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Nature Can Hurt You

Via Majikthise, the EPA says "if your water is being poisoned by raccoons, maybe it isn't actually poisoned after all":

Scientists have run high-tech tests on harmful bacteria in local rivers and streams and found that many of the germs -- and in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, a majority of them-- come from wildlife dung. The strange proposition that nature is apparently polluting itself has created a serious conundrum for government officials charged with cleaning up the rivers.

... "You need to go back and say, 'Maybe the standards aren't exactly right' if wildlife are causing the problem," said Thomas Henry, an Environmental Protection Agency official who works on water pollution in the mid-Atlantic.

This reasoning interestingly parallels some of the reasoning used in the great dispute over arsenic standards several years ago. Then, the administration claimed that some locations naturally have arsenic levels that exceeded environmentalists' preferred lower standard, so therefore a higher standard was appropriate.

There are two angles to take on this, both of which involve anti-environmentalist cooptation of popular environmentalism.

Most obviously, Henry's logic involves a naive implementation of Barry Commoner's "Third Law of Ecology" -- "Nature knows best." Commoner made the more modest (albeit in my opinion excessively adaptationist) idea that any chemical present in nature can be metabolized by nature, but any chemical not already found in nature is inevitably harmful. In pop-environmentalism, this idea manifests as the belief that anything "natural" is therefore good for you. The arsenic and racoon poop examples clearly show that this is at best a rule of thumb. But Henry proposes using the rule of thumb to revise the data. If it's "natural," the authorities can't be expected to do anything about it.

Less obviously, Henry's strategy plays on environmentalism's need for a villain. Environmentalism has gotten good mileage out of identifying human agents as culpable for environmental problems. But when there's no agent, or nature itself is the agent, this adversarial structure breaks down. So it's easy for those who favor inaction to throw up their hands and declare that since it's nobody's fault, it's not a problem.

It's true that there may be reasons why it would be unwise to seek as strict a cleanliness standard if the contamination is natural -- for example, because of an inability to manipulate the natural process at an acceptable cost (or an unwillingness to risk it). But this needs to be conceptualized as a tradeoff between values (health versus the costs -- including potential side-effects on health -- of correcting the problem), not a case in which a natural origin makes harms into non-harms.


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