It is useful for toxics activists to ask themselves how their
adversaries think. Here we present a view of the world that we believe
most well-informed polluters will secretly agree with. The question for
toxics activists is: put yourself in the place of a polluter who sees
the world this way, and then ask yourself, "How should I behave?" You
might conduct a brainstorming session with your local group to play
this game. It may help you anticipate what your adversaries are going
to do next.
** In the U.S., many chronic health problems are increasing. The
medical establishment has had phenomenal success curbing acute diseases
like polio and meningitis, but is failing to stem the increase of many
chronic ailments. We are seeing increases in many kinds of cancer;
immune system disorders (for example, asthma); infertility; tubal
(ectopic) pregnancies; reduced sperm count in men; disabilities; and so
** Since about 1988, publications of the scientific mainstream (e.g.,
the American Chemical Society's magazines) have emphasized that
chemicals are causing reproductive and immune system damage in
wildlife, laboratory animals and most likely humans. Most recently, it
has been learned that many common industrial chemicals mimic hormones
and thus interfere with the fundamental cell chemistry of birds, fish
and mammals, including humans. (Americans now carry some hormone-
mimicking chemicals in their bodies at levels 10 to a million times
higher than naturally-occurring hormones.)
In addition, global ecosystems are being severely disrupted (for
example, global warming, ozone depletion and large-scale acid rain,
snow and fog). In sum, modern petrochemical technologies seem to have
unanticipated side-effects that are harming humans, wildlife, and
** As Barry Commoner pointed out in 1991, the petrochemical industry
discharges roughly 200 million tons of hazardous wastes directly into
the environment each year. At $100 per ton, it would cost $20 billion
to incinerate all these wastes. But after-tax profits for the entire
industry in 1986 were only $2.6 billion, so the petrochemical industry
simply cannot afford modern waste treatment and must continue to
discharge massive quantities of poisons directly into the environment,
if the industry is to survive in its present form.
** The federal government has a related problem. The cleanup of old
chemical dumps has proven a failure. After spending more than $12
billion dollars, the government has managed to clean up fewer than 100
sites. Furthermore, the total size of the problem is large. An arm of
the U.S. Congress has estimated there may be as many as 439,000
contaminated sites, plus 6 million underground storage tanks, 15 to 25
percent of which are already leaking. Since cleanup efforts have
largely failed, the government faces two choices: either excavate
contaminated sites and store the toxic soil in immense steel-reinforced
concrete buildings (thus creating an embarrassing monument to technical
failure), or convince the public to accept ever-increasing amounts of
toxins in their soil, air, water, homes, and bodies.
The Toxics Movement
** The grass-roots movement for environmental justice has grown large
and visible. It is a multi-cultural, multi-racial movement. It is
beginning to recognize itself as a social force, and to think in terms
of broader issues such as decent jobs for everyone and other
necessities of life such as a home, health care, basic education, safe
streets, clean air, clean water, and safe, nutritious food.
** The movement can be viewed as part of a world-wide trend; more
democratic decision-making seems to be occurring in many countries that
used to be authoritarian and repressive.
** Many observers have noted that this movement is based on concerns
about health. Since it is unlikely that mothers are going to give up
and declare it "OK" for their children to be made sick, this movement
seems likely to endure for a long time, until real reforms have been
** The movement has been joined by a new generation of health
professionals who are asking for fundamental control of chemicals, not
merely development of new ones.
** The grass-roots strategy of "stopping up the toilet" (making
disposal neither easy nor cheap) has worked, and has forced a reduction
in waste generation. For example, because citizens opposed siting of
so-called "low-level" radioactive waste dumps, generators of such
wastes have turned to other technologies and have reduced their waste
generation by 48% during the past seven years.
** Increasingly, the movement is discussing the "precautionary
principle" and "zero discharge" of toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative
chemicals as key strategies. The precautionary principle says that if a
chemical could cause harm, even without scientific proof that it has
caused harm or does cause harm, emissions should be eliminated and
prevented. Zero discharge means what it says.
** The movement has access to information, computers, and fax machines
that allow its member-groups to communicate in ways not possible just
10 years ago.
** However, the movement does not have a common agenda, and many of its
member-groups are hardly aware of the existence of other member-groups.
