The Science and Environmental Health Network


Blog, Updates, and In the News

Crafting the New Story.png

I Know I am Made From this Earth

By Carolyn Raffensperger

Note: This is a speech that I wrote for the Women's Health and the Environment Conference sponsored by the Earthrose Institute in Coral Gables Florida, October 15, 2010.  I was prepared to read it but chose to speak extemporaneously instead.  I offer it to you as it was written.


"I know I am made from this earth, as my mother's hands were made from this earth, as her dreams came from this earth and all that I know, I know in this earth...all that I know speaks to me through this earth and I long to tell you, you who are earth too, and listen as we speak to each other of what we know: the light is in us."

Susan Griffin from Woman and Nature


You who are earth too, we must speak to each other of what we know. Your body is a piece of the earth and it is a surrogate, a representative of the whole Earth. Your body is made of ocean water, the breath of plants, the ground from which we came and to which we will return.

When the oceans, the plants and the ground are alive and healthy they create the foundation for human health. "Healthy ecosystems • Play a Crucial Role in Nutrition. Sustaining healthy ecosystems helps improve food security and nutrition, enabling the production of foods, both wild and cultivated • Protects Communities. The loss of biodiversity destabilizes ecosystems, weakening their ability to thwart the effects of natural disasters such as floods and wild fires. • Keeps Diseases in Check. Biodiversity loss and habitat destruction can increase the incidence and distribution of certain infectious diseases, including malaria and other diseases that are intimately tied to other species."

What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves. And this is what we have done. We’ve paved it over, drained the wetlands, acidified the Ocean, altered the global climate patterns, caused the extinction of thousands of species and blanketed the Earth with toxic chemicals. In my state of Iowa, the most damaged state in the Union, only 3% of the native ecosystem is intact. The rest has been plowed, polluted or paved. 100 percent of the surface water contains known contaminants.

How is the total load of environmental degradation reflected in the human body?

• "Leukemia, brain cancer, and other childhood cancers have increased by more than 20% since 1975. • Breast cancer went up by 40% between 1973 and 1998.[2] While breast cancer rates have declined since 2003, a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is now 1 in 8, up from 1 in 10 in 1973. • Asthma prevalence approximately doubled between 1980 and 1995 and has stayed at the elevated rate. • Difficulty in conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy affected 40% more women in 2002 than in 1982. The incidence of reported difficulty has almost doubled in younger women ages 18–25. • The birth defect resulting in undescended testes has increased 200% between 1970 and 1993 • Since the early 1990s, reported cases of autism spectrum disorder have increased tenfold."

I take these statistics as a failure of our culture, a failure of our regulatory system, and a failure of our imagination. As Edmund Burke said, - “Never, no, never, did Nature say one thing and Wisdom say another.”

Our illnesses are Nature’s voice, the Earth’s voice telling us that something is wrong. Let us loop back and ask the prior question. What is health?

Oh you probably know it when you see it. But consider these two definitions. The first is from Wendell Berry, the poet and writer. He says that “Health is Membership”. By this he means that health is wholeness. (pg. 89) We are members and citizens of the natural world. Berry says this: “I believe that the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” (pg 90.)

The other definition is from the ecologist Aldo Leopold who defined health as a process. Health is the capacity for self-renewal. This means that health of the land or a baby or an elder is their capacity to heal.

Our environmental policies are not designed to further health of either the human community or the Earth. They are designed to allow all activities that don’t bring us to the absolute brink. Environmental laws – legislation, regulation and court decisions are all based on utilitarianism or the greatest good for the greatest number. The greatest good is measured in dollars, not in clean air and water, better health, or more beauty. The legal framework is essentially a free market approach. We evaluate the risk, give the benefit of the doubt to the producer or manufacturer, ask if it is an acceptable risk, do a cost benefit analysis and pretty much allow anything on to the market because the assumption is that the market winnows out things that don’t lead to the greatest good.

We can ask if the free market has actually been successful. I submit to you that evidence of the failure resides in the health statistics I read earlier. If we agree that the system isn’t working to protect the health of the land, air, water, fish and mammals, the health of babies, teenagers and elders, what options do we have?

One policy option is something called the precautionary principle, which has been defined this way: “"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. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action." - Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, Jan. 1998

That’s a mouthful. Let me unpack it for you. The precautionary principle requires that we take action to prevent harm in the face of uncertainty. Every definition of the principle contains those three elements – scientific uncertainty, the likelihood of harm and preventive action.

You will note that it doesn’t tell you what to do but it provides guidance on when to take action even if every single scientific study hasn’t nailed down cause and effect. Perhaps you remember the story of tobacco. We had a lot of evidence that smoking causes lung cancer by 1945. By 1954 we had 6 of the seven elements of the epidemiological requirements for proving causation with the exception of one element of that proof. We didn’t know the biological mechanism by which smoking caused cancer. We didn’t nail that down until the 1990s.

Over the past 13 years the larger environmental movement has been working on the precautionary principle and finding ways to make decisions that benefit the Earth and people. There are five elements that guide the precautionary actions mandated in the principle.

The first is that we should pay attention to Early Warnings. The statistics that I read earlier describe changes over time. Trend data can serve as warnings that things are amiss. Work on the precautionary principle made clear that many environmental actions were taken too late because we hadn’t acted on early warnings. In fact, one of the lynchpin reports in Europe was called Late Lessons from Early Warnings. This report documented the history of numerous chemicals where we had lots of information but failed to act until too late in the game. Asbestos, lead, DES, are all prime examples from the report of action taken after enormous harm had already taken place.

