IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, January 1, 2003


[Rachel's introduction: How often will environmental nasty surprises emerge? How long will it take us to recognize and address them? How much damage will they do? How much, ultimately, is at stake? A precautionary framework for environmental decision making would respond to the urgency of such questions by attempting to shape technologies in ways calculated to make future nasty surprises less frequent and less severe.]

By Jeff Howard

All environmental problems are nasty surprises. Each runs counter to Western society's expectation of endless progress through mastery of nature.[1] But the term seems especially appropriate for problems that:

** catch most scientists, technologists, regulatory officials, the mass media, and the general public off-guard;

** are already quite extensive by the time they are recognized;

** stem from deeply entrenched technological processes or practices;

** present a potentially large-scale, long-term threat to human or ecological health.

Such problems are surprises because they seem to drop out of the blue -- even if it is soon clear that warning signs were long missed, ignored, or misinterpreted -- and reveal major errors in scientific thinking and public policy. They are nasty because they represent potentially enormous hazards and addressing them entails substantial political challenges. This combination of characteristics makes these problems a useful window into the ongoing controversy over the Precautionary Principle and its place in the environmental policy landscape.


Endocrine disruption is a classic example of nasty surprise, and indeed it was in this context that the term "nasty surprise" may first have been applied to environmental issues.[2, pp. 241-242]

Arguably the most significant development in the ecological and environmental health sciences in the past two decades has been recognition that synthetic industrial chemicals in the environment -- including DDT, chlorinated dioxins, numerous polychlorinated biphenyls, various pesticides, and obscure components of plastics -- can interfere with the endocrine (hormonal) systems of animals, including humans.[3] Efforts are under way to determine whether exposure to these contaminants is linked to increases in the incidence of breast cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, undescended testicles, abnormalities of the penis, reduced sperm count, and learning and behavioral abnormalities as well as accelerated onset of breast development.[4]

Endocrine disruption is a surprise. Despite what are now seen as ominous warnings over decades, it came into scientific focus quite rapidly in the late 1980s and early 1990s largely through a series of accidental discoveries. Contrary to the doctrine that toxicological risk diminishes with dose, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are specifically (perhaps uniquely) active at extremely low doses and their action often hinges not on dose but on exposure during key moments in an organism's development. And contrary to the assumption that cancer is the most sensitive health endpoint, this research is demonstrating that for some chemicals it is reproductive and developmental alteration.[2-5, 6, ch. 3]

Endocrine disruption is nasty. To many scientists, government officials, and environmental advocates, it implies a potentially enormous multigenerational threat to human and ecological health, a threat exacerbated by the global ubiquity of some of the pollutants in question and by their ability to remain biologically active for generations to come.[2-7] Bewilderingly complex methodological obstacles impede scientific investigation into the causes and consequences of endocrine disruption and hence progress toward a broadly accepted political response.[3,7] Since U.S.-style pollution policy is based on the very toxicological assumptions that endocrine disruption undermines, mounting evidence suggests the current regulatory regime is an inadequate path to long-term sustainability.[3, ch. 5, 5-7] And regulating a diverse and growing list of endocrine disrupting chemicals could have significant economic impacts.

Over the past half-century, the environmental policy landscape has been littered with similar surprises, including:

** 1960s and 1970s -- Acid precipitation due to long-range atmospheric transport of sulfur dioxide poses a widespread threat to aquatic ecosystems and forests;

** 1960s and 1970s Large-scale industrial use of lead (especially in gasoline) has vastly elevated tissue concentrations of the neurotoxin in the general human population;

** 1980s -- The stratospheric ozone layer is being depleted by chlorofluorocarbons and other common organochlorine compounds;

** 1980s -- Tin compounds widely applied to boat hulls can severely damage the growth and reproduction of marine organisms;

** Recent decades -- Profound disturbances in a wide variety of terrestrial and marine organisms, including periodic mass mortalities of dolphins and seals and a decline in interregional bird migrations;

** Recent decades -- Plant and animal species across the globe are dying off far more rapidly than the natural rate of extinction.


