One summer day on the southern California coast, I was watching my son Josh, about seven years old at the time, as he struggled to pick himself up after being knocked down by a wave. (A warning: This is not a story that puts me in a good light.) I was sitting on the beach, and he was struggling. "You can do it," I thought to myself, and was so glad when he finally stood up. He looked at me. Then another wave knocked him down. "You can do it," I thought to myself as he struggled again. But a man, a stranger, suddenly ran in from along the beach and picked Josh up, brought him out of the surf, and made sure he was ok. That man, thankfully, was acting on impulse, while I was watching.
Needless to say, I'm prouder of that man than of myself in that particular incident. "I kept looking at you, and wondering why you weren't coming," Josh said to me a few minutes later. All I could tell him is that I WAS rooting for him. Most of the time, including that time, rooting isn't enough. And that's what I want to talk about this evening. I don't pretend I'll be saying anything many of you haven't been saying in this conference's sessions, and living in your lives, but instead simply want to affirm the case for the essentiality and spirituality of effective political action on behalf of, as architect William McDonough puts it, all the children, of all species, for all time.
Because all of the children on Earth are drowning. They're drowning in toxics; they're drowning in automobile exhaust and noise; they're drowning in 6 billion humans; they're drowning in the unleashed buying and selling of the world called "development", "business" and "free trade." It's human children, and salmon children, native grasses, frogs, ants that are drowning.
They're drowning from lack of respect; and they're drowning from our lack of impulse to act effectively to save them.
Let's take an example, by contemplating our navels. While contemplating one's navel is sometimes used as a pejorative phrase to picture the limitations of being engrossed in ourselves, in fact, contemplating navels can lead us into the entire world. Our navels are our most concrete reminder of our ultimate dependence on the environment, of our mothers, of the world. It's where we got our nourishment as we assembled ourselves for three-quarters of a year. It's also the conduit through which our mother unwillingly fed each of us industrial, agricultural, and home-use toxics, because their own bodies had been trespassed by these toxics.
Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, is just completing another book, this one about the development of human infants, and breastfeeding. In one chapter, she tells the story of embryological development, and particularly, development of the infant's neurological system. As she describes how delicately dependent each step of brain development is on particular chemical messages, we begin to appreciate at how many points exposures to neurotoxins can wreak havoc. She writes:
Once you understand how the embryonic brain unfolds, chamber after hidden chamber, and how its webs of electricity get connected up, you can easily see why neurological poisons have such profound effects in utero. Exposures that produce only transient effects in adult brains can lay waste to fetal ones. This happens through a variety of pathways. Neurotoxins can impede synapse formation, disrupt the release of neurotransmitters, or strip off the fatty layers wound around the axons. Neurotoxins can also slow the outward-bound trekking of migrating fetal brain cells. Because the earliest-maturing brain cells erect a kind of scaffolding to help their younger siblings find their way, a single exposure at the onset of migration can irretrievably alter the brain's architecture. A fetus also lacks the efficient detoxification systems that already-born human beings carry around with their livers, kidneys, and lungs. And, until they are six months old, fetuses and infants lack a blood-brain barrier.
As if all this weren't enough, fetal brains are made even more vulnerable by lack of fat in the fetal body. Body fat competes with the brain, which is 50 percent fat by dry weight, in attracting fat-soluble toxic chemicals. But throughout most of pregnancy, the fetus is lean, plumping up only during the last month or so. Without other fat depots to sequester them, toxic chemicals that are fat-soluble - and many of them are - have disproportionately greater effect on the brains of fetuses than on the brains of the rest of us.
Ted Schettler, a physician, Science Director of Science and Environmental Health Network, and co- author of Generations at Risk (Schettler, et al. 1999) a book regarding reproductive toxics, has more recently co-authored In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development (Schettler, et al. 2000). This book, published by the Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, summarizes current scientific and medical literature that is pointing toward pre-birth and early childhood toxics as partial culprits in such developmental disabilities as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism. Thus, a mother's ingestion of toxics through breathing, drinking, and eating the toxic permits issued in our society and elsewhere in the world, degrades the development of coming generations of children. Schettler writes, "The implications of this notion are profound. If we can understand the role of environmental chemicals in neurodevelopmental disorders, we can take concrete steps toward the prevention of these disorders."