We have a few models of government institutions that track emerging trends and respond to prevent further harm. Public health surveillance of hospital admissions is used to identify, track and stop food-borne illnesses. We also have a governmental pharmaceutical adverse response alert system: doctors are required to notify an agency about adverse responses to vaccines. But there is very little in place to respond to longer-term, chronic problems and there are very few systems in place to respond to nonhuman environmental trends. So we need to create more reporting systems and early response mechanisms that can respond to trend information about environmental problems in advance of absolute proof of causation. Imagine hot-lines and swat teams located at public health or environmental agencies that can act on early warnings and trends of loss of pollinators or birth defects.

The second is that we should set goals. What would we do if we set goals to reduce the rates of autism, breast cancer, Parkinson’s, and asthma. We have some pretty good statistics on the trends. Let’s set goals and then mobilize all our science and ideas to see if we can’t reverse the trends that are heading in the wrong direction. Just as we have experience with Early Warning Alert Systems, we have experience with setting goals like the Healthy People 2010 objectives established by the US dept of Health and Human Services.

Third, we should look for the best alternatives to a harmful practice and choose them. That National Environmental Policy Act requires an environmental impact study—or EIS--for various federal projects. As part of the EIS they must look at alternatives to the proposed project, including no project at all. San Francisco has refined this into an art and science. When they passed their precautionary principle law they began implementing it by using their purchasing power to choose the safest alternatives for all major projects. They got rid of disposable flashlights and bought rechargeable batteries. They looked at the safest materials for children’s playgrounds, and ways to reduce pesticides in parks. This is just good policy. Why should an agency like the Environmental Protection Agency rubber stamp every pesticide, flame retardant, and plasticizer especially if public health and safety mandate safer alternatives.

Fourth, the precautionary principle requires that we reverse the burden of proof. This idea, which is usually used in a courtroom, stands for the notion that the corporation or person that puts something into the market or the environment should have the responsibility for demonstrating that it won’t cause undue harm. As it stands right now if you put a chemical into my carpet and I get sick from it, I have to prove that it both could cause that sickness and that it did cause my sickness. Under the current free market law, I have to prove causation even if you didn’t test your chemical. The precautionary principle puts responsibility back on the proponent of an activity rather than the customer, the public or government because they are in a better position to get data on their product and search for the best alternative. As a back up, in case there is a public health or environmental problem, reversing the burden of proof means that the polluter must pay for cleaning up its mess. Dear Floridians, you have actually enshrined this in your state constitution as an amendment that that says the polluter must pay for harm to the Everglades. Guaranteeing that the polluter, not the public, pays for damage to the commons is one method for reversing the burden of proof.

Finally, you may have noticed that the precautionary principle decision process doesn’t sound like business as usual --it isn’t neutral about what it considers to be good or right. The polluter should pay. We should choose alternatives that are safe for moms and babies of all species. We should reduce harm. These are ethical statements, not scientific statements. At its very heart the precautionary principle is an ethic. It is future oriented— that is, we want to prevent harm to the future—as such the precautionary principle is an expression of the Golden Rule towards future generations but not just future generations but all of us.

The explicit incorporation of ethics into decision-making means we can’t leave all the decisions up to the market or scientists or politicians. All affected stakeholders have to be at the table. Democracy is embedded in the precautionary principle as the fifth element. If we want to leave the environmental choices to scientists and the market we will continue down the path we are now headed – more breast cancer, fewer shellfish in the Ocean, more unstable climate. This means you have a seat at the table to give voice to the things that you love, to use your gifts and skills in service to the common good, to refuse to drift into catastrophe.

Numerous jurisdictions have adopted the precautionary principle. It is in international treaties and city laws. Your town, county and state can adopt the precautionary principle and attend to early warnings, set goals, choose better alternatives, reverse the burden of proof and employ the best of democracy to make better environmental decisions.

I began this talk with this quote from Susan Griffin’s book Woman and Nature. I know I am made from this earth, as my mother's hands were made from this earth, as her dreams came from this earth and all that I know, I know in this earth…all that I know speaks to me through this earth and I long to tell you, you who are earth too, and listen as we speak to each other of what we know.”

I want to close with a story I just read in Ecology letters. The story is about how Monarch butterflies appear to use medicinal plants to treat their offspring for disease. An evolutionary biologist named Jaap de Roode showed that some species of milkweed, the larva's food plants, can reduce parasite infection in the monarchs, They also found that infected female butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on plants that will make their offspring less sick, suggesting that monarchs have evolved the ability to medicate their offspring." Experiments have shown that a female infected with the parasites prefers to lay her eggs on a toxic species of milkweed, rather than a non-toxic species.

"The results are…exciting because the behavior is trans-generational," says Thierry Lefevre, a post-doctoral fellow in de Roode's lab. "While the mother is expressing the behavior, only her offspring benefit. That finding is surprising for monarch butterflies."

The monarch mothers are from this Earth and speaking to us through this earth. Just as the human mothers are from this earth. How do we love all the children of all species for all time? Will we speak of what we know, will we choose behaviors that make it more likely that our offspring will inherit a healthy planet and be able to live lives of health and wholeness? Will we listen to what we know? Will we act to prevent harm to this beautiful Earth and all her creatures? Our lives depend on the answers.