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Cumulative Impacts Blow by Blow

By Nancy Myers I’ve been thinking about cumulative impacts.

This is not my choice. I’d rather be thinking about my coming grandchild than about this lumpy, awkward term, “cumulative impacts.” But my work at SEHN points me to this, and I do this work for that grandchild.

Jargony as it may be, “cumulative impacts” is descriptive. Impacts are blows; they hurt. When they accumulate over time and from many sources they are cumulative. They add up, and the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts.

The planet is suffering from the cumulative impacts of the industrial age. A “safe operating space for humanity” requires respecting the boundaries of nine key planetary systems, a group of scientists wrote last fall. Three of these boundaries have already been overstepped.

Many people’s bodies are suffering from the cumulative impacts of too many stresses--chemical, environmental, personal, and social. Breast cancer incidence has risen from one in 25 in my mother’s generation to one in 7 in mine. Autism, learning disabilities, reproductive disorders are multiplying. No single cause can be pinned down; many factors are interacting.

Many communities are suffering from the cumulative impacts of too much pollution from too many sources. This may come on top of other stressors such as joblessness, poverty, racism, poor schools, poor diet, crime, and epidemic chronic disease—with some of these factors serving as both cause and effect.

“Cumulative impacts” stands for overwhelmed, inundated, plagued, besieged, beleaguered. It makes me tired to think about this.

Do you have a personal strategy for dealing with being overwhelmed? I do. It involves three things: emergency care, streamlining, and re-energizing. Maybe these strategies can apply to a besieged world.

Emergency care. We must give priority to the health of the most vulnerable populations, communities, ecosystems, and planetary systems. Surely the health and wellbeing of future generations should get top priority. Believe me, I’m encouraging my daughter to shelter herself and her 4-month fetus as much as possible from chemical and other assaults.

But individuals can only do so much. At SEHN we are working on a number of tools that would give legal priority to vulnerable systems, including the planetary climate and struggling communities. These tools include the precautionary principle, rights of future generations, and strengthening environmental justice in the law. We need more legal tools and the political will to implement them. Our laws, as Caitlin Sislin says, must tell a different story.

Streamline. We must concentrate on the important stuff and stop wasting time. We must streamline the process of detecting, predicting, and addressing harmful impacts. That’s a thrust of current proposals and experiments in chemical policy reform.  This includes shifting the burden of proof, assessing innate hazards rather than chemical-by-chemical risks, and developing robust processes that actually prevent harm to vulnerable systems rather than evaluate harm after the fact. These systems and processes must be painstakingly worked out in law and science. While we must not waste time, there are few shortcuts. We have to slow down, step back, and learn how to do it right.

Re-energize. This is the fun part, as far as I am concerned--developing cross-cutting solutions that address many problems at once and that spark healing and creativity on every scale, from the individual to the planetary. This includes everything from green chemistry, alternative energy jobs, and walkable communities to serving local organic food in hospitals. This is your backyard permaculture experiment, creation care in church, the cheerful organization called Teens Turning Green.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed I need help. Because of cumulative impacts, we all need to help and be helped. The good news is, we all can.