I picked up my newspaper last month to read that a Cardiff surfer, from the confines of his hospital bed, had sued the County of San Diego and local water agencies. He felt that excessively dirty water from the San Elijo sewage treatment plant had caused his staph infection.
Two weeks earlier, technical experts had argued that it would be safe to pump dirtier water into the ocean at the Cardiff outfall. The surfer obviously was not buying the technical opinion of the Ph.D.'s, nor were many of the residents of the coastal communities near the outfall. Their message was clear: We Want a Clean Ocean!
This kind of conflict is becoming more common in our scientific age and is creating some sticky problems for our elected officials.
The increasing role of technology in our society has spawned these "technopolitical" issues--issues characterized by clashes between environmental activists and credentialed experts who try to alleviate the public's fears with technical arguments. Locally, issues that fall under this category include the sewage downgrade, the San Marcos trash-to-energy plant and the San Dieguito traffic study. National issues include the use of genetically altered anti-frost bacteria on produce, the use of radiation to preserve food and the ongoing debate over the use of nuclear power.
Technopolitical issues generally involve an element of societal progress or public benefit being balanced with an unknown environmental impact that can only be analyzed by experts in the field. The San Marcos trash-burning plant would help provide our energy needs--but will the pollution be too unhealthy? Use of genetically altered anti-frost bacteria will increase strawberry production--but can we contain the bacteria once we apply it? Use of radiation will keep those strawberries "fresh"--but what are the health consequences to people who eat the strawberries? Nuclear power produces an enormous supply of energy--but do we know it is safe? The sewage downgrade contains no progressive element. Scientists are using technical arguments to regress to a form of sewage treatment that is less costly.
The experts' bureaucratic or professional prejudice is an issue that complicates technopolitical matters. Bureaucratic prejudice evolves when bureaucracies don't question beliefs that they formed some time ago. To wit:
- The Department of Public Works believes that most of the growth in North County will be along the route of proposed Highway 680. The planners then use that assumption while designing a county traffic study that is supposed to, among other things, scientifically analyze the need for Highway 680.
- An Escondido sewage engineer fudges the numbers because he doesn't believe the water is as dirty as the data says it is.
Professional prejudice is a concern when the environmental analyzer's profession has such strong economic ties to the industry he analyzes that there is a built-in lack of credibility. Traffic consultants fall into this category. A "successful" traffic consultant will be able to get business from both the public and private sectors. To get business from the private sector, however, he needs to come up with results that the development interests like. The manipulative sewage engineer works for the City of Escondido, which is not exactly neutral on the downgrade issue.
The manner of selection of the decision making body is very important in technopolitics. Appointed representatives tend to see items brought before them as technical rather than political issues. They are thus much more likely to be swayed by the experts. The technocrats and other scientific advisers to policy makers rarely consider the political effect of their advice. Elected representatives, however, feel the hot cattle prod of the electorate waving near their rear ends. This provides the balancing political influence.
For example, the Regional Water Quality Control Board will see sewage treatment as a technical issue, while the Board of Supervisors feels the political heat.
Technopolitical issues raise special problems for public officials because they pit the concerns and fears of the electorate against the knowledge of the experts. The official must take into account how biased the expert's technical data is and, if the official is elected, how strong the electorate's political feelings are.
Even if he concludes that the public reaction is unfounded hysteria, he must consider whether he can justifiably leave the public behind on the issue. Finally, since the answer to most of the environmental questions is "we just don't know for sure," the official must decide whether the amount of public benefit is great enough to offset the unknown environmental risks.
It's a tough row to hoe--I hope we, and our political leaders, are up to it.