Ten Contributions to Future Scenario Thinking about the Evolution of the EMF Debate

Michael Lerner

As one of the co-founders of CHE-EMF, I have followed the evolution of the great science, policy and media EMF debate with considerable interest.

As a non-specialist, the best way I have found to stay updated, along with reading CHE-EMF postings, is to visit Louis Slesin’s brilliant website Microwave News.

In what follows, I offer ten contributions to future scenario thinking about current developments in the EMF debate and their potential significance over the coming decades. Anyone who studies future scenario developments knows how intrinsically perilous this kind of work is. Future scenarios are almost always wrong. The benefit of constructing them is that they can clarify our thinking about the significance of current and future trends at the interface of science and policy.

1. CURRENT: First and most important, the issue of cell phones and health is no longer ignored by mainstream US media. That is an important breakthrough (a) in itself, (b) because it gives consumers the capacity to make safer choices based on their own risk appraisals, and (c) because in the long run it may lead to better research, better policies, and market shifts as manufacturers respond to consumer concerns and market opportunities.

2. CURRENT: There is growing interest in EMF the academic and nonprofit communities. When CHE-EMF started, a very small number of academics, NGOs and advocates were actively engaged with EMF. The number of key players has significantly increased in the NGO and academic community. While differences in perspective naturally exist among the key players, the cumulative net effect of more powerful key advocates is very beneficial for the field.

3. FUTURE: As the media, academic, and nonprofit constituencies concerned with EMF dangers increase their visibility and reach, these developments force industry, regulatory, and mainstream health constituencies that claim there is no health risk to up their game as well. Blanket denials of risk no longer suffice. The debate tends to become more granular as mainstream media, sensing a major story, does a better job of pressing both advocates and defenders of EMF to explain their positions. A more granular debate necessarily increases attention to the science. Increased attention to the science necessarily leads to better understanding of the structure of industry support for science and its implications. Likewise, loose and scientifically irresponsible positions by those concerned with EMF dangers become more vulnerable. The granularity of the debate, over time, favors more scientifically grounded arguments on both sides. The well known “sieve” model of such debates usually characterizes the outcome, in which initially widely disparate positions are forced, as the debate becomes more granular, into a narrower “sieve” that generates a broader consensus on science and policy outcomes. That does not mean the outcome will be “right” from any single perspective. But it describes what may be likely to happen.

4. CURRENT: The fact that The BioInitiative played a key role in alerting European governments to EMF risks — in a culture more disposed to see those risks in the first place — created a beneficial international comparison, much as European REACH legislation did in the chemical arena. The BioInitiative gathered some of the best science in the world on EMF issues (in my humble opinion as a lay person) and seized the scientific high ground in a way that European governments seized on to issue precautionary warnings on cell phones and health. Cindy Sage and Nancy Evans of The BioIntiative (also co-coordinator of CHE-EMF), Ken Cook and his colleagues at Environmental Working Group, Devra Lee Davis, Ronald Herberman (Director Emeritus of the University of Pittburgh Cancer Institute) and David Servan Schreiber in France are among those making major contributions to the evolution of the EMF debate. Many more contributors could be cited.

5. FUTURE: All of this means, in my view, that the EMF debate has shifted both quantitatively (more debate) and qualitatively (gradually improved debate) as media, academics, nonprofits and independent advocates amplify their critiques of health risks, and industry, government and mainstream health groups begin to respond. Over the next five years, we can anticipate that some of the mainstream health groups will begin to move away from unqualified support of industry (there are early signs of this movement already). The mainstream health groups have relatively little vested interest in supporting industry, other than their generally conservative views on the role of the environment in health. Industry may seek to invest in support for health groups as a way of delaying the trend, but over time, assuming the science continues to go in the direction it is headed, toward substantiating a wise array of health risks, the health groups will have little choice but to recognize the concerns.

