Building Sustainable Development in a Globally Connected World
A growing number of Americans are beginning to wonder why Europe has leaped ahead of the U.S. to become the most environmentally advanced political space in the world today. To understand why Europe has left America behind in the race to create a sustainable society, we need to look at the very different dreams that characterize the American and European frame of mind.
Ask Americans what they most admire about the U.S.A. and they will likely cite the individual opportunity to get ahead—at least until recently. The American Dream is based on a simple but compelling covenant: Anyone, regardless of the station to which they are born, can leverage a good public education, determination and hard work to become a success in life. We can go from "rags to riches."
Ask a European what they most admire about Europe and they will invariably say "the quality of life." Eight out of 10 Europeans say they are happy with their lives and when asked what they believe to be the most important legacy of the 20th century, 58 percent of Europeans picked their quality of life, putting it second only to freedom in a list of 11 legacies.
While the American Dream emphasizes individual success, the European Dream emphasizes collective well-being. The reason for this lies in the divergent histories of the two continents. America’s founders came over from Europe 200 years ago in the waning days of the Protestant Reformation and the early days of the European Enlightenment. They took these two streams of European thought, froze them in time, and kept them alive in their purest form until today. Americans are the most devoutly Christian and Protestant people in the industrial world and the fiercest champions of the capitalist marketplace and the nation-state.
Both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment emphasized the central role of the individual in history. John Calvin exhorted the faithful that every person stands alone with their God. Adam Smith, in turn, argued that every individual pursues their own self interest in the marketplace. This individualist strain fit the American context far better than it did the European setting. In a wide-open frontier, every new immigrant did indeed stand alone and had to secure their survival with little or no social supports. Americans, even today, are taught by their parents that to be free they must learn to be self-sufficient and independent, and that they cannot depend on others.
Europeans, however, never fully bought the idea of the individual alone in the universe. Europe was already densely populated and without a frontier by the late 18th century. Walled cities and tightly packed human settlement demanded a more communal way of life. While Americans defined freedom in terms of individual autonomy and mobility, Europeans defined freedom by their communal relationships.
In America there was enough cheap and free land and resources so that newcomers could become rich. In Europe, well-defined class boundaries—a remnant of the feudal aristocracy—made it far more difficult for an individual born in a lesser station of life to rise to the top and become wealthy. So while Americans preferred to pursue happiness individually, Europeans pursued happiness collectively by emphasizing the quality of life of the community. Today, Americans devote less than 11 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to social benefits, compared to 26 percent in Europe.
Doing it Better
So, what does Europe do better than America? It works hard to create a remarkably high quality of life for all of its people. The European Dream focuses on inclusivity, diversity, sustainable development, social rights and universal human rights. And it works. While Americans are 28 percent wealthier per capita than Europeans, in many ways, Europeans experience a higher quality of life, clear evidence that, in the long run, cooperation rather than competition is sometimes a surer path to happiness.
Europe and the U.S. have nearly opposite approaches to the question of environmental stewardship. At the heart of the difference is the way Americans and Europeans perceive risk. We Americans take pride in being a risk-taking people. We come from immigrant stock, people who risked their lives to journey to the new world and start over, often with only a few coins in their pockets and a dream of a better life. When Europeans and others are asked what they most admire about Americans, our risk-taking, "can-do" attitude generally tops the list. Where others see difficulties and obstacles, Americans see opportunities.
Our optimism is deeply entwined with our faith in science and technology. It has been said that Americans are a nation of tinkerers. When I was growing up, the engineer was held in as high esteem as the cowboy, admired for his efforts to improve the lot of society and contribute to the progress and welfare of civilization.
On the other side of the water, the sensibilities are different. It’s not that Europeans aren’t inventive. One could make the case that over the course of history Europe has produced most of the great scientific insights and not a few of the major inventions. But with their longer histories, Europeans are far more mindful of the dark side of science and technology.
Saying No to GE Foods
In recent years, the European Union (EU) has turned upside down the standard operating procedure for introducing new technologies and products into the marketplace and society, much to the consternation of the United States. The turnaround started with the controversy over genetically engineered (GE) foods and the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The U.S. government gave the green light to the widespread introduction of GE foods in the mid 1990s, and by the end of the decade more than half of America’s agricultural land was given over to GE crops. No new laws were enacted to govern the potential harmful environmental and health impacts. Instead, existing statutes were invoked, and no special handling or labeling of the products was required.