A series of studies by Joseph and Sandra Jacobson (Fein, et al. 1984; Jacobson, et al. 1990; Jacobson and Jacobson 1996) ) in the Great Lakes area, for instance, have studied 242 infants born to women who ate an average of 2-3 meals of Great Lakes fish a month for a number of years compared to women who did not eat Great Lakes Fish. Great Lakes fish are contaminated with PCBs and other toxics that have arrived in Great Lakes waters via air, water, or underground seepage from permitted human activities surrounding and thousands of miles from the Great Lakes. Compared to infants born to mothers who had not eaten Great Lakes fish, those infants born to mothers who had eaten as little as three fish meals a month were born more prematurely, with smaller head-to-body ratios, and with disturbed motor movements. At age four, those born to mothers who had eaten Great Lakes fish had poorer memory for words and numbers, and had the least ability to be patient with the tests. The Jacobson studies are only one example of hundreds of studies indicating that toxics are literally diminishing the lives and minds of humans and other animals by the time they are born. Ted Schettler's book, In Harm's Way, cites many of these . This is children drowning in toxics inside their mothers. How can we be letting this happen? Have we lost the will to let babies be born whole, their brains free of toxic damage? Have we lost our minds, in causing our children to lose theirs?
Ultimately, we are no more and no less than the life around us. As Erica Jong writes in a poem, "Elegy for Francis, "...when the big-brained babies die, we are all dying, and the ferns live on shivering in the warm wind". That is a medical statement, as is the statement that "When the small lichens die, we are all dying." [an overhead, a map] On the left is a map of the region around Veneto, Italy (Purvis 2000) It shows the number of species of lichens, with green indicating the highest species diversity; and red the lowest. Lichens capture nutrients in dust that drifts down on them- it's how they can survive on rocks; through droughts; in nutrient-poor sites. When moisture does come, with rain or fog, they take the dust into themselves....and toxics on the dust.
The map on the right hand side is the rate of lung cancer in young males in the same region, with red indicating the highest rates, and green the lowest. Humans are good at absorbing air through our lungs...and at absorbing toxics present in air. The Italian federal environmental protection agency knows that when lichens die, we are all dying: they officially use lichen species diversity to monitor the effects of air pollution throughout Italy.
So, how do we effectively act on navels, all those biological and social paths by which we are supplying suffering or well-being to the world? Indeed, how do we effectively act on behalf of all children of all species, for all time? First, we need to contemplate our impulses.
Let me give an example of Terry Tempest Williams contemplating impulses. In her book Refuge, Terry (1991) writes of her mother dying of cancer, at the same time a wildlife refuge, in which Terry had always taken comfort, was being drowned in excessive water from high rainfall years, although historically, birds would simply move with expanding or contracting edges of the Great Salt Lake, now the Lake was backed up against the airport. She was losing her mother and her refuge. Her book is intensely personal, as all of Terry's writings are. But at the end of the book is an epilogue, entitled The Clan of One-Breasted Women. (It is interesting to have first read this chapter in 1992 and only later to have joined this clan.)
In this epilogue, Terry contemplates how her mother, grandmothers and aunts developed breast cancer. She describes how they were downwinders of the atmospheric nuclear testing in Utah. When Salt Lake area women began dying from breast cancer, all the impulses of Mormon women to care gently for the sick and dying were manifest . Terry writes:
We sat in waiting rooms hoping for good news, but always receiving the bad. I cared for them, bathed their scarred bodies, and kept their secrets. I watched beautiful women become bald as Cytoxan, ciplatin, and Adriamycin were injected into their veins. I held their foreheads as they vomited green-black bile, and I shot then with morphine when the pain became inhuman. In the end, I witnessed their last peaceful breaths, becoming a midwife to the rebirth of their souls.
But (and this is the strangest part) Terry notes, these Mormon women didn't question the authority of the government to practice nuclear death on them. She writes,
In Mormon culture, authority is respected, obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not. I was taught as a young girl not to "make waves" or rock the boat."
"Just let it go," Mother would say. "You know how you feel, that's what counts."
These Mormon women bravely took care of each other. They bravely underwent their own deaths by cancer. Personal impulse. Religious impulse.
