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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #110     A Publication of The Nature Institute       August 31, 2000
              Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.
    Death and the Single Cause (Stephen L. Talbott)
       Must we find dead bodies to fight environmental abuse?
       Technology Is Useful (John Wilson)
    About this newsletter
                            DEATH AND THE SINGLE CAUSE
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    I don't know how to say what I'm going to say without it being grotesquely
    misinterpreted.  But let me begin by offering two truths I think we need
    to hold together:
       "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for
       his friends".
       Today we must expect that some of the greatest abuses of man and nature
       will be justified in the name of saving lives.
    The following meditation, very much a work in progress, was prompted by a
    couple of things:  first, continuing news about the West Nile virus in New
    York City and surroundings, where public fear (and consequent wholesale
    spraying of insecticides aimed at mosquitoes) has not always been
    proportional to the danger; and, second, the widespread justification of
    even the most questionable biotech procedures whenever a life is at risk.
    For example, one recent commentator opposes human germline experimentation
    as hazardous, ill-advised, and unethical, yet suggests that the risks and
    wrongs "may be counterbalanced when a life is at stake".
    In the West Nile case, you've got fearful citizens on the one side,
    worried that they or a loved one will be bitten by a mosquito and die.  On
    the other side, environmentalists fret about the accumulative results of
    the thousands of novel poisons we are releasing into the environment at an
    accelerating rate.  In any debate framed by these two fears, the
    environmentalists are almost certain to lose, because a single death
    attributable to a single, identifiable agent carries vastly more weight
    with the public than debatable statistics about theoretically increased
    mortality due to unspecifiable combinations of unseen chemicals at barely
    detectable concentrations in the air, water, and soil.  As Peter Montague
    put the problem in a recent issue of Rachel's Environment and Health
       The truth is, scientists can never figure out whether pesticides on a
       child's cornflakes (for example) are "safe" or "insignificant" because
       (a) there are dozens or hundreds of adverse effects to consider, and --
       if history is any guide -- new ones will be discovered tomorrow; (b)
       the pesticide effects will be added on top of whatever other stresse