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Rules of Thumb

By Carolyn Raffensperger If it’s good for the land it’s good for the body. If it’s good for future generations it’s good for this generation. If it’s good for the Earth it’s good for the economy. If it’s good for other species it’s good for humans.

Since my dad is a doctor he is often stopped by people on the street and asked for medical advice. Lawyers like me have amusing stories of advice on the fly – how to overturn grandmother’s will or whether they can sue an obnoxious neighbor. There’s only one question I’m regularly asked as an environmentalist and that is whether something is safe or not. Last week, at my local fitness center, my treadmill neighbor asked me whether the pesticides they sprayed in her house were safe for her two little girls.

This question of safety threads through most environmental health issues. We have some information about the health problems associated with pesticides. But what about factory hog farming? Or bisphenol A in baby cups? Or mercury in dental fillings?  And what about a specific combination of pesticides?

I wonder if the question of whether this is safe is the right question? I find it troublesome for two reasons. First, it is very hard to prove safety. Our current regulatory system allows products on the market that haven’t been proven to cause demonstrable, unacceptable harm. And guess who has to prove the harm? We the people are responsible for showing that something is harmful even if the manufacturer or purveyor of the product hasn’t tested it. So we get caught in a legal trap. It’s really hard to know whether something is safe given the regulatory approach of “don’t ask don’t tell.”

But the main problem with the question of whether any single product is safe is that it is too narrow. It isn’t a systems question. Systems thinking stands in contrast to the reductionist approach that looks at one thing in isolation. Putting a product or a chemical within the larger context helps us understand its relationship to other parts of the system and how it might function within that framework.

The question, “Is this safe?” usually means, “Is this product safe for me and my family?” That misses the spiral of concerns that arise from the scale of a product. For instance, one car doesn’t cause much pollution but millions of cars are a health hazard for the planet. We also miss the life cycle of the item. Sure, that plastic bag from the grocery store is safe unless your baby puts it over her head, but the plastic debris floating in the ocean, the result of shipping plastics all over the world, is wreaking havoc on the seas and their creatures.

So here are four rules of thumb that are systemic and get us closer to a clear-eyed look at the environmental and public health consequences of the things we use in our daily lives.

If it’s good for the land it’s good for the body. If it’s good for future generations it’s good for this generation. If it’s good for the Earth it’s good for the economy. If it’s good for other species it’s good for humans.

These statements cannot be reversed. That is, what is good for this generation might not be good for future generations. Nor can we say that what is good for the economy is good for the Earth. But I suspect that if we can say this product is good for the land, it’s good for future generations, it’s good for the earth and it’s good for other species, you can bet it’s safe.