Corporate America’s attack on common sense


Common sense may keep us out of harm’s way and save us from terminally bad deciEsions, but a recently leaked chemical-industry memo inEsists that common sense is bad for business. Elsewhere in the corporate sector, too, common sense is increasingly seen as a dogged nuisance that hinders mindless conEsumption and myopic busiEness practices.

Fearing that prudence will trim profits, U.S. corporate henchmen have already begun efforts to undermine common sense. Backed by opportunisEtic members of the business community and corralled by professional crisis managers, a coterie of corporate apoloEgists hopes to wean you off thinking for yourself. ApparEently they believe that susEtained criticism of common sense will gradually lead conEsumers and communities to doubt their own better judgEment, so eventually allowing corporate interests to circumEscribe and dominate public deEbate of environmental issues.

The primary target of this misinformation campaign is the Precautionary Principle, a cornerstone of common-senEsical environmental security. Proponents of the principle say it embodies traditional wisdom, akin to “better safe than sorry” and “look before you leap.”

Critics argue that it is a new effort to sabotage free enterEprise, even though the princiEple has been central to enviEronmental policy discussions, both nationally and internaEtionally, for two decades. In fact, more than 10 years ago Eat the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil Enations worldwide acEcepted the principle when they signed the Rio Declaration.

In practice, the principle provides guidance to commuEnities and decision-makers striving to limit the types of irresponsible corporate beEhavior that have plagued inEdustrial societies globally. For example, despite the lesEsons Japan has learned from decades of pollution tragedies Eincluding severe mercury and cadmium poisoning and sulphur-oxide air pollution Eother nations still suffer simiElar disasters. Indeed, chemiEcal pollution is now pervasive worldwide, with tens of thouEsands of chemicals in everyEday use. Arsenic, dioxins, hormone disrupters and other toxins are killing people and degrading global ecosystems.

A nonprofit organization, the Environmental Research Foundation, in its electronic newsletter (Rachel’s EnviEronment & Health News, No. 770, July 2003), offers a basic definition of the PrecautionEary Principle:

1) If you have reasonable suspicion of harm; and 2) you have scientific uncertainty; then 3) you have a duty to take action to prevent harm; by 4) shifting the burden of proof of safety onto those peoEple whose activities raised the suspicion of harm in the first place, and evaluating the available alternatives to find the least harmful way, using a decision-making process that is open, informed and democratic, and that includes the people who will be affectEed by the decision.

Not surprisingly, certain sectors of industry cringe at such reasoned decision-makEing, and corporate concern is mounting as public awareEness of the precautionary principle spreads.

“For 100 years the chemical industry has been exposing workers and communities to toxic chemicals without anyEone’s informed consent, an ethEical lapse [and source of legal liability] of titanic proportions. Now the precautionary apEproach is suggesting that chemicals should be tested beEfore people are exposed,” notes Rachel’s (No. 781).

Testing, however, is expenEsive, and the numbers of chemicals and their combinaEtions are myriad. So rather than adopting precaution as an industrywide standard Eas one might expect from reEsponsible corporate citizens Eindustry has decided to atEtack common sense.

This past summer, when the city and county of San Francisco, Calif., adopted legislation calling for the PreEcautionary Principle to guide all public policymaking that affects the environment, the chemical industry went on the offensive.

A leaked memo from within the American Chemistry Council (formerly the ChemiEcal Manufacturers AssociaEtion) outlines a potential ACC campaign to be led by NichEols-Dezenhall, a public relaEtions firm. The memo stressEes the need to fight the comEmon-sense nature of the Precautionary Principle, stating: “For too long the ‘common-sense’ appeal of the PP has gone unopposed.”

The memo, made public by the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) last auEtumn, calls for industry to “stigmatize the PP, win conEtrol of the message war and build awareness of the negaEtive consequences associated with its implementation.” It also suggests the use of “satEire and humor to demonstrate how, taken to its logical exEtreme, application of the PP would set Californians back to the stone ages.”

Warning that other cities and states could follow such common sense, the memo notes that “California is a bellwether state, and any sucEcess enjoyed [there] could readily spill over to other parts of the country. Should this trend continue, industry runs the risk of allowing the PP to gain additional momenEtum, with potentially much broader and more severe imEplications.”

As Rachel’s notes, tongue in cheek: “Common sense spillEing over! This is serious.”

Knowing what’s happening behind the scenes, next time you read an article that atEtempts to discredit the PreEcautionary Principle, find out who pays the writer’s salary. More likely than not, the monEey trail will lead to a reactionEary think tank with benefacEtors eager to profit from the death of common sense.

The question that continues to disturb me, though, is this: How can these opportunists raEtionalize working as apologists on a misinformation campaign that seeks to bequeath a deadEly legacy to their children and grandchildren?