Theoretical Ramifications

The empirical destruction of human life from Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease has in fact proved to be rather minimal, certainly as compared to banes such as the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. One might note that the destruction wrought by the epizootic BSE has proven to be empirically quite devastating to herds of cattle, originally in the United Kingdom, and ultimately throughout the European Union. This ultimately serves to reinforce psychological analysis of the BSE pandemic. In this case, extreme levels of uncertainty regarding modes of transmission, the likelihood of becoming infected, and the slow and horrid death associated with VCJD all combined to generate exceptional levels of fear in the general population. Such high levels of affect only served to exacerbate the economic damage done by the spread of the disease, as panic served to destabilize markets. Ergo, the affective psychological component (fear, anxiety) associated with this form of contagion is of exceptional significance. This reinforces political psychology arguments which hold that perception, cognition, and affect may generate suboptimal outcomes, which in this case resulted in serious deviations from rationality.

The persistent overreaction of societies, and lack of effective reaction by sovereign states may not only result from a combination of affective bias coupled with the predominance of the precautionary principle; it may also be attributable to the fact that the "scientific experts" have been proved wrong time and again, in Britain, throughout the European Union, in Japan, and in North America. The political scientist Peter Haas espoused the notion that "epistemic communities" functioned as effective agents of positive change, with the scientist functioning as political agent.68 In fact, "epistemic communities" have been shown to be persistently in error throughout the attenuated BSE crisis. Moreover, scientists have also been perceived as the vassals of corporate interests and government bureaucracies, and dismissive of the public interest writ large. Collectively, then, public perceptions of the legitimacy of epistemic communities have declined. Thus, another long-term repercussion of the BSE scare, particularly in Europe, is the lingering mistrust of "expert opinion" in general, and of genetically modified foods in particular. "Expert assurances," Robert Paarlberg argues, "are discounted by European consumers, distrustful since the 1996 'mad cow disease' scare. That crisis undermined consumer trust in expert opinion after UK public health officials gave consumers what proved to be a false assurance that there was no danger in eating beef from diseased animals. Although mad cow disease had nothing to do with the genetic modification of food, it generated new anxieties about food safety"69 as GM products were being introduced to the EU market. Thus, the BSE epizootic is associated with negative effects on public perceptions of the legitimacy of epistemic communities, as the scientific community became perceived as either incompetent, or as corrupt and beholden to the private sector. This decline in legitimacy is unusual given the historical successes of epistemic communities in promoting the protection and remediation of complex ecological systems,70 or in the promotion of controls to inhibit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.71 Therefore, the case of the BSE epizootic provides a powerful exception to the rule of epistemic communities functioning as benign and effective agents of positive change in the realm of the political. Moreover, this case provides yet another sober look at the limited capacity of epistemic communities to accurately assess risk when faced with an emergent pathogen, and then to collaborate effectively with state institutions to mitigate that threat. Furthermore, the case of BSE raises the possibility of rivalrous epistemic communities, as espoused by the political scientist Jeremy Youde.72 In this case, those scientists in the employ of the agri-business factions and cattlemen's lobby in the United States, faced off against scientists in the USDA, who in turn were pitted against their counterparts in Ottawa, casting doubt on the Haasian notion of the unified and autonomous epistemic community acting free of bias. Therefore, I argue that it is in fact expedient to take Youde's formulation a step further, and to postulate the fragmentation of epis-temic communities, and/or the existence of multiple rivalrous epistemic communities, each serving their various embedded interests and reflecting those biases, echoing the problems witnessed during our examinations of the response to SARS and to HIV/AIDS.

The BSE crisis also served to undermine the perceived legitimacy of those institutions of governance, both at the domestic and inter-state level, that were involved in the diagnosis and control of the pathogen.

Public confidence in the integrity of the institutions involved has declined significantly, particularly in Europe, as a result of the BSE affair. On an institutional level, this case also provides additional support for the concept of contagion as a catalytic agent that provides an opportunity for Schumpeterian notions of "creative destruction," wherein ineffective institutions (such as the MAFF in the United Kingdom) were dismantled and replaced by increasingly effective institutions. In this way, disease is not so much viewed as apocalyptic, but rather as transformative, providing a window of opportunity for important institutional reformation, both at the domestic and to a lesser extent at the supra-national level. Within the North American context the emergence of BSE generated considerable domestic and foreign concern over the safety of the US and Canadian food supplies, and the protection of public health. Both Canadian and US beef markets have suffered from a loss of confidence in their integrity, and a loss of confidence in the institutions designed to protect that integrity. However, the relatively minor nature of the epizootic (and in the incidence of human disease) in North America has not led to any major institutional reformation in the United States, while it provided impetus to affect a degree of institutional change in the Canadian case, namely the creation of the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2004.

In addition, the BSE crisis has illuminated the shortcomings of Marxist explanations of disease prevalence, which hold that poverty, and the global maldistribution of wealth explain all patterns of disease incidence and pathogenic emergence. As documented above, the wealthy state of Britain (a member of the G-8 no less) served as the global epicenter of the emerging BSE crisis, with the contagion ultimately spreading to more than 23 countries. This is crucial, in that a new zoonosis originated not in the developing countries, but rather in a wealthy and technically sophisticated member of the European Union. Moreover, the contagion spread from the United Kingdom to the other wealthy and technologically sophisticated countries of the European Union, and subsequently to Canada, the United States, and Japan. Thus, emergent infections are not in fact solely a function of the global distribution of wealth, as reductionists in the Marxist school would have us believe, but rather that pathogens evolve in complex fashion to fill ecological niches within all societies. The emergence of other pathogens within the context of wealthy and developed societies helps to illustrate this concept, ranging from Legionella in air conditioning systems to antibiotic resistant diseases such as

MRSA and VRE, which have colonized the North American hospital systems. As was noted above, the SARS epidemic is yet another powerful example of a modern global epidemic that resulted from zoonosis and thrived in the nosocomial ecologies of modern industrial societies.