But question federal authority? Challenge the military? Challenge the development of nuclear weapons designed to murder women just like them, far away? Children, just like theirs, far away? Indeed, all the children of all species in the path of nuclear war?
Leaping into waves to save a seven-year-old struggling to stand up, yes. Walking into a bedroom hanging heavy with cancer and death to offer a foot rub, some food, a hand to hold, yes. We know how to do it. We have the impulse to do it. We know it's right to do.
But sometimes even this impulse to do right isn't helpful. I recently took a canoe trip through the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, off the coast of Florida. I floated past wood storks, tricolored egrets, green herons, reddish egrets, great blue herons, roseate spoonbills. These huge, wild white and pink and blue birds search and scare up and dive for food - fish, snails, crabs, insects - in the mudflats, on the vegetation, in the water. But they can't nest there; not in this refuge. They have to fly to another island for that, because there are too many raccoons on Sanibel Island. But when local people see a raccoon at their back porch, begging for food, maybe even starving, their impulse is to feed the raccoons. Which use the food to reproduce lots of children who grow up to find eggs in egret nests.
But lots of times we do know. We're pretty sure, for instance, that leaping through waves to save a seven-year-old is better than sitting on a beach rooting for him.
If we're a physician, we're pretty sure that we're doing right by administering a vasodilator to an asthmatic child who is gasping for air in an emergency room.
We know how to do those kinds of things.
But how do we leap through industrial air pollution permitting processes to prevent children from the misery, terror and childhood diminishment of asthma in the first place?
How do we charge through domestic and international policy and trade law to end the insane dictatorship of three trade lawyers meeting in secret as the World Trade Organization court to tell countries they must import life-threatening products?
How do we reverse the unholy marriage of universities, corporations, and agricultural industries that are cooperating to unleash genetically modified organisms into the commons of the Earth, with no ability to recall them?
How do we reverse the arming of our youth IN the United States, and the arming of the world BY the United States?
Even thinking locally: How do we simultaneously address the problems of homelessness AND damage to natural areas and public river edges by homeless people; AND damage to natural areas by developers building mansions for rich people? How do we redefine what it means to have a home?
These are political problems. They are messy. Frustrating. They're filled with politicians and Chambers of Commerce and good old boys. The problems are bounded by language and structures that have been set up to make it easy for people to stand by while children drown, or even to cause the drowning. An example: If you are a parent and you hit your infant child, you can be cited for child abuse. But if you are a corporation and later hit that same child with a brain carcinogen as she walks to school, this is called abiding by your "air quality permit" and you can be cited in the newspaper as a valuable member of the community.
Not hitting an infant is easy for most of us. Making sure no children die of brain cancer from toxics is not so easy for most of us. At least at first. For the most part our grade school and high school and even university teachers didn't teach or require us to identify and solve social and environmental problems. Mostly they didn't teach us that we are connected to everything and everyone else who is, and was, and will be. They didn't encourage us to initiate or work on political campaigns beyond running for student body president. They didn't show us how to make sure we, and not corporations, govern us in a democracy. They didn't teach us that the first step of a scientific study, namely deciding which question to ask, is inherently a values step, because by asking one question, we are choosing not to ask certain other, perhaps far more crucial, questions.
More insidiously, as we moved into university and graduate and post-graduate education, we were often taught that "applied" science was less prestigious than "basic" science; law practice was less prestigious than academic law; applied ANYTHING was less prestigious than big-word anything. Political anything other than analytical political science had the taint of the gutter in it.
We were to do our theses and dissertations by ourselves. We were to take tests by ourselves. The important thing wasn't being helpful in the world; the important thing was to be brilliant; to be on the "cutting edge"; to have "ideas;" to be not quite understandable.
It is the impulse of most people to shun political activism, and we have received signals throughout our society that public interest political activism as opposed to corporate activism to fund campaigns, for instance, means ignorant, undignified conflict, and borders on the anarchic. But the fact is, most problems that matter to the world cannot be solved without active political campaigns that are undertaken by unlikely combinations of people with diverse skills and backgrounds: Scientists and inner-city residents; medical suppliers and environmentalists and physicians; the articulate and the inarticulate; Hispanics and hunters and anti-hunters; old professors and explosive youth; the cranky and the light-hearted. To solve the most pressing problems facing human and ecological systems, we HAVE to go beyond our first impulses to act on our own, or to remain within our cerebral expertise, and instead work with a whole lot of people whom we do not control and don't even know very well, at least at first. We have to work with people who have different ideas about the world, and who have different ideas about strategy.