The movement is thus fragmented; it has no publication that everyone
reads (which would provide a place to debate strategy); it has no think
tanks; no real university base; no coherent funding base; no political
party of its own; no access to the major party that dominates elections
(the Republicrats). It has made no systematic attempt to learn from its
** The grass-roots movement is not represented in Washington.
Traditional environmental lobbyists lack "fire in the belly" and they
lack a down-home constituency. Furthermore, they seem to like
"politicking" but in general they fail to see that POLITICS IS ABOUT
CREATING NEW DEFINITIONS OF REALITY.
** Environmental activism is growing rapidly among children. Something
like a children's crusade is occurring. Equity and justice are
increasingly a part of childrens' new understanding.
Emerging Views of Justice
** It is now widely recognized and acknowledged that the hazards of the
toxic economy have not been evenly distributed. People of color, the
poor, the disadvantaged, and rural dwellers bear an unfair burden of
** In the 1990s, a deep worldwide economic recession brought issues of
economic justice to the fore. Now it is widely known that a mere one
percent of American families own an astonishing 37 percent of all
tangible assets. This top one percent owns 49 percent of all publicly-
held stocks, 62 percent of all business assets, 78 percent of all bonds
and trusts, and 45 percent of all non-residential real estate.
** If stagnation continues and economic growth is curtailed, the pie
will not grow larger and people will be permanently stuck with the
slice of pie they've presently got, unless the pie is intentionally
redistributed by taxation. On the other hand, if economic growth
continues using current petrochemical technologies, increased pollution
will occur and increased health costs will be incurred.
** Without more equitable distribution of the available pie, some
people fear that we will not have domestic tranquility. After all, many
crimes are just a way (an illegal way) to redistribute income and
Business and Industry
** Since 1987, business and industrial leaders have acknowledged openly
that the industrial system as we know it is not sustainable, partly
because resources have been depleted but even more because there is no
safe place to hide wastes. Therefore we know that many political and
industrial leaders recognize that the system must change, and fairly
quickly. Therefore, their job is no longer to maintain the status quo,
but to manage change--quite a different job.
** Industry and government leaders have not published any plans for
making the needed changes, moving to sustainable technologies to reduce
global damage from petrochemical-dependent economies.
** Corporate leaders are now acknowledging that they need to be
accountable to more "stakeholders" besides just investors. They are
acknowledging that local communities, neighbors, and the general public
have a stake in decisions made by the private sector.
** Increasingly, corporate leaders are being held personally liable for
the consequences of their actions. For example, the Superfund program
says polluters are "strictly and severally" liable for old chemical
dumps--meaning that they bear responsibility even if they were not
"negligent" in dumping, and they bear the entire burden of
responsibility for a dump even if they did not create the whole thing.
** This talk of increased liability for corporate decision-makers is
leading to open discussion of reforming the legal framework that
creates "the corporation." The concept of a "corporation" was created
to shield people from personal liability and responsibility for their
actions. But everyone knows that the only way to get people to behave
prudently is to make them feel the consequences of their decisions.
Other Important Realities
** The Earth probably cannot support the world's present population in
a "typical" American lifestyle. This probably means diminished
expectations not only for many people in developing countries, but also
for many Americans. Disappointed Americans may tend to exhibit a mean
** NAFTA and GATT (free trade legislation) will require world-wide
"scientific consensus" on chemical regulations before they can be
enforced. Innovative environmental regulatory programs will be
outlawed; only regulatory programs agreed upon world-wide will be
allowed within nations. Furthermore, free trade legislation will
resolve disputes by secret arbitration sessions, to which the public is
not invited. Risk assessment will become the official standard way of
deciding what is an acceptable technology or practice.
** Many American youth don't read well enough to comprehend newspapers,
and thus are turning to other media for information and entertainment.
GIVEN THESE REALITIES, IF YOU WERE A POLLUTER, HOW WOULD YOU BEHAVE?
SEND US YOUR THOUGHTS, AND WE'LL ASSEMBLE THEM IN A FUTURE NEWSLETTER
Descriptor terms: overviews; hazardous waste; toxic chemicals;
hormones; wildlife; fish; petrochemical industry; llw; health;
radioactive waste; strategies; precautionary principle; zero discharge;
literacy; nafta; gatt; population; liability; sustainability; economic
growth; environmental justice; children;