliticized as possible. While we
have (sometimes opposing) political opinions on the subjects discussed, we have striven to
keep these out of our analysis. We desire this book to be equally useful to pro- and
anti-nuclear readers, to pro-growth advocates as well as to ardent environmentalists, to
conservatives and to liberals. We are not attempting to change anyone's mind about any
particular political controversy. Rather our aim is to clarify the strategies that have
been evolving for coping with potential environmental threats that almost everyone agrees
must be addressed in some manner. To the extent that regulators and other political
participants have a clear perspective of the strategies that have been used to avert
catastrophes, judicious application of these strategies in future controversies becomes
This book, then, examines how our society has learned to deal with the
potential for catastrophe created by modern technology. If we are to have at least modest
confidence in humanity's future, we must have a reasonable hope that severe physical
threats from civilian technologies can be managed without unacceptable harm to human
health or the ecosystem. We must know how decisions affecting health and safety get made.
Are we learning how to avert catastrophes in general? Are policy makers discovering how to
learn about environmental problems? And are they learning how to use such improved
abilities to actually avert potential future problems?