I would like to illustrate this with a small anecdote from yesterday. Jennifer Hosek, with Breast Cancer Action, had made a statement during discussion in one of the community science sessions. I had rather vehemently disagreed with her. I didn't know Jennifer, and she didn't know me. When the session was finished, Jennifer came over and said, "Tell me about what you said. Where do you think we disagree?" We ended up talking for about a half hour about a whole range of issues in breast cancer activism, and I thanked her for coming up to me despite my intemperance. She said, "Well, I always figure that if there's a passion there, there's something behind it, and I want to hear about it." Jennifer is able to do political activism, precisely because she's not afraid of differences.
We also have to spend extensive time listening to, and sitting around tables with, people who currently act as if money matters more than life; who fear any challenge to the economic insanity of the western world. And we have to understand why certain people and processes will, if given a chance, ruin our chances of saving asthmatic children or reversing the disappearance of frogs.
But asthmatic children and frogs need us to do more than to UNDERSTAND the trouble they're in and what's causing their troubles. They need us to do more than THINK hard about them. They each need us to do more than TRY hard in our political campaigns for them. Asthmatic children and frogs need us to be EFFECTIVE at bringing them clean air and clean water and space to grow. And sometimes that means that we have to change a LOT in our society. It means we have to change not only how we ourselves behave, but we have to change how other people behave.
Effective actions are those that succeed. And thus it all becomes tricky, because so MANY creatures and ecosystems are suffering. So we have to simultaneously work in the public realm of media, and legislatures, and agencies, and courts and documents and communities strange to us to change the way others behave; AND we have to do this work with such integrity, wisdom, attractiveness and generosity that any small success feeds into the effort to transform our entire societies into caring for all the children of all the species, for all time.
This means keeping our inner eye on the full sweep of the world, even while working on an issue as local as whether Eugene's school board should agree to encourage its students to buy and drink Coca Cola in order to get that corporation to donate money for the school district's sports programs. In other words, we need to make sure our work on the Coca Cola contract issue is conducted in such a way that efforts to reduce soil erosion in China are helped. That our efforts to improve habitat for salmon links up with our efforts to improve habitat for African-American youth. That our activism for reduction of domestic abuse helps forward the efforts to reduce abuse of the oceans.
Let me describe two threads to activism that I believe hold that kind of promise: The respectful person standard, and the precautionary principle.
Under employment law, a plaintiff bringing a sexual harassment claim must prove that she or he felt aggrieved at the time an incident or incidents occurred, and that his or her work environment was one that would seem hostile and abusive to a reasonable person. Law professor Anita Bernstein (1999) has written that perhaps what is instead needed is to ask whether the defendant employer conformed to a standard of the respectful person. She notes that while the reasonable person focuses on the reaction of others to the contested act, a respectful person standard focuses on the actor accused of misconduct.
This points to an intriguing way to take nature seriously. "Reason" brings us cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment and the requirement to prove cause-and-effect and harm before any care is taken. It brings us the calculations of how much fish can be harvested, how much traffic a street can service, how much toxic chemical can be "diluted" in a stream, how many roads a forest can survive. It brings us more technologies, and what industry refers to as "sound science." Importantly, it requires us to shun emotion and outrage, or what industry refers to as "hysterical housewives." (I have often thought that they chose the term "hysterical" because THEY feel faintly hysterical inside when citizens and scientists connect with the emotions that are appropriate to the loss of the earth's ozone layer; the epidemic of childhood autism; the contamination of milkweed with a genetically-modified insecticide from a corn field; and the draining of the last wetlands.)
A standard of reason brings in its wake a bevy of elites and experts. A standard of respect for each other, on the other hand, brings us to the universally accessible Golden Rule, that is, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." No amount of graduate education, no medical or law degree, makes someone a privileged expert in commonsense or respect.