On balance, international cooperation has proved to be rather problematic in the face of the BSE pandemic. Relations between sovereign states have been marred by polemics, a series of painful trade embargoes, and some limited disruption of a supra-national organization such as the European Union, and inter-state accords such as NAFTA. Ultimately, the BSE-induced discord that persists between many countries offsets the nascent cooperation that has begun to occur in the European Union. On a theoretical level, this case casts considerable doubt on liberal institutional models of international relations, which predict cooperation between sovereign states, and reinforces elements of republican Realist paradigm which stresses the protection of perceived self-interest, and territorial sovereignty, and predicts competitive behavior between states. O'Neill concurs: ". . .when public health is threatened by "foreign" diseases, countries almost always act first by protecting their borders."73 The constructive facet of the paradigm also predicts that states do not adhere to the Rational Actor Model, which "views decision making as a utility—or value—maximizing process."74 The Pareto-suboptimal decision making that has characterized the BSE issue suggests that both conventional Realist and Liberal theory is in need of some refinement, particularly in their inabilities to explain such irrational mistakes in foreign policy decision making.75 While the European Union has finally obtained some form of cohesion on the issue, the initially obstructionist responses by Britain, France, and other sovereign states within the union gives additional credibility to the republican Realist model. Furthermore, the continuing lack of effective cooperation between Ottawa and Washington, and the inability of the NAFTA states to gain cooperation from their Asian partners, suggests that Pareto-suboptimal irrationality, coupled with unenlightened self-interest, and tendencies toward protectionism are the norm in this case. Collectively such behavior provides preliminary evidence that undermines the validity of the neo-liberal model which privileges cooperation and rationality. Moreover, neo-liberal theorists hold that international institutions would be highly effective in facilitating cooperation between sovereign states, and yet the BSE case indicates that the efficacy of international organizations is weak at best. In the case of the European Union it experienced many years of pronounced discord between its member states, and had to use coercion (through threat of legal sanctions) to get its members to comply with EU statutes. NAFTA has been largely ineffective as a means of resolving the ongoing disputes between the United States and Canada, and international organizations (such as the WTO and the G-8) have shown themselves to be equally ineffective in resolving the disputes between the North American and Asian states. Collectively, the evidence to date suggests that orthodox liberal theory has a rather difficult time in explaining the international acrimony generated by the BSE affair.

Globalization and recent advances in communications technologies have amplified the effects of this epizootic. BSE-induced uncertainty, fear, and anxiety have been transmitted via the mass media across the globe, resulting in the intensification of the affective response, and undermining the ability to assess risk which in turn leads to overreaction. Perversely then, the processes of globalization, such as increased trade, global markets in commodities, the increased flows of information via global media have all contributed to the emergence of this global "public bad" or externality. In a sense, then, the BSE crisis exhibits emergent properties as well, as changes in animal husbandry, leading to prion emergence, combined with such aforementioned processes of globalization to generate the profound levels of fear and uncertainty that ultimately inflicted significant economic damage on affected countries, and generated protracted political discord between sovereign states.

Moreover, the symbolic nature of the BSE crisis reinforces republican theory. The emergence of BSE was seen as resulting from human violations of the laws of nature, of modern "progress" gone horribly awry as cows were converted into carnivores to enrich certain economic factions of society. This symbolism reinforces perceptions of BSE as a plague-like visitation on humanity, as a form of almost divine retribution, and as punishment for the violation of natural law. Such notions of punishment for violations of the natural order has led to the search for "the other" as scapegoat. Whether the other is the government, cattle producers, or foreign peoples, the perception of the other as being culpable (and therefore the progenitor of the plague) is widespread, and undermines the capacity for cooperation between affected parties.

The processes of scapegoating, of constructing the other as the guilty party, so prevalent over the broad span of history, appears to persist in this case as well. Fisher comments:

A striking characteristic of the historical reaction to plagues has been the pervasive belief that they are a form of retribution exacted for the sins or failings of society and that these sins or failings can be expiated through the punishment of offenders. . . . As the state took on the responsibility for the execution of policies designed to contain or eradicate plagues, it and its agencies became a logical target in the case of perceived failure.76

In sum, the BSE case illustrates the utility of combining Realist perspectives that emphasize self-interest and competitive anarchy, with those elements of Constructivism that focus on perception and cognition, particularly within an affect-laden hot-cognition model wherein affect may generate significant deviations from rationality. The republican Realist model incorporates elements of both Realism and political psychology, given that they are both descendants of republican theory. The case also illustrates the problems latent in the literature on epistemic communities, as rivalrous factions of epistemic communities occur in this case, and epistemic communities (with their continued inability to assess the risks) are often no longer perceived as competent by the people. Moreover the difficulties in risk assessment and containment, so evident in the European and North American cases, have also served to undermine the perceptions of the legitimacy of state institutions, particularly in the European context.

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