The Precautionary Principle (PP) is increasingly invoked in international environmental protocols and agreements and in national and local environmental disputes. It holds that when there is significant evidence a new or existing technology poses a substantial environmental hazard, lack of detailed scientific understanding should not be used as a justification for postponing measures to contain the threat.[8] Nasty environmental surprises appear to have played a significant role in motivating development of the PP and in shaping efforts to implement it.[8, 9] And they often have been prominent in appeals for precautionary action, as when endocrine disruption and ozone depletion have been cited in articulating a rationale for a precautionary phase-out of major industrial uses of chlorine.[6]

In three ways, environmental nasty surprises illuminate the conflict between precautionary and conventional modes of environmental decision making. They:

1. Dramatically remind us that our understanding of complex natural systems and the complex interaction of technologies with those systems remains quite sketchy.

Unintended, unexpected, side effects are inevitable features of all large technological systems. And when these systems interact with the larger, even more complex natural systems (e.g., ecological, atmospheric) in which they are embedded, they spin off additional "emergent characteristics" at the regional and global levels. The basic mechanisms of change in techno-ecological systems have been poorly studied, constituting "virtually a black hole of knowledge and understanding."[10, p. 360, 11] Nasty surprises are emergent characteristics that remind us contemporary technological systems constitute "a great global experiment -- with humanity and all life on Earth as the unwitting subjects."[2, p. 240]

In the case of endocrine disruption, this "experiment" involves essentially random encounters between industrial chemicals and the hormonal systems of humans and other species. Only a few of the 87,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce and the unknown thousands of other industrial chemicals produced as byproducts and degradation products have so far been screened for endocrine-disrupting properties. Moreover, hormonal systems of animals are staggeringly complex, involving a large and poorly understood diversity of mechanisms and hormone-receptor activities and diversity between species.[7] The open-endedness of this "experiment" is further compounded by the complexity of ecological systems that can be altered by chemical disruption of' reproduction and development.[2]

Conventional design of chemicals, automobiles, and countless other technologies have proceeded largely without regard to humanity's underlying ignorance of natural and techno-ecological complexity; and U.S.-style environmental regulation has relied on the assumption that "sound science" has dispelled or ultimately will dispel such ignorance sufficiently to allow society to achieve sustainability. Both conventional design and conventional regulation are examples of what Funtowicz and Ravetz call "ignorance-of-ignorance, a most dangerous state for [humanity]."[12, p. 1884] By contrast, PP proponents have argued that a "precautionary science"-based approach must account for the reality of substantial ignorance.[7, 8, ch. 61, 9, pp. 169-71, 13]

2. Highlight the inadequacy and politics of risk assessment.

Many nasty surprises stem from activities that predate the institutionalization of formal environmental risk assessment as the back-bone of the U.S. regulatory system in the early 1980s. But nasty surprises nonetheless reflect poorly on present risk-based policies.

While limitations of risk assessment have long been discussed by regulators and academics, risk assessment's inadequacy as a bulwark against large-scale, long-term ecological dysfunction and subtle but profound human health impacts has received little attention. Risk assessment is a poor defense against nasty surprise because it disregards much of the techno-environmental complexity from which surprises emerge.[6,9] Consequently, "The very considerable amount of scientific work which has gone into the modeling of environmental risk systems over the past few decades cannot... be taken as reassurance that even the main dimensions of environmental harm from human activities have been comprehended."[13, p. 113]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's response to endocrine disruption illustrates the dilemma. The agency is pinning its hopes on a program to identify hormonally active chemicals and characterize the risk each poses. Although yielding valuable information, this program is effectively swamped by the complex diversity of chemicals, species, and endocrine mechanisms.[7]