I would contend that our political goals, strategies, and proposals, should be based on the respectful person standard and that we should INTEND AND EXPECT TO SUCCEED in transforming our laws and policies and social behavior to a respectful person standard through our activism. Because ultimately, nothing less will suffice for our survival.
The Science and Environmental Health Network recently convened a group of philosophers, activists, and scientists to discuss ethics. The group met in the Adirondacks, surrounded by America's first designated wilderness, and also surrounded by one of the nation's largest prison complexes. 22 prisons, containing 38,000 people, ring the Adirondacks and employ three-quarters of the Adirondacks' year-round residents. A fierce debate had recently taken place between people who are working to reintroduce wolves to the Adirondacks, and residents of one town who favor expansion of a penitentiary in wolf habitat, for the jobs it will bring.
Conscious at once of social and environmental issues, this group wrote The Blue Mountain Lake Statement of Essential Values. It is remarkable, I believe, in its joining of both environmental and social concerns under one set of values, which the group felt are essential values, in that both social and biological survival depend on the practice of them. I would like to read the statement to you:
The Blue Mountain Lake Statement Of Essential Values
I believe these are the values of respectful people and we should spend our lives moving them front and center into our workplaces, communities, environment, nation, and world.
Values become actions. Too many of our actions are killing our planet, our communities, and our spirit. Our actions are killing our loved ones. We are diminishing the future for everyone and everything.
Particular values form the basis of our survival. When practiced, they help us live in reciprocity with nature and with each other. We are the relationships we share, and we are permeable - physically, emotionally, spiritually - to our surroundings. Therefore, we hold these values as essential:
- Gratitude - because our lives depend on air, water, soil, plants, humans, and other animals;
- Empathy - because we are connected with all of creation;
- Sympathy - because we all experience suffering and death, both necessarily in the course of life and unnecessarily when these values are not practiced;
- Compassion - because it moves us to attend to suffering and injustice; and
- Humility - because we cannot know all of the consequences of our actions.
We belong to the community of the Earth. It is the source of our own life, and our actions affect its well-being. Therefore, we practice:
- Respect - because it is fundamental to good relationships;
- Restraint - because the Earth is finite, and we must honor its limits;
- Simplicity - because we are only one species sharing Earth with many others; and
- Humor - because life is good, and humor disrobes tyranny and absurdity.
Human beings need sustaining social and natural environments. No one by law or habit is entitled to rob others or future generations of a diverse world vibrant with hope and possibilities. We have an obligation to restore social and ecological fabrics that have been torn by violence or exploitation.
We affirm that all being is sacred and has intrinsic value that is not monetary.
People who hold these values outnumber those who do not. We draw strength from each other. As we abandon harmful activities, we take nature as our guide. We explicitly consider the effects of actions on individuals, families, communities, species, landscapes, regions, and future generations.
It is through love for the particular - a child, a neighborhood, a family of otters, a meandering river - that we find our way to a sustaining relationship with the Earth and our communities.
Now, you might say, it's fine for you to spout off these values, Mary, but get real. Tell the World Trade Organization court about the Blue Mountain Lake Statement and see how far you get. Ok, I will. Let's do it through the Precautionary Principle.
The precautionary principle is becoming a central, regular feature of laws in European countries and the European Union, as well as of international treaties. The International Biosafety Protocol is perhaps the most recent, and its language varies slightly in each document, but its most commonly cited description here in North America came out of a gathering convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network in 1998 in Racine, Wisconsin at a retreat center called Wingspread. Hence it is referred to as the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle (Appendix A, Raffensperger 1999).
The statement as a whole is about two-thirds of a page, but its description of the principle is this sentence:
When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
The term "precautionary principle" is a translation of the German word, Vorsorgeprinzip, which could also be translated as the "fore-caring principle," because in German, the sense is one of foresight, care for the future.
But whatever the translation, there is a scientific element to use of the precautionary principle, namely, "Is there some evidence that harm may accrue?" There's an ethical element, namely, "We will try to avoid causing harm." There's a technical element, namely, "What alternatives exist to this harmful activity?' And there's a return to science, namely, "What evidence do we have for judging the comparative harm of various alternatives?" And in a democracy, there is a democratic discourse element, namely, "What alternatives can all interested people bring to the table? What ideas do they have for instituting alternatives? What scientific, ethical, cultural, and economic insights do these people bring to the table?" Finally, I believe, there is a restoration element, that is particularly made clear through the translation into "fore-caring," because harm HAS occurred through past actions, and though there is uncertainty in how or whether pieces of ecosystems CAN come back together again, it is precautionary to make room for restoration.
