The chemical industry is out of control

February 3, 2022

One of the greatest environmental challenges has to do with what we don’t know, rather than what we know. Modern chemistry has produced more than 350,000 different substances and for most of these, we simply have no idea of their exact impact on the environment or our health. When we do know about the impact of certain chemicals, it often takes decades to find out and assess the damage that’s already been done.  Meanwhile, the production of chemicals has exceeded the sixth of nine planetary boundaries, threatening the stability of the Earth’s natural ecosystems. 

Despite such experiences in the past, regulation of substances is still based on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”: until proven otherwise, substances are not labeled as harmful. This makes it possible for companies to produce chemicals without considering their short- and long-term effects. In fact, once a valuable chemical is proven “guilty” and is regulated, companies tend to look for similar substitutions that haven’t been regulated yet. Unfortunately, these substitutes aren’t always safer. This goes, for instance, for several alternatives to BPA, a harmful additive used in plastics, which may have severe effects of their own. 

The underlying problem seems to be that there is no clear framework to hold companies accountable for the impact of the chemicals they produce. Although there is a voluntary initiative called Responsible Care, companies are in no way forced to take into consideration the damage their current actions will cause the environment hundreds of years from now. Only in rare cases of neglect or deceit have companies been held accountable. To try to regain control over our chemical future, we may need to apply the precautionary principle and treat new substances as “guilty until proven innocent”.

Burning questions:
  • Is it actually possible to prove the “innocence” of new substances, given the wide range of effects they can have and the time it may take for these effects to become visible?
  • What would be the economic damage of applying the precautionary principle? And what would be the opportunity costs, from a societal perspective, in terms of the broader value of all of these substances, e.g. in medicine

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Vivian Elion is an Advisor for Regional Approach at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). In this role, she supports provinces, municipalities and entrepreneurs in adopting national sustainability policies concerning construction, the environment, and society. Vivian studied Global Business and Sustainability at Erasmus University Rotterdam, specializing in sustainability tensions. During her tenure at FreedomLab, she developed the Deep Transitions Framework into business services.

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