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Authentic Truth-Telling and Environmental Policy

By Carolyn Raffensperger

"So we break the spell by loving ourselves and each other enough to tell the truth. Our own experience, as inhabitants of an endangered planet, gives us the authority and the authenticity to tell the truth about what we see and feel and know is happening to our world." Joanna Macy

There’s a paradox about the role of personal experience in setting environmental policy. Consider the tension between these two scenarios.

Neighbors in small town Iowa vigorously protested the expansion of a factory hog farm because the noxious odors were destroying their quality of life. The State Health Department refused to take action saying that there was no proof of harm from the hydrogen sulfide that wafted like a mushroom cloud of stink from the “farm”.  (I wish blogs had scratch and sniff so you could judge for yourself.) The State delayed action and referred the problem to a University of Iowa team of scientists to do more research.

In the second scenario, my Iowa neighbors and I experienced a ferocious winter in 2009-1010. We had brutal cold and piles of snow.   Many of my neighbors argued that this proved that global warming was a hoax.

In both stories my Iowa friends were relying on their own senses to determine whether some kind of action should be taken to prevent harm. “Yes”, the neighbors of the pig farm said. “Take action. The stench is harming our health.” “No”, said the shivering Iowans. “The cold proves that there is no global warming.”

Standard science dogma would assert that neither group had enough data for, or against, taking precautionary action. The way science is used in most governmental agencies to set environmental policy is by using risk assessment to determine whether there is enough data to prove cause and effect relationships. Anecdotes and personal experience don’t count.

But there’s a real difference between the experience of the hog farm and the experience of weather. The difference is that the cause of harm from the hog farm is immediately available to our senses. Our eyes, ears, nose and mouth, are well-suited to assess immediate threats to our survival. If it tastes or smells bad, we are wired biologically to avoid it. But the patterns of climate are too big for individual humans to evaluate, especially in the short term. It could be within the range of normal variability or it might be an indicator of larger climate instability. It is very hard to tell.

The general rule is that personal experiences are trustworthy when we can ascertain the cause of the effect and it violates a biological aesthetic . Personal experiences are rarely trustworthy if the phenomenon is part of a much larger, complex system, and the causes can’t be  seen, felt, tasted, or smelled.

This doesn't mean we discount our experiences of the weather and other complicated, long-term issues.  However, when myopic opinion is used to discount precautionary action that might prevent future harm, we should all be skeptical. Authentic and authoritative truth-telling admits to uncertainty, recognizes the limits of personal experience, but connects the dots and seeks the larger patterns.  The generosity of these truths enlarges the public good and serves future generations.