Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers



An excerpt from Chapter 14, Flying Blind



The situation confronting us is not one that lends itself to easy prescriptions or simple answers. Our current economy and civilization are built on a foundation of fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals. According to one chemical industry estimate, chlorinated synthetic chemicals and the products made from them constitute 45 percent of the world's GNP. If it has taken fifty years to work our way into this dilemma, it will almost certainly take just as long or longer to find our way out of it.

As we look toward the future and think about charting a new course, it is critical to begin with a clear-eyed view of our situation. As the experience over the past half century has demonstrated, there is no way to put large quantities of man-made chemicals into the environment without exposing on our children and ourselves to unknown risks. Many of these synthetic compounds may prove harmless, but others may not. We must face the fact that there is no way to guarantee the safety of synthetic chemicals, even those that have been on the market for decades. CFCs had been in broad use for fifty years before the ozone hole was discovered over Antarctica. The lag time before effects emerge in vast, complex systems can give a false sense of safety and increase the opportunity for catastrophe.

We must be ever mindful that for all the advances in science, we still have only the most general understanding of the life systems on which we have been experimenting-whether our own bodies or Earth's atmosphere. At the time that CFCs were invented, scientists did not understand the ozone layer or its importance in shielding the Earth from ultraviolet radiation. That came three years later through the work of a British scientist, Sydney Chapman. DDT and other hormone-disrupting chemicals were on the market for two decades, before researchers began to fathom the mysteries of the hormone receptors and even longer before they discovered that synthetic chemicals could mimic hormones and engage those receptors.

Ultimately, the risks that confront us stem from this gap between our technological prowess and our understanding of the systems that support life. We design new technologies at a dizzying pace and deploy them on an unprecedented scale around the world long before we can begin to fathom their possible impact on the global system or ourselves. We have plunged boldly ahead, never acknowledging the dangerous ignorance at the heart of the enterprise.

Such arrogant presumption may be an ineradicable part of human nature. The ancient Greeks called it hubris. Throughout human history, humans have risked the unknown, courting both success and catastrophe. What differs now is the stakes, the magnitude of possible mistakes. Our activities no longer involve just one village and its neighbor, one valley or the next. The scale of human activity means that these experiments engage the planet.

As we race toward the future, we must never forget the fundamental reality of our situation: we are flying blind. Our dilemma is like that of a plane hurtling through the fog without a map or instruments. Instead of being able to provide a reliable radar system, scientists are peering through the cockpit window trying to warn of any obstacles ahead. And usually, the most they can say is that the dark mass looming into view might be a cloud bank. Or then again, it might be a mountain.

So what do we do? Land the plane as quickly as possible, slow down, or proceed full speed ahead because it would be incredibly expensive and disruptive to cancel this trip?






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