From its crackdown on antitrust practices in the computer industry to its rigorous protection of consumer privacy, the European Union has adopted a regulatory philosophy that emphasizes the consumer. Its approach to managing chemical risks, which started with a trickle of individual bans and has swelled into a wave, is part of a European focus on caution when it comes to health and the environment.
"There’s a strong sense in Europe and the world at large that America is letting the market have a free ride," said Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The Europeans believe . . . that being a good global citizen in an era of sustainability means you don’t just charge ahead and destroy the planet without concern for what you’re doing."
Under the E.U. laws, manufacturers must study and report the risks posed by specific chemicals. Through the Internet, the data will be available for the first time to consumers, regulators and potential litigants around the world. Until now, much of that information either did not exist or was closely held by companies.
The precautionary principle shows us another cultural difference between the European and Anglo-Saxon worlds: attitudes toward techological innovation — especially when it comes to things you put in or near your body, such as food, chemicals, or drugs. The precautionary principle ‘fits’ European sensibilities, and is hardly controversial here, except among certain industry boosters.
The median attitude toward technological risk in the Anglo-Saxon world is more risk-friendly than on the Continent; thus, England and the U.S. produce more risk-takers than Europe does. (Note that I’m not talking about risk-taking in general. I’ve met plenty of ordinary Europeans, for instance, who have backpacked through parts of the world that the average Brit would think twice about even mentioning.) One example of techno-risk taking is drug early-adopters. I don’t know a single European who would take a brain-chemistry-altering drug unless it was specifically prescribed by a doctor (and sometimes, not even then).
Yet England and the USA are filled with people who will do just this. Consider this article by Johann Hari, an English writer who decided to test whether the anti-narcolepsy drug Provigil would help him concentrate (it did). In the end, he stopped, saying it was just too risky, considering "our lack of knowledge of what it does to the brain." But the average European wouldn’t even have started taking it in the first place. Prozac is another example; plenty of respectable psychiatrists and psychologists in the U.S. have argued that if it makes you happier and more stable and doesn’t have many side effects, you should probably just keep taking it for the rest of your life. After all, why wouldn’t you want to be happier, more productive, and more stable? This argument strikes most Europeans as rather creepy, if not sinister.
As with almost all the points I make on this blog, whether you think the European attitude is cringing Luddism or the American attitude is post-human mad-scientist tinkering will probably depend on your perspective…
UPDATE: For more on the title, go here.