6. FUTURE: As media, advocacy, and health concerns are better established, look for key industry segments to break away to market to those with health concerns. Look for key media personalities to establish EMF as a major concern. Look for key political figures to seize on EMF (some already have) and make it an ongoing part of their profile. Look for key labor groups including fire fighters, policy, military veterans, and others exposed to intense EMF environments to voice increasing concerns with their risks. Above all, look for a widening awareness across the US and around the world of EMF health concerns driven by people who (rightly or wrongly) attribute some of their health concerns to EMF exposures. This combination of media, advocacy, science, health, labor, political and widespread public concern makes it highly likely that EMF concerns — which have now achieved lift-off in the major media, will continue on a sharpening upward trajectory over the next decade. Unfortunately, there has been very little philanthropic or governmental support for independent scientific research and responsible policy advocacy to date. But as these other trends sharpen, philanthropic support for science, policy and advocacy may grow.

7. FUTURE: At the same time, the installed industrial EMF base will continue to grow and the cost of shifting to less harmful technologies will continue to grow. Moreover, other environmental and non-environmental threats — climate, chemical, biotechnology, nanotechnology, infectious diseases, nuclear developments, economic developments, and the like — may relativize perception of the size of the risk. Industry will do all it can to cede scientific ground as slowly as possible. So even if there is an epidemic of brain cancers (for example), industry will switch to recommending ear buds or other ameliorative approaches. And if the background noise of other threats is loud enough, those concerned with health effects of EMF may ultimately win the scientific battle but lose the exposure war. Israel is a perfect example: many scientists and Israelis with scientific understanding have strong concerns about EMF exposures, but competing security concerns relativize perceptions of the EMF risk and reduce demand for action.

8. FUTURE: A key question is whether the full scope of EMF health effects on a systemic level is recognized earlier or later in the evolution of the debate. Generally, it appears that systemic effects will be well demonstrated in lab and animal research, but the strong innate scientific conservatism that opposes generalization from these data to humans may block or marginalize societal and scientific awareness of systemic concerns. A second factor that makes recognition of systemic effects so difficult is that these effects interact with chemical contaminants and many other factors. EMF sensitivity, like chemical sensitivity (and in fact the two overlap) is a lead factor in awareness of human systemic effects, but is likely to suffer the same fate of marginalization that chemical sensitivity has suffered for decades. 

9. FOUR SCENARIOS: James McNeil of the Brundtland Commission once told me there were 4 possible futures: business as usual, descent into chaos, achieving sustainability, or becoming artificial people on an artificial planet. The truth is the real future is not one of these four but a constant negotiation for market share among all four futures. To some degree, business as usual continues. To some degree we descend into chaos. To some degree we move toward sustainability. And unquestionably we are becoming artificial people on an artificial planet. Those of us concerned with the environment and health are doing all we can to move the sustainability index upward. EMF is one of a dozen major areas in which we are making that effort.

10. SUMMARY: In summary, these hypotheses suggest one possible future in which those of us concerned with the impact of EMF on health ultimately win the scientific debate. The scientific affirmation may come by 2015 (to pick a plausible date) as mainstream media interest increases, media stars make this their issue, industry players market to those with health concerns, key politicians join the fray (like Arlen Specter), labor expresses concerns, mainstream health groups move away from blanket denials of health concerns, new scientific studies are released into a prepared and concerned media environment, and more and more people experience what they believe to be health effects, and Europe and other regions heighten their policy and consumer response to EMF concerns. At the same time industry will fight a delaying action to discredit, discount and deny the science for as long as possible as installed infrastructure and product streams are developed. Virtually all industries under attack take this approach.

The purpose of these future scenario notes is not to ignite an advocacy debate on CHE-EMF (which is never our purpose). It is rather to frame an awareness of the context in which we continue to work to understand the emerging science on EMF and to sustain a dialogue of science and civility.  I welcome comments that contribute to our deeper understanding of the present and future context of our science dialogue.

4 thoughts on “Ten Contributions to Future Scenario Thinking about the Evolution of the EMF Debate

  1. Hi Michael,
    great scenario outline – your sense of driving forces, including forecasts, and the outlines of archetypal scenarios –

    Jim Dator at U of Hawaii uses a similar set of archetypal scenario images, and we’ve evolved another similar set (business as usual, challenge, and two visionary scenarios) – and you are right about the future being a mix of the set.

    What would visionary scenarios include – e.g. effective use and protection; reengineering safer phones and transmitters; not using them?

    and how close are we to understanding genetic and other factors that make individuals more sensitive?

