Tongue-tied by technocrats: Whether it is mad cows or nuclear power, science governs debate and we lack the language to express our fears, warns Tom Wilkie

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The Independent Online
The Wilkie family sat down to an unaccustomed Sunday dinner at the weekend: the roast on the table came from the local supermarket. This was an oversight. Since the outbreak of mad cow disease, we have been eating more fish and vegetarian recipes. What meat we have consumed has been 'organic' - supplied by specialist butchers from animals which have been allowed to forage freely, have not been fed animal protein, and have not routinely been dosed with antibiotics.

Our decision to switch to organic meat stemmed from the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy - but the motivation was not solely one of safety.

One unremarked aspect of the 'mad cows' affair was that it had a narrow scientific and technical focus on food safety, to the exclusion of other issues. People were naturally concerned that they should not be poisoned by the food they ate, but other questions were simply not addressed. John Gummer, the Minister of Agriculture, apparently believed that all he had to do was to convince us that meat was safe, and the status quo ante would be restored.

Yet the growing demand for organic meat is not just the result of narrow technical concerns about safety. The British public does not live in fear of disease through eating contaminated beef.

The furore over mad cow disease uncovered aspects of the meat and livestock business of which the majority of consumers had previously been happily ignorant: that 'modern' farming practices had turned cattle not only into carnivores, but into cannibals. That came hard on the heels of the controversy over salmonella in eggs, which in a similar way disclosed unpleasant details about the conditions in which battery hens are kept. It was for these almost aesthetic reasons, not on grounds of safety, that we consumers decided to vote with our credit cards.

It is a testimony to the status of science in our society that the questions dominating public debate are those open to the technocratic approach. There is no broader picture any more. This concentration on safety, addressing only technical questions to which there are scientific answers, is all-pervasive. It has become difficult to articulate any other concerns because the language in which they might be expressed lacks legitimacy in the modern world. Only questions which can be formulated in technical terms appear to be respectable.

The modern world is founded on technology and ruled by the dismal science of economics. In the Fifties, the Golden Age of Scientism, that was no problem. Science and technology were seen as the unquestioned engines of human progress. A reaction set in during the Sixties and early Seventies, but the green rebellion has failed to deliver. The rebels have been assimilated, so that in the Nineties the opponents of the technocrats are increasingly bound by the language and values of the technocracy.

A further example can be seen in another troubled industry - nuclear power. For years the industry's expensive publicity machine has worked on the assumption that if the public can just be convinced on the safety issue, it will wholeheartedly embrace a new generation of pressurised water reactors that are springing up like mushrooms.

So triumphant is the ethos of science that much of the technical argument used by the nuclear industry's opponents is really a surrogate for other concerns which are less easy to articulate.

There is no language available to develop an argument for those who feel that large centralised facilities for the production of energy, tended by small scientific and technological elites, may be a step towards a society in which the individual has little control over his or her own destiny; towards an impersonal and less acceptable form of social organisation.

Three Mile Island and Chernobyl switched the focus of anti-nuclear campaigning to the science and technology of safety. Incredible as it seems now, safety was not always a serious issue. In 1976 Friends of the Earth, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the National Council for Civil Liberties published a pamphlet, Nuclear Prospects, which explicitly rejected the technocratic approach and, indeed, praised the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate's 'reputation as an efficient watchdog'.

'Most studies of nuclear power,' it said, 'focus on technical questions: Can nuclear power be made safe? Can nuclear wastes be stored effectively? Our paper is not technical. It poses questions of a different kind: What sort of institutional pressures might build up to meet a large nuclear commitment? What kind of political climate might this create? How might a large nuclear power programme be squared with the present conventional wisdoms about parliamentary sovereignty and control?'

The pamphlet was concerned about the issue of remoteness from the people - rather as, in the Nineties, consumers felt themselves remote from decisions on how their food was produced.

The authors of Nuclear Prospects were worried that neither public inquiries nor parliamentary select committees provided adequate means for the public to participate in the technocrats' decision making: 'An overriding characteristic of the nuclear debate has been the insistence of those committed to the nuclear option that the issues at stake are essentially technical. However, the matters discussed in this paper are not the province of experts. They are properly the concern of us all. Any commitment to a new technology gives rise to social and political side-effects.'

Sometimes the market allows consumers to overcome this dilemma and apply their own values. A driver upset by oil pollution in Alaska can boycott Exxon petrol. But the market is not always enough. It can make consumers pay for clean air and water through the price of a factory's products, if the technology exists to clean up the factory's effluent.

And clever economists have been thinking up smart market solutions in cases where technology cannot remove all pollutants: one company might, for example, be able to buy 'permits to pollute' from another. In this way, although the environment would be fouled, the pollution would be priced at market rates. There is simply no linguistic space for those who want to step outside and question the logic underpinning the entire enterprise.

As campaigning organisations reach out to appeal to the 'mainstream', they fail to provide a radical alternative. Yet such an alternative is badly needed: there is a dislocation between what people feel, and what they feel able to say.

(Photograph omitted)