Proponents of precaution argue that the inadequacies of the risk- based regulatory paradigm stem from its tacit politics -- its naive optimism about the ability of science to plumb the depths of environmental complexity; its ability to conceal ignorance; its reductionistic conception of hazard; its technocratic conception of power; its disregard for the availability of less-hazardous technologies; its willingness to sanction damage to the environment in the interest of economic freedom. They call for regulation whose politics is more transparent, more democratic, more environmentally cautious, more scientifically humble. They call for broader participation in environmental decision making and urge that evaluation of a technology include consideration of its social justification, the distribution of its social benefits, and the availability of less hazardous alternatives.[6-9, 13-14]

3. Lead us to expect additional nasty surprises.

The enormous pace and scale of human-induced change in global systems that are themselves enormously complex means that we are "more and more likely to engender problems that we are less and less likely to anticipate."[15, p. 37] Viewing the rapid decline in global biodiversity, biologist Myers concludes: "In the midst of much scientific uncertainty about our world -- a world on which we are imposing multitudes of simultaneous new insults -- we can be all but certain that there are environmental processes at work, or waiting in the wings, with the capacity to generate significant problems and to take us by ostensible surprise."[10, p. 358] Colborn and colleagues, considering the emergence of ozone depletion and endocrine disruption, concur. "If anything is certain," they write, "it is that we will be blindsided again" probably by "something never even considered."[2, p. 242]. How often will nasty surprises emerge? How long will it take us to recognize and address them? How much damage will they do? Is the worst behind us, or ahead of us? How much, ultimately, is at stake? A precautionary framework for environmental decision making would respond to the urgency of such questions by attempting to shape technologies in ways calculated to make future nasty surprises less frequent and less severe.

The risk-based regulatory approach, with its disregard for the systemic character of nasty surprise and its technocratic mode of responding to new surprises, does not offer a viable approach to dealing with nasty surprises. As the European Environment Agency concludes in its recent report on precaution, the scientific hubris built into western society's technological decision making has made society vulnerable to technological blunders that undermine the prospect of sustainability.[9]


[1] D. Sarewitz, Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Progress. Philadelphia, PA: Temple Univ., 1996.

[2] T. Colborn, D. Dumanoski. and J. Peterson Myers, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility: Intelligence, and Survival? -- A Scientific Detective Story. New York, NY: Dutton, 1996.

[3] S. Krimsky, Hormonal Chaos: The Scientific and Social Origins of the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000.

[4] G.M. Solomon and T. Schettler, "Endocrine disruption and potential human health implications," Canadian Med. Assoc. J., vol. 163, no. 11, pp. 1471-1476, 2000.

[5] P.L. deFur, "Public policy recommendations to address endocrine disrupting chemicals," Biotechnology International, vol. 2, pp. 230-234, 1999.

[6] J. Thornton, Pandora's Poison: Organochlorines and Health. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[7] J. Thornton, "Chemicals policy and the precautionary principle: The case of endocrine disruption," in Science and the Precautionary Principle, J. Tickner, Ed. Washington, DC: Island, to be published.

[8] C. Raffensperger and J. Tickner, Eds. Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle. Washington, DC: Island, 1999.

[9] Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000. European Environment Agency: Copenhagen, 2001.

[10] N. Myers, "Environmental unknowns," Science, vol. 269, pp. 358-360, July 21, 1995.

[11] N. Myers, 'Two key challenges for biodiversity: Discontinuities and synergisms," Biodiversity and Conservation, vol. 5, pp. 025-1034,1996.

[12] S.O. Funtowicz and J.R. Ravetz, "Uncertainty, complexity and post-normal science," Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, vol. 13, no. 12, pp. 1881-1885, 1994.

[13] B. Wynne, "Uncertainty and environmental learning: Reconceiving science and policy in the preventive paradigm," Global Environmental Change, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 111-127, 1992.

[14] M. O'Brien, Making Better Environmental Decisions: An Alternative to Risk Assessment. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000.

[15] C. Bright, "Anticipating environmental 'surprise'," in State of the World 2000: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society, L. Brown et al., Eds. New York, NY: Norton, 2000, pp. 22-38.