Utilizing both the precautionary principle and an extensive democratic discourse debate process, Dutch citizens decided that genetically modified organisms in the food system are potentially dangerous and, given that fully adequate agricultural alternatives exist, they are unnecessary. Hence the stand of Netherlands against agricultural GMOs.
Utilizing the precautionary principle, the European Union refused to import beef that had been raised using artificial hormones, and the U.S. went straight to the secretive, three-person, World Trade Organization (WTO) court to successfully win a judgment against Europe on the basis that they have not proved harm WILL occur from hormone-grown beef. The U.S. now is permitted to financially punish Europe for $116 million annually in retaliation, for instance by attaching huge import taxes on truffles, mustard, and cheeses from Europe (Wallach and Sforza 1999). Prime mover in development of WTO rules, the U.S. has made sure that WTO rules prevent precaution, labeling precaution an unfair trade barrier. The WTO rules instead require demonstration of harm.
Further, the three economic trade lawyers who debate in secret for their international rulings as the WTO court, are the judge of when sufficient risk of harm has been demonstrated. For instance, Australia wanted to bar import of raw salmon from Canada and U.S. because some 20 bacteria not present in Australia are present in Canadian and U.S. salmon. They demonstrated that Canada had not developed a treatment to eliminate the bacteria. They also demonstrated that food prepared for human consumption has in a number of cases ended up in the animal food supply and could infect Australian salmon.
But the WTO court ruled that Australia could not say "no" to imports of raw salmon because they had not demonstrated the precise likelihood of salmon disease entry and transmission. They wrote, "It is not sufficient that a risk assessment conclude there is a possibility of entry, establishment or spread. A proper risk assessment must evaluate the likelihood, i.e., the probability of entry, establishment and spread." (Wallach and Sforza 1999). It thus ruled against Australia. Meanwhile, Canada does not have to do anything to ensure that its salmon exports are free of bacteria that are known to afflict North American salmon.
In other words, under the WTO, precaution is illegal. Respect for Australia's wild fish is illegal. Respect for the Australian people is illegal.
We are only seeing the beginning, however, of debates about the precautionary principle, because it makes too much common sense to be ruled illegal for long. A UPI press story on January 2, 2001, for instance, opened with this paragraph:
Sweden opened its new presidency of the 15-nation European Union with a clarion call to save the environment, including a threat to extend the controversial "precautionary principle" to the chemical industry, threatening an early clash with the new U.S. administration of George W. Bush.
I believe the precautionary principle holds great potential for changing the nature of local, national, and international debates in the future, for two main reasons: (1) it is an outgrowth of essential and widely-held values of care, while also utilizing information and facts; (2) it is readily and widely perceived as common sense.
To establish the precautionary principle as a matter of policy, however, will require the collaboration of scientists, citizens, artists, and others in political action. Let me give an example of acting effectively on navels:.
For the past 15 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working on a report assessing the risks of dioxin. The process has taken fifteen years because chlorine companies and chlorine-based industries have employed scientists and political power to challenge every piece of evidence that dioxin is harmful. In November 2000, the dioxin committee of the Agency's Science Advisory Board met for two days to decide whether to approve the final draft. An hour before the meeting, twelve women walked into the hotel where the committee was to meet, and stood silently along the hall through which the committee members needed to pass on their way to the committee room. They wore white T-shirts, black pants, and large, white, papier maché pregnant bellies. Attached to each woman's papier maché belly was a sign which read, "HEALTH WARNING: Dioxin is hazardous to this baby's health - as hazardous as the chemical industry funding scientists on the EPA's dioxin committee."
At the entrance to the hallway, people passed out a list of the dioxin-polluting industries which have funded members of the Science Advisory Board dioxin committee. Research done by the Data Center, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, showed that 91 dioxin-producing companies gave funding to six members of the dioxin committee.
