[In 1994, the International Joint Commission (IJC) issued its SEVENTH
BIENNIAL REPORT ON GREAT LAKES WATER QUALITY, the third such report to
advocate new approaches to environmental protection. (See REHW #284,
#319, and #378.) From 1990 through 1994, the U.S. Chairman of the IJC
was Gordon K. Durnil. Here we offer excerpts from a previously-
unreported speech Mr. Durnil gave on July 23, 1994.]
Good evening. I would like to chat with you for a few minutes tonight
about my experiences in international environmental activities over the
past five years and my conclusion that Republicans should be leaders of
the environmental protection movement.
As you know, I have spent a lifetime at relatively high levels of
political activity.... My four and one-half years with the
International Joint Commission brought me face to face with a number of
facts and suspected facts that had not previously caught my attention.
I became quite active in international environmental affairs as was
required by treaty and various agreements between the United States and
As everyone seems to do, I have written a book about my experiences on
the international environmental scene. The title is REFLECTIONS OF A
CONSERVATIVE ENVIRONMENTALIST. I left the Commission earlier this year
with some serious concerns about whether the contemporary practices of
science and government are facilitators for, or barriers against,
environmental protection. I left worried about the media-created
perception that the environment is not an issue for conservatives....
I left the Commission worried that we still teach our environmental
scientists to be narrow thinkers, locked into the non-ecosystemic
framework of their individual disciplines. And because science must, by
its very nature, be value neutral, I worry about all of those
scientists who think they must also be value neutral in their
"This is a book about the perceived conflict of an individual being a
conservative Republican and, at the same time, an environmentalist. I
do not see the conflict. I am both. For nearly forty years I have
developed and practiced my conservative philosophy. I have only been an
environmentalist for five years, but even so, I have become convinced
that current environmental policies are putting our children in harms
"My first broad exposure to serious environmental concerns resulted
from my service as the United States Chairman of the International
Joint Commission. As I began to meet with scientists, environmental
activists and industrialists, I intuitively applied my conservative
philosophy and my experience as a practical political decision maker to
resolving problems of the environment....
"...preserving our natural resources should be a conservative tenet.
Restoring degraded natural resources to something close to what they
used to be, surely should be a conservative goal.
"I have never met a conservative who prefers dirty air to clean air, or
fouled water to healthy water. Nor have I met any conservatives who
want to expose their children and grandchildren to persistent toxic
substances. Conservative friends of my age often reminisce about
fishing in streams so clean you could drink from them.... Active
environmentalists might find it hard to believe, but these same
friends, and most of the public for that matter, have not yet faced the
possibility that some of our actions might have adverse effects on
future generations of humans. If they were presented with that
evidence, TO THE EXTENT IT IS NOW KNOWN, they would act. But so far,
neither the governments nor concerned environmentalists have done a
very good job of communicating."
But let me now move briefly to the three topics I think are important
when considering environmental protection; they are PRIORITY SETTING,
the somewhat intellectually dishonest demand for CERTAINTY before
exercising caution, and MORALITY.
Priorities: We Should Focus on Chlorine
Why do I think it important to set environmental PRIORITIES? Well,
human nature is the first reason. Let me give you an example of how an
average person, already quite cynical about the ability of government
to perform its most basic of duties, might react to news of a new
environmental problem. That average person might say: "Okay, I have
heard enough about lead to agree that it is probably harmful. I want to
protect my kids from exposure to lead. And I might believe that dioxins
(whatever they are) and pesticides are bad for me, if, you did not also
tell me that movie house popcorn, eggs and bacon, smoking tobacco,
coffee, product packaging, landfills and incinerators, meat, whole
milk, hormones injected into cows, methane excreted from cows, radon,
electromagnetic fields, ozone, forestry management, nuclear energy and
carbon generated energy, hot-dogs, herbicides, automobiles, plastic,
asbestos, vinyl, breast implants and Mexican food are all bad for me.
It is just too much to worry about, so I will worry about none of it."
Successful environmental protection depends upon public pressure. But
when the public hears one side say everything is bad, and the other
side say nothing is bad, the thought is mentally excused from their
concerns. It is easier to believe that nothing is bad, rather than to
believe that everything is bad. The news media add to the confusion
with their concern about balanced stories. Quite often a group of
scientists will issue various papers setting out a suspected linkage
between the discharge of some substance at the local factory and
adverse health effects in a community. Reporters will quiz those
technical folks at length and take all of their supporting documents.