In Europe, massive opposition to GMOs erupted across the continent. Farmers, environmentalists and consumer organizations staged protests and political parties and governments voiced concern. A defacto moratorium on the planting of GE crops and sale of GE food products was put into effect. Meanwhile, the major food processors, distributors and retailers pledged not to sell any products containing GE traits.
The EU embarked on a lengthy review process to assess the environmental and health risks of introducing GE food products. In the end, it established tough new protections designed to mitigate the potential harm. The measures included procedures to segregate and track GE grain and food products from the fields to the retail stores to ensure against contamination; labeling of GMOs at every stage of the food process to ensure transparency; and independent testing as well as more rigorous testing requirements by the companies producing GE seeds and other GMOs.
The EU is forging ahead on a wide regulatory front, changing the very conditions and terms by which new scientific and technological pursuits and products are introduced into the marketplace and the environment. Its bold initiatives put the EU far ahead of the rest of the world. Behind all of its newfound regulatory zea
l is the looming question of how best to model global risks and create a sustainable and transparent approach to economic development.
In May of 2003, the EU proposed sweeping new regulatory controls on chemicals to mitigate toxic impacts on the environment and human and animal health. The proposed new law would require new companies to register and test for the safety of more than 30,000 chemicals at an estimated cost to the producers of nearly eight billion Euros. Under existing rules, 99 percent of the total volume of chemicals sold in Europe have not passed through any environmental and health testing and review process. In the past, there was no way to even know what kind of chemicals were being used by industry, making it nearly impossible to track potential health risks. The new regulations will change all of that. The "REACH" system—which stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals—requires the companies to conduct safety and environmental tests to prove that the products they are producing are safe. If they can"t, the products will be banned from the market.
The new procedures represent an about face to the way the chemical industry is regulated in the U.S. In America, new chemicals are generally assessed to be safe and the burden is primarily put on the consumer, the public or the government to prove that they cause harm. The EU has reversed the burden of proof. Former EU Environmental Commissioner Margot Wallstrom makes the point: "No longer do public authorities need to prove they [the products] are dangerous. The onus is now on industry to prove that the products are safe."
Making companies prove that their chemical products are safe before they are sold is a revolutionary change. It’s very difficult to conceive of the U.S. entertaining the kind of risk prevention regulatory regime that the EU has rolled out. In a country where corporate lobbyists spend millions of dollars influencing congressional legislation, the chances of ever having a similar regulatory regime to the one being implemented in Europe would be nigh on impossible.
GMOs and chemical products represent just part of the new "risk prevention" agenda taking shape in Brussels. In early 2003, the EU adopted a new rule prohibiting electronics manufacturers from selling products in the EU that contain mercury, lead and other heavy metals. Another new regulation requires the manufacturers of all consumer electronics and household appliances to cover the costs for recycling their products. American companies complain that compliance with the new regulations will cost them hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
All of these strict new rules governing risk prevention would come as a shock to Americans who believe that the U.S. has the most vigilant regulatory oversight regime in the world for governing risks to the environment and public health. Although that was the case 30 years ago, it no longer is today.
The EU is the first governing institution in history to emphasize human responsibilities to the global environment as a centerpiece of its political vision. Europe’s new sensitivity to global risks has led it to champion the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the Biodiversity Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention and many others. The U.S. government has refused, to date, to ratify any of the above agreements.
A New Era
In Europe, intellectuals are increasingly debating the question of the great shift from a risk-taking age to a risk-prevention era. That debate is virtually non-existent in the U.S., where risk-taking is seen as a virtue. The new European intellectuals argue that vulnerability is the underbelly of risks. A sense of vulnerability can motivate people to band together in common cause. The EU stands as a testimonial to collective political engagement arising from a sense of risk and shared vulnerability.
What’s changed qualitatively in the last half century since the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that risks are now global in scale, open ended in duration, incalculable in their consequences and not compensational. Their impact is universal, which means that no one can escape their potential effects. Risks have now become truly democratized, making everyone vulnerable. When everyone is vulnerable, then traditional notions of calculating and pooling risks become virtually meaningless. This is what European academics call a risk society.
