The Science and Environmental Health Network


Blog, Updates, and In the News

Crafting the New Story.png

The Owl Economy - July 2006

By Nancy MyersThe bull-and-bear economy is dying. The old way of doing business is to charge ahead with an endless throughput of stuff, look only at the short-term bottom line, and ignore the costs we can't see. The bull-and-bear economy makes a few people very wealthy and bankrupts the planet. It is tearing apart human society. The poignant essay by Jill McElheney below is a case in point. We know these stories. There are too many of them.We need new economic models for the 21st Century and future generations. We must combine enterprise with wisdom and common sense if humans are to survive on this planet. Maybe our icon should be the owl. What would an owl economy look like?The owl economy would be green, fair, and diversified. It would emphasize the long-term bottom line—prosperity now that can be carried into the future. It would measure wealth by the wellbeing of communities as well as individuals. It would grow social and natural capital as well as material capital. It would be grounded in the biological reality of a generous but limited planet. It would protect, restore, and enrich the commons—air, water, soil, wildlife and lands, and the shared wealth of human knowledge, cooperation, and infrastructure. Its goals would be to create jobs and beauty.

The owl economy is beginning to show itself. Here are some signs. Can we imagine more?

It is in the growing public demand for zero-waste, toxic-free products, processes, and design and in the many businesses that are moving with that market.

It is in the push for energy independence based on conservation and renewables.

It is in the new business models that embrace integrity from top to bottom — clean products made and traded fairly.

It is in new and old ownership patterns that increase the number of stakeholders in a sustainable economy—small businesses, employee ownership, co-ops, public enterprise, community development corporations, and entrepreneurial nonprofits.

It is in the responsible investment movement and pension funds geared to the long-term bottom line.

It is in new economic indicators like the Genuine Progress Indicator and the Gross National Happiness Index.

It is in the informal economies of trade and recycle spawned by the internet and thrift stores.

It is in communities determined to grow local living economies.

It is in the burgeoning local food economies where farmers link with consumers.

It is in hospitals that practice health care without harm and in green schools that practice and teach to standards for future generations.

The push for the owl economy will come from two directions. One is the growing realization of the costs of the current ways of doing business. That’s the next article—some thoughts on why we need to do a lot of cost-of-pollution studies in the next few years.

But more important, economic change is a moral imperative. Poisoned communities are dying. Listen to the measured outrage, in the second essay, of Jill McElheney and the citizens of Pittard Road.



  II. Paying for Pollution TOP
By Nancy MyersEconomics has been used as the number one argument against the precautionary principle, against regulation, and against protective policies of all kinds. So since day one of this movement, people have been begging for economic arguments for the precautionary principle. Can’t we just prove that precaution pays?As I wrote in the last Networker those studies are starting to appear. The latest is a report fromMinnesota indicating that pollution raises state costs for childhood illness by at least $1.5 billion a year.Economic analysis of the kind that produced the Minnesota study is going to be important in the next few years. The ethic that guides our current decisionmaking is the belief that economic activity is the main source of good for society. This is the ethical basis of cost-benefit analysis that emphasizes costs and benefits to industry and minimizes or excludes the externalized “costs” of harm. (See the March Networker). But it was an ethic for an empty world, with no apparent limits on human enterprise.

The precautionary principle sets a different ethic, based on the state of the world today. The preponderance of scientific evidence now says it is time to give the benefit of the doubt to human health and the environment. The precautionary principle is based on science about the state of the world and the ethic of protecting and sustaining life on this planet.

We must therefore find ways to shift the terms of the economic debate. Better economic analyses like the Minnesota study can help us do the following:

1. Correct some of the huge distortions of current cost-benefit analyses. It’s a bad system. But there are some distortions in it that can at least be exposed, and if exposed, potentially corrected. Discounting, for example, whittles away long-term benefits to zero. Another distortion is brought about by being very selective in what effects and harms you factor into policy decisions and regulations.

Most important, we can give weight and reality to the costs and benefits that fall to the public and to the commons. This is what cost of pollution studies are helping us do. We can put numbers where there have been none before, or where they have been ignored.

2. Get the attention of those who listen only to economic arguments. That’s not only policymakers but also the public. The public is afraid of anything that threatens the economy, and they’re afraid environmental regulation does that. Policymakers are even more scared of challenging business as usual. If we can produce more numbers on the cost of harm and the benefits of precaution we can tip the balance the other way. These exercises can give policymakers a rationale for rejecting arguments that privilege the economy over health and wholeness. They can help communities get a handle on the real choices they face in economic development.

3. Begin to break the stranglehold of money as a measure of what we value as a society and how we make our decisions. The precautionary principle directs us to go ahead and take necessary protective action based on the best available information, not to wait for science’s standards of proof. That doesn’t mean ignoring science; it means incorporating science into our decisions but not backing off and letting science decide—because, as Jill points out, science cannot make these decisions for us. Nor does it mean ignoring economics; it means incorporating what we value into our decisions, and monetary value is only a part of this. We cannot let monetary values make the decisions.

Paradoxically, we may have to use money and numbers to help us get beyond making our decisions by money and numbers alone. Over the next few years we have a chance to change the terms of the debate about money and numbers by pushing them as far as we can toward reality. In this process we can make explicit what we value, what can be monetized, and what cannot. We have a chance to shift the debate through numbers to value, ethics, and responsibility.

