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We're Taking Action: A Bold New Project



A Bold New Project

Summer Appeal

Dear Friend of SEHN,

The backstory: 48 years ago a Virginia tobacco lawyer changed the course of U.S. history by writing a “confidential” memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In his memo, Lewis Powell (later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Richard Nixon), claimed American society is based on free enterprise, which he said was under vicious attack by people seeking civil rights, consumer protections, peace, and environmental regulations. Powell saw government itself as a threat to "the enterprise system” and urged the business community to circle their wagons. His memo contains a roadmap, a blueprint, for American business to “fight back.”

Over the next 40 years, American business followed Powell’s roadmap, creating and funding a massive infrastructure of think-tanks, speakers bureaus, TV and radio networks, college professorships, public relations firms, and vote-rigging campaigns -- all to protect corporate power. The Trump administration’s wholesale attempt to dismantle environmental and public health regulations is the realization of Lewis Powell’s vision.

Powell’s paranoid philosophy and the resulting policies (known today as "neoliberalism") have not been successfully challenged in 40 years. With allies, we aim to change that.

It is essential to establish that the purpose of government is to "promote the general welfare," as the Constitution says. Just as the aim of public health is to create conditions in which people can be healthy, the purpose of government is to create conditions in which people can lead healthy, satisfying lives.

When government defines its sole purpose as economic growth, then there is no reason (or opportunity) to use something like the precautionary principle to protect public health and the environment. The precautionary principle compels us to take action to prevent harm in the face of scientific uncertainty. At SEHN, we began looking for frameworks under which government's concern for public health, well-being, and democracy could come to the fore.

We found some beginning answers to these questions in the public trust doctrine which is defined as “The principle that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use, and that the government owns and must protect and maintain these resources for the public's use.”

We have been gathering puzzle pieces like the public trust doctrine to craft a challenge to the Powell memo, to oppose the policies that allow "economic growth" to override protections for the environment and human well-being. The economy already produces about $50,000 per person annually in the U.S.; we don't need more growth, we need a government that aims to promote human well-being, fairly, for everyone. This requires fundamentally redefining the role of government and changing what people expect of their government.

This is where you come in. We need your support to bring together the resources to make this happen.

You might ask if SEHN is the right organization for something this big and audacious. Fair question. There are two reasons why SEHN is ideally suited to accept this assignment. The first is that we were created by many of the big environmental groups to solve what seemed like an intractable problem 25 years ago: the misuse of science in environmental and public health policy. Within 3 years we had convened the Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle and began consulting with governments to implement precaution. We were made to solve these intractable problems.

The second reason we are the right organization for this is that we have a unique niche in the larger environmental movement’s efforts. Given the political climate, many of our colleagues are keeping their thumbs in the levees and preventing a total dismantling of environmental regulations. Others are working with all devotion to ensure one person one vote and to get out the vote. SEHN is perfectly situated to take on this work to complement that of our colleagues.

We work in coalition. We collaborate. We solve problems that are long-range, big and particularly troublesome.

Will we succeed? The odds are long. Together we can change the misconceptions of government’s role and establish a new vision and new policies. Our chances of success will be much higher if you join us.

Please give generously to support this big project to redefine what government is for. One dollar or ten thousand dollars. It will all help.

Thank you so much.

Carolyn Raffensperger, Executive Director

Madeleine Scammell , Chair of the Board

Peter Montague, Environmental Historian, Fellow

PS if you want to get a taste of where we are headed with redefining government, check out our last Networker where we apply two different theories of government to a state budget. If you follow the Powell mandate that government’s role is to grow the economy, then you get massive giveaways to billionaires and polluted water. If you follow the philosophy that government is to serve as the trustee of the common wealth and public well-being, you get clean water, healthy children, a good education system, and a future worth working for.




The Science & Environmental Health Network | moreinfo@sehn.org | SEHN.org

Kayhla Cornell