Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#500 - Where We Are Now, 26-Jun-1996

Half of the American people believe in lucky numbers.[1] We do not
count ourselves in that half, yet a nice round number like 500 invites
us to reflect on events of the 500 weeks that have passed since we
began publishing RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY. Much that has
happened has been powerfully positive, uplifting and inspiring, but it
has occurred chiefly in response to events and trends that are
decidedly dangerous and disheartening.

In the past decade, new, serious threats to human health, and to the
natural environment have emerged. We won't catalog them here because we
have done so in past issues which are available free to anyone who has
access to electronic mail. (To learn more, or to get a complete index
to all past issues, send the word HELP by itself in an E-mail message
to info@rachel.org.)

Suffice it to say that the juggernaut of toxic technologies (including
traditional petro-chemicals, and now genetically-engineered organisms
intended for use in non-medical environments), combined with growing
human populations and the "development" mentality (which views the
Earth and all its inhabitants, including humans, merely as objects to
be manipulated for private gain), threaten the fundamental bases of
life as we know it.

The response to these growing problems has been a massive outpouring of
thought and effort by people working mainly at the local level.
Starting with Lois Gibbs's fight for her family at Love Canal in 1978,
an enormous social movement has emerged to confront toxic technologies.
It is still a youthful, even an infant movement. (For comparison,
recall that in this country it took a century of struggle to overcome
slavery, and women had to fight nearly a century for the right to
vote.) Yet during the past decade this social movement has had
phenomenal successes.

It has severely limited radioactive waste burial in the ground; killed
80% of all planned municipal incinerators; closed at least 90% of all
solid waste landfills and dumps; cast a pall of suspicion over, and
forced much tighter regulation of, boilers and industrial furnaces,
cement kilns, and medical waste incinerators; forced new regulations on
solid waste and hazardous waste incinerators; severely curbed and
regulated international commerce in hazardous wastes; forced a virtual
end to the licensing of new toxic waste dumps; stopped ocean dumping of
radioactive wastes, sewage sludge and dredge spoils; ended ocean-going
incinerator ships for hazardous wastes; stopped the dumping of garbage
by naval vessels and ocean-going ships; curbed the dumping of raw
sewage into the oceans; forced the agriculture establishment to at
least pay lip service to integrated pest management and, more
importantly, convinced a significant proportion of the American people
that pesticides are dangerous and unnecessary; forced legislation and
billion-dollar expenditures to clean up old toxic dumps; killed food
irradiation; killed sewage sludge irradiation; passed laws requiring
corporate polluters to self-report the immense tonnages of toxics they
dump routinely into communities (via air, sewage treatment plants, and
direct discharges to local streams); and on and on.

This is clearly a powerful movement that is changing the way industrial
people relate to the Earth. School children growing up today view the
Earth totally differently from the way it was viewed even 10 years ago -
-children are now taught that the Earth is something to respect and
protect, not to "develop" and use up. (When they grow up and go to work
for corporations, these children's views must be sublimated and
suppressed, but that is a different problem. Those views now reside in
the hearts of an overwhelming majority of young people, and the
corporate form that keeps those views from fruition is, itself, now
targeted for change.)

Most importantly, this young new social movement now fully acknowledges
that the most important issues are justice, power and control. There is
no more important question than, WHO GETS TO DECIDE? As a result of
this awareness, what used to be the "environmental movement" is now
the "environmental justice movement." The landmark "People of Color
Environmental Leadership Summit" in 1991, which formally adopted
the "Principles of Environmental Justice," forever changed grass-roots
activism in this country and probably in the world. Now it seems to us
that the environmental justice movement itself is broadening its field
of vision to address economic justice and local economic development
and to demand corporate accountability, thus melding into something
much larger, which we call the democracy movement. (There does still
exist a remnant of the traditional environmental movement which does
not particularly value democratic decision-making, which often works at
cross-purposes to community activists, and which, to maintain its
shrinking base of support, plagiarizes and takes credit for the
accomplishments of grass-roots activists and adopts the language of
environmental justice while forging alliances with anti-democratic
corporate poisoners. But their sun has set and, unless they fully
embrace democracy, they will not survive except as toadies kept by
corporate polluters.)

This new environmental justice/democracy movement has no illusions
about the power it confronts. This movement knows that federal
elections this year will spend over $600 million to woo voters, and
that such huge sums can only come from corporations (and their
executives, lawyers, and consultants) who thus purchase and subvert
government for their own selfish, anti-democratic purposes.