  III. Poverty and Poison on Pittard Road TOP
By Jill McElheneyPittard Road, a neighborhood that borders NE Clarke County in Georgia, has its share of heartache. Touring the community, one doesn't need to look far to see it is an impoverished place. While poverty has always existed, Pittard Road has an added burden. High rates of cancer have plagued the residents.Pittard Road also has one of the wealthiest neighbors around. Nakanishi Manufacturing Corporation, a bearing retainer company, is a multimillion-dollar Japanese corporation and appears to be the perfect neighbor. The contemporary architecture has curb appeal, is neat as a pin, and does not belch out unsightly smoke in its operations.Yet, behind the dark tinted glass of NMC, we've uncovered a well-kept secret. Nakanishi is the number-one emitter in the state of trichloroethylene (TCE), a dangerous neurotoxin that can cause cancer and birth defects. A skull and crossbones on the barrels of TCE warns of its harm. Since 1992, over one million pounds of TCE has been estimated to have entered the host community air around Nakanishi, which includes Pittard Road. That's an estimate. It could be larger given unexpected releases, accidents, and maintenance bypasses. No information is available about whether groundwater and soil have been affected by this massive amount of TCE, but air releases of recognized carcinogens rank as worst in the nation.

The University of Georgia could write a thousand papers on the dynamics of poverty on Pittard Road, and a thousand more on how much money Nakanishi saves from externalizing its hazardous waste costs onto the community. One such paper could reveal how much the community pays for Nakanishi's disposal of TCE into our environment. It would take a lot of time and effort to find this dollar figure, but it exists. From such a cost-benefit analysis, it would be clear that Nakanishi profits and Pittard Road doesn't. But should the burden to prove that a dangerous chemical is robbing our community be the responsibility of those being harmed, or the one causing the harm?

Recently grad students from the university’s College of Public Health set out to measure how much TCE was migrating beyond the borders of Nakanishi. The students designed a small scientific study and measured the amount of TCE in the indoor and outdoor (ambient) air of homes, schools, and businesses. It was a learning project for them. It was a confirmation to us that Nakanishi is chemically trespassing in our lives.

When the Georgia Division of Public Health informed Pittard Road residents in March 2006 that TCE has been invading its neighborhood, the grad students had not completed their sampling. Now we know the levels are a constant source of adverse exposure measuring in amounts that California and New York would remediate to avoid environmental health problems. Massachusetts would seek nontoxic alternatives to TCE, which exist and are as cost effective. But here in Georgia, we tolerate this silent killer.

The students have finished their project and left Athens, but we are left to ponder their results and the shortcomings of science. For example, one of Nakanishi’s closest neighbors, the popular New Grove Baptist Church, was not even sampled. Utility tunnels, which are preferential pathways for TCE, remain unexplored.

What science does tell us is that fetuses, children, the elderly, and sensitive populations are especially vulnerable to these exposures. The levels of TCE found this year are just a snapshot of legal poisoning that has gone on for 14 years. Children whose lives began on Pittard Road and who attend nearby Coile Middle School and summer camps at New Grove Baptist Church have been chronically exposed. Even if these children do not develop a form of cancer in their lifetimes, these exposures are not harmless. They can cause anomalies of cell function, which lead to other health problems and can even be passed down to future generations.

A potent toxicant like TCE dumped into an impoverished community exposed to chemical stressors from other environmental risks, like the railroad that passes through Pittard Road, can have synergistic effects on the human body. This means the combination of the mixes can be more harmful. Without TCE in the mix, would residents be suffering with high rates of cancer?

Given all the variabilities involved in the lives of human beings who breathe, eat, sleep, play, and work, science cannot justify intentional exposures of a community to an industrial solvent. Instead of asking how much harm can be tolerated, we should be asking how much harm can be eliminated.

It is clear that Nakanishi has violated our rights to a safe environment, but what is not clear is why they continue to be granted immunity by our environmental regulatory agencies. Why haven’t Governor Perdue and Senators Chambliss and Isakson assisted Pittard Road residents in their repeated requests for intervention? Why does Nakanishi continue to hide behind the laws that fellow corporate lobbyists write, and refuse to honor a timetable to stop this injustice? Has the "pathological pursuit of profit and power" desensitized our elected officials to the point that corporations dictate and define our lives? Has our common good been sold to the highest bidder? Corporations should not control our government; on the contrary, corporations exist because of our government. Athens Clarke County can ask itself: if we are seriously interested in fighting poverty, do we continue to allow corporate abuse of impoverished communities when alternatives exist which benefit all?

Jill McElheney heads Micah's Mission, a faith-based children's environmental health ministry in Athens, GA. She writes, "Christ has called those of us who claim to be his followers to care for the poor and the sick and to be good stewards of the gifts he has given us which include our children and our environment." Jill lives less than five miles from Pittard Road. She wrote this essay on behalf of Pittard Road residents and submitted it to a local paper after the paper reported that the student sampling project showed TCE levels were "within acceptable levels." The paper did not publish Jill's essay.

Print Friendly Page