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Midnight musings at year's end - December 2011

The Networker
I. Midnight musings at year's end Carolyn Raffensperger


  I. Midnight musings at year's end TOP

 by Carolyn Raffensperger

Are we making a difference?

A message from Carolyn Raffensperger, SEHN Executive Director

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night wondering whether I am making any difference in the world. Maybe you've had the feeling, too, that the problems are so big and our efforts are so small.

I want to share with you my recent late-night musing around that question. And if you agree, I invite you to support the work of the Science and Environmental Health Network.

The first thing I remembered was that I am not alone. Besides my colleagues at SEHN, we have all of you. No one can make a big impact alone. Those of us who are committed to social change function best in collaboration with allies and colleagues who have different pieces of the puzzle.

SEHN's piece of the puzzle is institutional change—the institutions that structure our lives: government, universities, the law, medicine, or the food system. SEHN’s work is influencing three kinds of deep cultural and institutional change taking place now. The changes are in

  • how we define environmental and public health problems,
  • the kinds of solutions being offered, and
  • the vision we hold for the future.

Please join us in this work and become a change agent.

How we define the problem. So much good work has focused on changing one chemical, one product, or one factory at a time. And, as we know, there is always a new struggle around the corner. SEHN is now leading a movement to define the problem as it really is—our actions combine to create more stress than ecosystems, communities, and human bodies can tolerate.

We are changing the story of environmental health from chemical-by-chemical to an ecological model over the lifespan. Ted Schettler has synthesized the extensive science showing how social stressors, diet, and toxic chemicals interact to diminish health across the arc of life. The work of Ted and his colleagues in environmental health has changed medical school curricula and influenced the way we think about cancer, Alzheimer's, and learning disabilities. See why in this fascinating lecture on environmental health over a lifespan.

We at SEHN, along with our allies at the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, have pulled together government workers, activists, and academics to explore the emerging science and develop regulatory policy on cumulative impacts. Check out the remarkable website Nancy Myers orchestrates at

Finding new solutions. We are forging decision-making structures that focus on reducing total impacts, reducing each impact, and moving away from the system of evaluating each impact independently to see if it is justified or causes an unacceptable problem all on its own—the system that got us where we are today.

We are all deeply involved in national and state legislation to change chemical policy and require green chemistry. SEHN is on the front lines, whether it means leading a stroller brigade to a US senator’s office, as Katie Silberman did recently, or helping California regulators figure out how to implement visionary new laws, which Joe Guth does both on behalf of NGOs and as a member of CalEPA's Green Ribbon Science Panel.

Joe Guth and I are working with law schools and lawyers to introduce new cumulative impact, precautionary principle, and future generation laws and regulations into public policy. Several law schools use our writing as part of their curriculum. Other law schools are creating legal research teams of professors and students to promote changes in law influenced by SEHN's work.

Help us put more heads together and find more new solutions.

Our vision—like yours—is that future generations will inherit a whole and healthy world. It is time to name this vision and take it very seriously. We refuse to leave our descendents a degraded, lonely planet. We can be their voice now and embrace our sacred responsibility to become good ancestors.

I have been working with governments and lawyers to create new policies for mines and contaminated sites that will be hazardous for 10,000 generations. Yes, you read that right! We are leaving messes that are toxic or radioactive to generations so far beyond the 7th generation we can't even count. The jolt of that insight has galvanized SEHN to mount a campaign for the rights of future generations. Stay tuned as this campaign unfolds.

The problems often seem insurmountable, the work is hard, and money is tight. But I sleep better when I remember that our work is making a difference and changing the culture, even in hospitals and law schools.

We are all in this together. We have many allies, both individuals and organizations, inside government and way outside of it in the communities where we all live. If we make a difference, so can you.

One way is to support the work of SEHN. Your dollars help us change the world. Your support this holiday season makes it more likely that future generations will have a healthy world.

Thank you.


P.S. You may also send a check to


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