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Sponsoring Health or Causing Harm?

By Carolyn Raffensperger On Saturday I sat on a straw bale in the front yard of the Garst Farm in Coon Rapids Iowa and listened to the geneticist Wes Jackson give a short history of Russian agricultural science. The occasion was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Roswell Garst, an Iowa farmer at the height of the Cold War. Wes was speaking to the Russians who had crossed the ocean and much of this continent. He was inviting them to continue the tradition of the great Russian scientists and partner with him in the perennialization of the main cereal crops of the world.

I was arrested by one word in Jackson’s remarkable speech. The word “sponsor”. As I recall, he described a future sustainable agriculture that was sponsored by current sunlight rather than maintained by fossil fuels. The word sponsor means to support or take responsibility for something through the provision of products or services.

The reason this word stood out is because of the sense of beneficence contained in the word “sponsor”. Sponsorship stands in contrast to the notion of causation, a closely related concept. Common dictionary definitions of the word “cause” are a necessary relationship between one event and another or events that provide the generative force that is the origin of something. Of course causation in science or the law are much more complicated and nuanced.

So much of our work as environmentalists is devoted to contesting industry’s denial of causation. Articles in today’s news carry stories about the oil and coal industries’ challenge to global warming. They claim humans didn’t cause global warming. Or the chemical industry’s claims that their (choose one) bisphenol A or DDt or Atrazine doesn’t cause a health problem.

Our work on the precautionary principle has deepened our understanding of causation. The Wingspread definition says this: “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.”

Cause and effect relationships are difficult to establish – at least the environmental relationships. It’s not easy to link a chemical exposure to a specific cancer or birth defect because we do not live in a simple, mechanistic world. Causation is complex, multi-factorial, contextual, and the effect often manifests in time long after the cause(s). In sum, the world is not a machine with simple, direct cause and effect. We now know that a baby that has an iron deficient diet and is exposed to sufficient amounts of lead is more likely to have elevated lead levels in her blood. Is her blood level “caused” by her diet or by the lead paint in her apartment?

Opponents of the precautionary principle sometimes argue that the principle is anti-science. What is being contested is not science but different epistemologies – the philosophy of how we know and how we see the world.

My dream is that we will stop arguing about causation and begin to discuss sponsorship. In the environmental arena causation often carries with it a sense of blame. Sponsorship carries with it a sense of responsibility and goodness. Could humans become the co-sponsors of the Earth’s health, co-sponsors of the wellbeing of future generations? I think we can.