The first item on the dioxin committee's agenda was the statement of each committee member as to whether they have a conflict of interest in the decision about the dioxin report. This process is flawed, because the only thing considered a "conflict" is if the member has investments in a company which could be affected by the committee's work. The activists, however, had written the names of dioxin-producing companies which funded some of the committee members on paper the yellow color of warning signs. When a member who takes funding from dioxin-producing companies made his statement declaring no conflict of interest, the activists in the audience, who were sitting in the front two rows, held up the paper listing the dioxin-producing companies that member had received funding from. Later, the activists received compliments from some of the committee members, and especially EPA officials who had never seen such detailed financial disclosures.
Forty-six people spoke during the meeting's public comment period. Thirty-two scientists, organic farmers, Vietnam veterans, health-impacted people, and public health organizations spoke. Usually environmental groups have one or two representatives at meetings like this, while industry lobbyists and lawyers fill the audience. This time scientists and activists changed the dynamic in the room.
The chemical industry's strategy was to challenge EPA's decision to upgrade dioxin to the label "known human carcinogen" and to challenge their calculation that dioxin exposure may be causing one cancer in every hundred or thousand people. Eleven of the 14 industry people who testified, challenged the EPA's information using the American Chemical Council's critique. (The American Chemical Council is the new name for the Chemical Manufacturers' Association.) When the dioxin committee discussed the dioxin report, the industry-funded committee members relied almost exclusively on the American Chemical Council's report, but one committee member refuted it point by point. When the industry-funded committee members spoke, the activists held up a yellow paper listing the funding of that member by dioxin-industry companies. People in the audience who have for years watched John Graham, a Science Advisory Board member of the dioxin committee, and an outspoken Harvard School of Public Health scientist who receives extensive funding from dioxin-producing companies, say they never saw him so quiet.
In the end, the dioxin committee voted to approve the EPA report and the designation of dioxin as a known human carcinogen, and specifically stated they don't want to see the dioxin report again.
I tell this rather long story because it describes really strategic activism: It is scientific, with scientists collaborating with citizens to use accurate information; it is political, with citizens and scientists aware and communicating to the public and decisionmakers regarding corporate and other power structures that are functioning with too much power and all too invisibly in our society; it is visual, by passing long texts to say much in a poster and in a papier maché belly; and it is ethical, articulating widely-held and explicit values regarding future generations, non-economic values of life, the social and biological meanings of harm to those who have no ability to say no, and fundamental issues of respect.
You might think, "Well, Mary, you're just describing street theater." Yes, this is a case of street theater, but it is only one action out of a decades-old, diverse, and passionate national grassroots campaign to get the U.S., the EPA, and the states to address the issue of the chlorine industry and its inevitable production of dioxin and other organochlorines that act much like sticks jammed into the gears of nearly all forms of biological life on Earth.
The same folks who worked on this "street theater" action, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, are also spearheading the Health Care Without Harm campaign, a wise and effective campaign that is working to get poly-vinyl chloride (PVC) and mercury out of hospitals throughout the U.S. This campaign is being effective in large part because it is joining hospitals, hospital associations, medical suppliers, and environmentalists in a multi-pronged effort to get non-PVC and non-mercury substitutes available through industry and information out to hospitals regarding how they can cut back on medical waste, PVC, and mercury and where they can obtain alternative materials.
When the scientists and environmental activists point out the harm that is occurring throughout the life cycle of PVC and mercury production and disposal, and through PVC plastic additives that are leaching out of intravenous tubes into infants in critical care units, they explicitly point to the medical profession's Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. Ethics. Values.
The campaign is also aimed at acquainting the medical profession to the harms caused by PVC production, use, and disposal, so that they will be allies as the campaign to phase out PVC production spreads throughout other sectors in the U.S. They know that too often in the past, the medical profession has been ignorant of environmental contaminants' effects on health, and have consequently downplayed the significance of toxics. Through multi-year activism, the U.S. may eventually begin to catch up with Europe, which is already acting aggressively, on many fronts, to limit and phase out PVC use.
