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close this bookThe Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disasters (UNU, 1996, 307 p.)
close this folder4 Seveso: A paradoxical classic disaster
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
Open this folder and view contentsOverview
Open this folder and view contentsThe European Community's institutional response to Seveso
Open this folder and view contentsThe lessons of Seveso
View the documentConclusion: ''Seveso'' - A paradoxical symbol
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentChronology
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences
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Conclusion: ''Seveso'' - A paradoxical symbol

"Seveso" (the event as it has passed into myth) contains paradox and contradiction. At the outset, the dominating factor was dread, because of the possibility of economic and personal devastation caused by an unclean invisible agent - the dioxin that had defoliated Viet Nam. But, as the possibility of malformed babies subsided, dread gave way to a reassertion of community. In spite of this local success, Seveso remained a symbol of calamity: the European Community Directive is known by it, and even the notifiable sites are informally named after it. Thus, the symbol remains potent, figuratively and legally, outside Seveso itself while, inside, the visible traces of the accident have been disappearing.

But, as the recovery continues, the paradoxes of Seveso provide new lessons for reflection about future policy. The moral paradox relates to the institutional aspects of the accident: had there been some regulatory framework, whereby the firm's liability for the accident could have been absolved, there is a chance that the firm's response would not have been so appropriate. The moral basis of recovery could then have been severely impaired and the subsequent history not so encouraging. However, if it turns out that the parent company was actually confessing to a lesser sin (an avoidable accident) in order to conceal a greater one (production of chemical weapons), then the paradoxes in the Seveso experience will have become very complex indeed.

The scientific paradox continues to have its effects, through uncertainty about the effects of dioxin. With the continued absence of conclusive evidence of illness, almost twenty years afterwards, the lesson of the Seveso disaster has been reversed. Now a new message is conveyed by Seveso - one of reassurance that low-level dioxin contamination is, after all, innocuous. Of course, this optimism will last only as long as there is an absence of recorded health effects, and it is susceptible to modification in light of periodic reports from the ongoing monitoring programme.

It would be incorrect to interpret these paradoxes simplistically and then to write off Seveso as yet another notorious disaster that did not really happen. There is now a powerful reaction against the prophets of imminent ecological doom: apparent false alarms are being used as proof that our high-technology culture can absorb and recover from all sorts of disasters, industrial as well as natural.

An ecological awareness that connects industry with its environment societal as much as natural - teaches that "disaster" and "recovery" are each total events. It is no longer possible to "externalize" the costs of consumer society. The various traditional "sinks" have become finite and reactive. There is now nothing "outside" the global industrial system, which predominantly serves a fortunate fraction of the world's people. Seveso is truly a paradoxical and contradictory symbol; to interpret it simplistically, either for alarm or for reassurance, would be a serious error, for history and for policy.