Is a Little Pollution Good for You? Incorporating Societal Values in Environmental Research

By Kevin C. Elliott | Go to book overview

1
Introduction
Societal Values and Environmental Research

During recent decades, the world has witnessed intense citizen action in response to a wide range of environmental concerns. For example, consumers have largely quashed the introduction of genetically modified (GM) foods into the European market, in part because of worries about the potential risks to human health, as well as the environmental and social effects of these products. Similarly, countless citizen groups throughout the United States have mobilized in an effort to block plans for new chemical plants, waste dumps, incinerators, and even the national repository for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.1 Activists have highlighted their concerns about the environmental and human rights consequences of globalization by engaging in well-publicized protests, including the classic 1999 “battle of Seattle” against the World Trade Organization (WTO). The manufacturer of the growth regulator Alar was forced to stop marketing the product in the United States because of the public uproar in the spring of 1989 over the possibility that residues of the chemical on apples might prove carcinogenic, especially to children.2 Citizen actions like these have been motivated in part by the perception that expert scientists and policy makers have either misjudged the seriousness of environmental risks or have become beholden to interest groups that want to downplay the significance of the problems.3

However, these citizen actions raise both theoretical and practical questions about how to handle cases in which members of the public disagree with experts or at least want more of a say in how society investigates and responds to environmental problems. As political scientist and science-policy expert David Guston puts it, “The delegation of significant authority from political to scientific actors is arguably the central problem in science policy, both analytically and practically.”4 From a theoretical perspective, we

1. Shrader-Frechette, Environmental Justice.

2. See Jasanoff, Fifth Branch.

3. Irwin, Citizen Science; Shrader-Frechette, Taking Action, Saving Lives.

4. Guston, “Institutional Design for Socially Robust Knowledge,” 63.

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