More immediately at hand, I would like to mention a fundamental issue of respect that can benefit from our political activism tomorrow. It involves respect for the workers at the Eugene Register-Guard. A family-owned newspaper, the Register-Guard has for many years negotiated its worker contracts directly with its workers' union, the Eugene Newspaper Guild. More than two years ago, however, publisher Edwin Baker III altered this tradition and hired an expensive and infamous union-busting attorney, Michael Zinser, to do his negotiating for him. For two years now, the Guild has been meeting with Zinser who is pressing for a contract that is extremely degrading to the workers that bring us this town's daily newspaper. The Guild is requesting that those of us who subscribe to the Register-Guard call in tomorrow, February 27, to cancel our subscription in support of the workers, because Mr. Zinser will be in town March 1-2 for another session with the Eugene Newspaper Guild. The Guild also asks us to resubscribe four days later, on Saturday, March 2, so that they will still have their jobs. And no, the Eugene Newspaper Guild didn't ask that I mention them in this talk. It is simply a matter of the respectful person standard.
Ultimately, our universe is a physical being. It is atoms and chemicals and cells and flesh and blood and nerves. It is cyanobacteria moving up and down in the hot Chihuahuan desert sandy soil to reach light to fix nitrogen and to retreat into the cooler dark. It is sea horses deceitfully camouflaged as seaweed. It is a baby's fingers moving with infinite grace. It is a dandelion that shoves up between our asphalt streets and our curbs. It is a 90-year old woman's face that lights up with a smile and a 90-year old cottonwood that lights up with perfumed spring leaves.
We cannot analyze, critique, and think our way to the continued existence of all these.
We cannot research our way to the continued existence of all these.
We cannot restore habitat for wolves and life outdoors for the 38,000 prisoners in the Adirondacks, and soil biological crusts on public lands, and rare sea horses, and baby's motor movements and the riparian areas essential to cottonwoods, by ourselves.
We have to work together with a whole lot of people, who aren't exactly like us, and we have to succeed in bringing along with us a whole lot of fellow citizens who aren't like us in many ways at all, except that they, too, care about whether Monarch butterflies exist, and whether polar bears survive; whether children have the chance to be out on the Little League baseball diamond rather than in an emergency room on a vasodilator.
We have to remember how it came to be that we have unions, and reproductive choice, and women's voting. How it came to be that we have elections and rules by which we can change how votes are counted.
We have to remember how each wilderness area we have came to be designated; how we came to have public lands; the Endangered Species Act.
How we came to have the most comprehensive right-to-know law in the nation in Eugene.
Someday, hopefully, we will see how we came to apply democratic rules and transparency to multinational corporations and international trade.
How we came to require the precautionary principle in public decisionmaking. There is an active coalition in Massachusetts working on a multi-year project of installing the precautionary principle into Massachusetts state policies. I have no doubt they will ultimately succeed.
Someday, hopefully, we will see how we came to include community problem-solving in all our public school curricula.
How we came to include children of all the species; and all the generations in our laws.
It will take strategy; going to meetings; walking in the streets with signs; listening to and communicating with all the people who shop at Wal-Mart.
It will take recognizing and honoring the inherent ability of citizens of all walks of life, to care, to think, and to act on behalf of the larger world and future generations.
It will take us being likeable and approachable and humorous and plain-spoken.
It will take each of us being whole; it will take each of us thinking AND caring AND acting.
And this, I believe, is where the essential spirituality of public interest activism comes in: keeping a steady, modest eye inside us that sees the world in a navel and heaven in a community who is thinking, caring, AND acting for all children of all the species of all time.
We are no more than the life around us. We are no less than the life around us.
It is our ultimate privilege to stand up for the universe, together with all kinds of others, with our minds, our essential values, and our strategic, effective, generous, plain-language, far-reaching political action.
Sponsored by the University of Oregon College of Arts and Sciences, Center for the Study of Women in Society, and the Oregon Humanities Center. Eugene, Oregon, February 25-27, 2001.
Bernstein, Anita. 1999. Precaution and respect. Chapter 8. In Raffensperger, Carolyn, and Joel Tickner, eds. Protecting Public Health and the Environment. Washington, DC: Island Press.
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Raffensperger, Carolyn, and Joel Tickner, eds. Protecting Public Health and the Environment. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Schettler, Ted, Gina Solomon, Maria Valenti, and Annette Huddle. 1999. Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Schettler, Ted, Jill Stein, Fay Reich, and Maria Valenti. 2000. In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development. Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility; 11 Garden Street; Cambridge MA 02138. (Price: $10)
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