"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

'A manifestation of collective panic'

By all accounts, my speech last night in opposition to the Cosmetic Pesticide bylaw went over very well. Many of my fellow councillors told me they were impressed by my marshaling of facts and the vigour of my presentation, and I heard similar comments from most of the bureaucrats in attendance. The mayor told me later that he can’t wait to post the video of the presentation on his site.
The only problem is, I didn’t change a single mind, and the bylaw sailed through.
I began the presentation by reminding everyone that Health Canada had conducted a major review of cosmetic pesticides, and had approved them. In Victoria, the provincial government was in the process of studying the issue too. Meantime, I had been repeatedly challenged by environmentalists to study the issue. I did so, and the more I looked into it, the more I realized that something didn't add up – that the drive to eliminate cosmetic pesticides was being driven by something called the precautionary principle.
Here’s the definition: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” — The Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, January, 1998.
I noted that this has three key elements: 1. If something raises a threat of harm to health or environment; 2. Precautionary measures must be taken; 3. Even if cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
My interpretation: So even a mere threat of harm automatically ignites the need for action, even if there’s no scientific basis for it. But operating under this principle, we’d have to take old wives tales, myths, and urban legends as legitimate causes for action. Remember what mother used to say: “Don’t make a face, because if the wind changes you’ll be stuck with it….” If you’re a true believer in the precautionary principle, you’d better heed that advice, and not dismiss it as the unfounded rubbish that it is.
I continued: With this in mind, we can better understand what author Benjamin Kerstein meant when he wrote three years ago in his book, The Age of Catastrophic Thinking: “The precautionary principle is not so much a legal or scientific principle, but rather a manifestation of collective panic.”
Then for my clincher: But when there is some sound scientific evidence of cause and effect, there is a case for the precautionary principle. In fact, according to an article published in REASON magazine in March 2009, the precautionary principle, particularly as it can be applied to human health and well-being, actually argues against enacting pesticide prohibitions.
How’s that? Well, according to Dr. James D. Lu (medical health officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health Unit) in a Feb. 19, 2009 letter to Richmond, B.C. Municipal Council: “The aesthetics of urban landscapes has public health value. Appealing and well-kept neighbourhoods increase the public’s sense of safety and increase outdoor activities in neighbourhoods... A comprehensive Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach offers a better alternative to cosmetic pesticide ban bylaws. IPM strikes a balance between prudence, public policy, and private choice.”
This would speak to allowing cosmetic pesticides to be used in gardens, an especially useful exemption given the alarms being raised over the Coquitlam ban’s catastrophic effect on the city's prized Rose Garden.
And consider this, too: Since Ontario banned the use of cosmetic pesticides on April 22, 2009, there have been many media reports of an increase in allergic reactions, due to the greatly increased presence of weed pollen. Again, the Precautionary Principle weighs in favour of the use of pesticides to avoid or lessen ill effects to humans.
I concluded: Starting two years ago, environmentalists began challenging me to educate myself on the cosmetic pesticide issue. Well I have. And for the reasons above, I can now state firmly and unequivocally that I am opposed to the bylaw.

UPDATE: This morning, the folks at the BC and Yukon branch of the Canadian Cancer Society sent all councillors an email congratulating us for giving first readings to the bylaw to ban cosmetic pesticides, but urging us to extend the ban to sports fields as well.
I am pleased that the bylaw exempted sports fields, and would, of course, vigorously oppose any move to broaden the ban. The following statement, which appears on the website of the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, explains why:
“On sports turf, safety considerations also influence treatment decisions because bare areas or large weedy patches can increase the slipping hazard.” — IPM Manual for Landscape Pests in British Columbia, B.C. Ministry of the Environment website:
The REASON article points out that proper weed control on turf helps prevent slipping injuries by eliminating broad-leaved weeds. On the other hand, proper weed control on turf does not result in injuries. Therefore, the Precautionary Principle dictates that, with the choice between treating and not treating, the decision for proper weed control must be made—and therefore turf pesticides should not be prohibited. But I guess the crusading cancer fighters just don't care about that.

Photo from littlemountainhomeopathy.wordpress.com/

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