  2. This is a long post, but I was encouraged by Michael Lerner’s excellent recent post to share these thoughts, which are hopefully not obvious or irrelevant.

    As with most environmental concerns, the EMF debate is basically a moral one, and as long as there’s legitimate scientific debate about safety issues, the morality of profiting on dubiously safe technology will be debated as well. There seems to be no possible resolution of that debate short of a lot more funding for truly independent scientific analysis. This has to include epidemiology as well as other research, because I think we’re much more likely to discover what’s going on by carefully examining what follows what we’re doing than by simply trying to pinpoint the cause of those phenomena, which may not happen for a long time, as with tobacco – though we shouldn’t stop trying.

    Take the problem of measuring exposure, for instance. Any piece of measuring gear you use has severe limitations when you’re trying to realistically estimate the exposure to a human being. Even if you had a spectrum analyzer with a bandwidth from DC to 300 GHz, there’s no way one person (in the field, for instance) could measure the whole spectrum at once. But realistic exposure IS the whole spectrum at once. And what do you use for an input? Even the best probe has severe limitations as well. The only truly realistic probe would be something that reproduces all the complex conductors, coils, and connections in the human brain and nervous system – if you could legitimately limit it to the nervous system. But even then such a receiver would not be alive. And even if you could pull off all that, you’d still have to take into account non-structural differences, and individual variations in age, state of health, diet, etc. If you’re measuring microwaves in the field, you need to include temperature, humidity, electromagnetic and other influences in the surroundings, and so forth. Even a person’s mood can drastically affect the capabilities of their immune system. As Harold Saxton Burr said decades ago in his book The Fields of Life, “beliefs can have as drastic an effect on the body as a kick in the teeth.”

    I’ve met some little old ladies who were much more sensitive than any of my test gear, as some of that gear confirmed after their suggestions of where and how to use it.

    As Gerard Hyland pointed out almost ten years ago:

    “difficulties sometimes experienced in attempts to independently replicate certain frequency-specific non-thermal effects are actually to be expected, in consequence of the highly non-linear, non-equilibrium nature of living systems, whereby even the slightest differences in the physiological state of the biosystems used and in conditions obtaining in a particular experiment can, in consequence of deterministic chaos, assume singular importance.”

    And people on both sides of the debate need to avoid jumping to conclusions. Doing so is inevitable at times, but we have to always identify those leaps as such and emphasize the appropriate caveats.

    We can’t take wonder and speculation out of science and should never try to, and should never try to explain away riddles out-of-hand. We should treasure them as part of the expanding horizons of our knowledge. If we see dark clouds on those horizons, though, we should take precautionary measures, even if it turns out we didn’t need to, and remember as we do that unreasoning fear is also a danger in itself that limits rather than expands the awareness we need to respond effectively.

    Given all that, there ARE reasons to be cautious, and a purely scientific attitude is not enough in itself to fulfill our responsibilities to our children and the future. As queasy as it may make some scientists to acknowledge, human beings can have more awareness than just of those things that can be measured mechanistically, and can have ways of knowing that are not limited to reasoning about what’s replicable. The obvious difficulty in determining the validity of such perceptions doesn’t by itself refute them. I think reality resembles the scientist more than it resembles science.

  3. In other words those of us who currently suffer the effects of EMR and EMFs should expect no significant relief from governments or science for years and years to come.

    We therefore have no choice. We must arm ourselves with high and low frequency meters to monitor our exposure and to help us choose where to live and work. And we must shield or protect ourselves whenever we can (and always when we sleep) by sleeping under canopies of shielding material; hanging protective curtains around us where we frequently spend long periods of time; painting our walls with protective paint (yes this is possible, and is a solution actively available in the market in Europe); and installing demand switches were we can.

    I encourage anyone who suspects that he or she is being affected by EMR or EMFs to inform themselves of the measurement and protection products available. There are ways to monitor and reduce your exposure. They may be sufficient to allow you to recover your health and lead a relatively normal life.

    Well structured sites such as:
    present a comprehensive selection of the possibilities described above. I say give them your support and business. Companies such as these are our greatest allies. Only by demonstrating that there is a real market for these products will the problem of EMR and EMFs be recognised as legitimate and become measurable. Expect nothing from government.

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