Americans aren’t there yet. While some academics speak to global risks and vulnerabilities and a significant minority of Americans express their concerns about global risks, from climate change to loss of biodiversity, the sense of utter vulnerability just isn’t as strong on this side of the Atlantic. Europeans say we have blinders on. In reality, it’s more nuanced than that. Call it delusional, but the sense of personal empowerment is so firmly embedded in the American mind, that even when pitted against growing evidence of potentially overwhelming global threats, most Americans shrug such notions off as overly pessimistic and defeatist. "Individuals can move mountains." Most Americans believe that. Fewer Europeans do.
The EU has already institutionalized a litmus test that cuts to the core of the differences between America and Europe. It’s called "the precautionary principle" and it has become the centerpiece of EU regulatory policy governing science and technology in a globalizing world.
The Precautionary Principle
In November 2002, the EU adopted a new policy on the use of the precautionary principle to regulate science and new products derived from technology innovations. According to the EU, reviews occur in "cases where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen by the EU." The key term is "uncertain." When there is sufficient evidence to suggest a potential negative impact, but not enough to know for sure, the precautionary principle allows regulatory authorities to err on the side of safety. They can suspend the activity altogether, modify it, employ alternative scenarios, monitor the activity or create experimental protocols to better understand its effects.
The precautionary principle allows governments to respond with a lower threshold of scientific certainty than in the past. "Scientific certainty" has been tempered by the notion of "reasonable grounds for concern." The precautionary principle gives authorities the flexibility to respond to events in real time, either before or while they are unfolding.
Advocates of the precautionary principle cite the introduction of halocarbons and the tear in the ozone hole in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, the outbreak of mad cow disease in cattle, growing antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria caused by the over-administering of antibiotics to farm animals and the widespread deaths caused by asbestos, benzene and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
The precautionary principle has been finding its way into international treaties and covenants. It was first recognized in 1982 when the United Nations General Assembly incorporated it
into the World Charter for Nature. The precautionary principle was subsequently included in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992, the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the Treaty on EU (Maastricht Treaty) in 1992, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2000 and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in 2001.
Americans, by and large, view nature as a treasure trove of useful resources waiting to be harnessed for productive ends. While Europeans share America’s utilitarian perspective, they also have a love for the intrinsic value of nature. One can see it in Europeans" regard for the countryside and their determination to maintain natural landscapes, even if it means providing government assistance in the way of special subsidies, or foregoing commercial development. Nature figures prominently in Europeans" dream of a quality of life. Europeans spend far more time visiting the countryside on weekends and during their vacations than Americans.
The balancing of urban and rural time is less of a priority for most Americans, many of whom are just as likely to spend their weekends at a shopping mall, while their European peers are hiking along country trails. Anyone who spends significant time among Europeans knows that they have a great affinity for rural getaways. Almost everyone I know in Europe—among the professional and business class—has some small second home in the country somewhere—a dacha usually belonging to the family for generations. While working people may not be as fortunate, on any given weekend they can be seen exiting the cities en masse, motoring their way into the nearest rural enclave or country village for a respite from urban pressures.
The strongly held values about rural life and nature is one reason why Europe has been able to support green parties across the continent, with substantial representation in national parliaments as well as in the European Parliament. By contrast, not a single legislator at the federal level in the U.S. is a member of the Green Party.
There is another dimension to the European psyche that makes Europeans supportive of the precautionary principle—their sense of "connectedness."
Because we Americans place such a high premium on autonomy, we are far less likely to see the deep connectedness of things. We tend to see the world in terms of containers, each isolated from the whole and capable of standing alone. We like everything around us to be neatly bundled, autonomous, and self contained.
The new view of science that is emerging in the wake of globalization is quite different. Nature is viewed as a myriad of symbiotic relationships, all embedded in a larger whole, of which they are an integral part. In this new vision of nature, nothing is autonomous, everything is connected.
By championing a host of global environmental treaties and accords taking the precautionary approach to regulation, the EU has shown a willingness to act on its commitment to sustainable development and global environmental stewardship. The fact that its commitments in most areas remain weak and are often vacillating is duly noted. But, at least Europe has established a new agenda for conducting science and technology that, if followed, could begin to wean the world from the old ways and toward a second Enlightenment.
JEREMY RIFKIN is the author of The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004), from which this article was adapted.