This new democracy movement knows well that the mass media are owned
and controlled by the likes of Walt Disney, General Electric, and
Westinghouse, and that therefore stories about our anemic democracy,
our disgracefully-apportioned economic pie, and our dangerously
degraded environment will generally be blacked out on the evening news.
If an informed electorate is essential to democracy, the ultra-
concentrated control of the mass media is a clear and present danger.
On the bright side, an alternative media of astonishing skill and vigor
has grown up to fill those yawning gaps with splashes of the truth.[2]

Furthermore, this new environmental justice/democracy movement has
reversed the trend of the '60s and '70s, recognizing that the source of
most of our ills is not government but is a legal entity called the
corporation, an astonishingly powerful social invention that is now
quite out of control, systematically pillaging the Earth, demolishing
here and in Europe a century's worth of human-welfare institutions,
and, most recently, even taking a wrecking ball to democracy itself,
buying and dismantling governments to better serve the selfish demands
of corporate marketeers.[3] The ultimate struggle for democracy will be
fought --probably fought to the death --over control of corporate
behavior. Can these entities be made truly accountable to their
neighbors, their compatriots, their shareholders, their employees and
their customers? Or must they be dismantled and forever outlawed in
their current form? It is an open question.[4] One thing is clear: we
cannot have a government responsive to people's needs until we put
corporations back into their proper, subordinate place, where the
Founding Fathers clearly wanted them.

Lastly the new environmental justice/democracy movement has given rise
to new criteria for decision-making. Here Greenpeace has led the way.
Under the direction of Peter Bahouth, Greenpeace staffers such as Dave
Rapaport, Jim Vallette, Ken Bruno, Charlie Cray, Bill Walsh, Jack
Weinberg, Sebia Hawkins, Ann Leonard, Pat Costner and others spent the
1980s developing what turned out to be new technical criteria for
decision-making. Although the organization became known for its in-your-
face, confrontational style, in actual fact Greenpeace became an
intellectual powerhouse that drew together important new principles for
decision-making. Then in the early '90s ETHICAL criteria for decision-
making emerged from the unlikliest of places, to complete a new system
of decision-making for dangerous technologies.

The new technical criteria include:

** The goal must be prevention because managing problems after they
have been created is too costly.

** The only way to achieve prevention is to set a goal of zero
discharge for persistent and/or bioaccumulative toxic substances.

** The only way to achieve zero discharge is to phase out and ban toxic
substances that are persistent and/or bioaccumulative; the words toxic,
persistent, and bioaccumulative are each defined, so this adds up to a
fairly rigorous prescription for sustainable industrial development.

** To maximize the likelihood of prevention, chemicals of unknown
character are to be assumed harmful until shown to be otherwise.
(Limitations of science will prevent this from fully protecting human
health and the environment; nevertheless, it offers a major step toward
sustainability, compared to the risk-assessment-based decision-making
techniques we rely upon today.)

** To maximize the likelihood of prevention, chemical-by-chemical risk
assessment shall be replaced by simulta-neous regulation of whole
classes of chemicals (e.g., chlorinated compounds with few exceptions
such as pharmaceuticals).

These are the technical bases of a new regulatory approach to toxic
materials. In addition, a set of ethical principles for decision-making
has also emerged in recent years:

** The polluter shall pay.

** The burden of proof for safety of a chemical, or of an activity or
technology, rests with the proponents, not with the general public.
(The principle of "reverse onus.")

** To deal with scientific uncertainties, the principle of
precautionary action shall be invoked. As stated in the 1992 Rio
Declaration on Environment and Development, the precautionary principle
says that, "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage,
lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for
postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental
degradation."

** Lastly, Robert Goodland at the World Bank in 1993 developed the
principle that, "To be ethical, the project with the least
environmental impacts should be selected."[5]

This last principle has the most far-reaching implications: it means
that proponents of a new chemical, new process, new technology, or new
project of any kind (even consumers making individual choices) have an
ethical obligation to consider alternatives (including the alternative
of doing nothing), AND TO ADOPT THE LEAST-DAMAGING ALTERNATIVE. Mary
O'Brien of Eugene, Oregon has developed the case for "alternatives
assessment" in a new book, soon to be published. The assessment of
alternatives had previously been embodied in the National Environmental
Policy Act of 1969, but until now it has not been put forward as the
basis of ETHICAL decision-making. This is a new departure, exceedingly
important.

These, then, are the main developments of the last 500 weeks, as we see
it. They are exciting, far-reaching, and filled with hope, and we will
continue to report on them. We thank our readers for their kind
attention to our work, but most importantly for their own thought and
action. Together we can take back America from the poisoners.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Poll reported in H.W. Lewis, TECHNOLOGICAL RISK (N.Y.: W.W. Norton,
1990), pg. 13.

[2] See THE WORKBOOK Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer, 1996). Available for $3.50
from Southwest Research and Information Center, P.O. Box 4524,
Albuquerque, NM 87106.

[3] Edward S. Herman, TRIUMPH OF THE MARKET (Boston: South End Press,
1995). And see Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, FOR THE COMMON GOOD.
Second edition. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).

[4] David C. Korten, WHEN CORPORATIONS RULE THE WORLD (West Hartford,
Connecticut: Kumarian Press [phone: (203) 953-0214], 1995).

[5] Robert Goodland. "Ethical Priorities in Environmentally Sustainable
Energy Systems: The Case of Tropical Hydropower." Paper prepared for
International Colloquium on Energy Needs in the Year 2000 and Beyond:
Ethical and Environmental Perspectives. Montreal, May 13-14, 1993.

Descriptor terms: overviews; environmental justice; democracy movement;
successes; corporations; ethics; decision-making; risk assessment;
alternatives assessment; burden of proof; chemical safety; mass media;
regulation;