To balance the story the reporter calls the local factory for their
side of the story. Technical people are normally not available, but
Fred, the P.R. guy always is. Fred says "those people have bad science
and are premature in their findings." The story then reflects those two
views, with a headline that probably mentions bad science. The reader
has a choice, when absorbing such a balanced story. Change her habits
or just go on doing what she has been doing. And, of course, it is
easiest to keep on doing what we have been doing.
It was interesting to me to observe, in both the United States and
Canada, that the overwhelming amount of effort and money being expended
through the environmental agencies is directed toward the wrong end of
environmental problems. The vast number of bureaucratic regulators
throughout our society harassing small business people, the red tape
and governmental paper work bogging down opportunity, and the huge
expenditure of tax money are primarily directed at how we deal with the
waste product after we have done what we should not have done to begin
with. I just kept on wondering, "why don't we figure out a way how not
to do the wrong thing in the first place?" As a conservative, that
makes sense to me. Prevention is not only safer from a health
standpoint than remediation, it is much less expensive to business and
So we need to set priorities. We need to attack the problems before
they happen, and we need some consensus on where to start. My
colleagues and I on the International Joint Commission thought chlorine
as an industrial feed stock would be a good place to begin.
Certainty: We Should Shift the Burden of Proof
Now for some words about CERTAINTY. First, let's start with the fact
that governments regulate some chemical substances. They do that by
issuing permits based upon certain standards. The regulatory standards
tend to be compromises between government and some of the interests.
Such regulation presumes a tolerable amount of exposure, even though
eminent scientists tell us there is no human assimilative capacity for
some of those substances....
Whenever a suggestion is made to protect health, especially human
health, we hear about bad science and the lack of scientific certainty.
We heard those claims in the breast implant discussions, and we heard
it again recently as the tobacco industry testified before Congress.
Still governments demand absolute scientific certainty of the
cause/harm linkage, before changing a standard. And industry denies
responsibility because absolute certainty of the causal relationship to
the harm has not yet been found. Think about that. What other aspect of
our lives demands such certainty before exercising caution?
Not the law --we convict people on the subjective judgment of just
twelve individuals. Not education --where 70% can be a passing grade.
Not religion --where there is always room for forgiveness and
atonement. Not health care --take two aspirins and call me tomorrow.
Certainly not the news media --who never seem to be accountable for
what they said yesterday. Accounting? Engineering? Architecture? All
have room for error, with miscellaneous accounts, sway factors, etc.,
etc. But in the governmental regulation of the manufacture, use and
disposal of persistent toxic substances, we demand scientific
certainty. We demand absolute proof of the causal relationship to harm.
And the certainty we demand is that the onerous substance causes the
harm, not that the substance does not cause the harm.
So the onus is on you. And on me. And on our unsuspecting neighbors.
Under the present system, it is our personal responsibility as private
citizens to know all there is to know about advanced chemistry. To know
how exotic chemicals react when they interact with each other. To know
what chemicals are being used and discharged, and to know what effects
all of that might have on us and our progeny.
The U.S. and Canadian governments estimated that somewhere between
60,000 and 200,000 chemicals are being discharged into the Great Lakes.
A pretty wide range, wouldn't you say? What it tells us is that we
don't even know for sure what is being discharged. We do know, however,
that most of it has never been tested. The chemical manufacturing
industry was upset with me over the recommendation to treat chlorine as
a class. They say that each substance must be looked at one at a time
to determine its potential for harm. Should we take them seriously and
begin to look at 60,000 to 200,000 chemicals one at a time? If so, we
might get a good start by the year 3000 or so. So, as you enjoy the
Great Lakes, or as you go about your daily business, what is being
discharged into the environment might adversely affect you, your child
or your grandchild. But no real caution can be required of the
discharger because there is no absolute certain proof that an exposure
by a young girl might affect the reproductive ability of her yet to be
born child. Eighty percent certainty of such harm is not good enough.
Ninety percent, so far, is not good enough. We need one hundred percent
absolute proof of harm, or we keep on doing what we have been doing.
Surely we need to change our way of thinking.
[To be continued next week.]
 The IJC's recommendations are summarized in Peter Montague, "Our
Greatest Accomplishment: Grass-roots Action Has Forced a Major Shift in
Thinking," THE WORKBOOK Vol. 19 No. 2 (Summer 1994), pgs. 86-90. Paper
reprints available for $2.00; electronic copy available free (email
your request to email@example.com).
Descriptor terms: ijc; canada; us; great lakes water quality;
precautionary principle; reverse onus; human health; children;
certainty; republicans; conservatism; chlorine; journalism; prevention;
burden of proof; assimilative capacity; gordon durnil;