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

#742 - What's Important?, 16-Jan-2002

As we review the events of 2001 from the perspective of
environmental and human health, we have to ask, "What's
important?" These trends seem important: growing inequality, the
corporate drive for global control, the accelerating pace of
innovation, and missed opportunities for building real political
power by linking workers and environmentalists.

Probably the largest single cause of ill health throughout the
industrialized world is economic inequality, which has been
growing steadily since 1973. Economic inequality is already
worse in the U.S. than in any other industrialized country, and
is steadily growing.[1]

How does inequality cause poor health? Low income forms part of
the picture, but equally important are social exclusion,
feelings of powerlessness, chronic anxiety, insecurity, low self
esteem, social isolation (racism, for example), and the sense
that life is out of control, which contribute significantly to
heart disease, depression and other debilitating and deadly
ailments. Thus fairness and justice are basic -- and eroding --
requirements of public health.[2]

The corporate globalization project, which is aiming to relax
controls on corporations worldwide (under the liturgy of "free
trade"), is contributing to inequality by reducing the capacity
of governments to maintain labor standards and environmental
standards or to provide safety nets for citizens who are down on
their luck. As governments are systematically weakened, the
decisions of unelected corporations replace those of elected
governments, thus eroding democracy.

In addition to eroding democracy, the corporate globalization
project has two other effects: increasing inequality within and
between nations,[3] and increasing insecurity among working
people, who can no longer be sure that they or their children
will find decent work paying a living wage with benefits, or
that anyone will help them out if they lose their jobs, get
sick, or grow old. As we saw above, a large and growing body of
literature reveals that these twin effects -- inequality and
insecurity -- are among the leading causes of disease,
disability and death.[2]

The accelerating pace of innovation is introducing more powerful
technologies more quickly, with less time for thought
beforehand. The main goal is greater corporate control.

Today the most rapid innovation is occurring in genetic
engineering.[4] The future of genetic engineering of food crops
leads down two paths: warfare using bioengineered crop pathogens
to devastate an enemy's crops, and "terminator gene technology."
The U.S. has developed, and has proposed for use, a
bioengineered pathogen to kill coca plants in Colombia in South
America.[4] That plan has been shelved for now, but the genetic
engineering of pathogens to disrupt an enemy's crops is widely

The "terminator gene" prevents a crop from reproducing itself
unless the gene is unlocked by the application of certain
"protector" chemicals or antibiotics. Thus a farmer raising
crops from terminator seeds becomes reliant upon the supplier of
the protector chemicals that prevent reproductive suicide.
Farmers -- or countries -- that fall out of favor can be denied
the chemicals necessary for next year's crop. In sum, terminator
technology provides total control over any farmer who adopts it.
Pressure to adopt terminator technology could be applied in many
forms, especially by transnational corporations backed by the
power of the U.S. Treasury, the World Trade Organization, and
the Pentagon.[4,pg.40]

Furthermore, farmers may adopt terminator technology without
even realizing it. Scientists at Purdue University have patented
a terminator gene that works normally for several crop
generations, but eventually prevents reproduction unless treated
with protector chemicals. Farmers adopting such crops could be
controlled thereafter. Government (or corporations) could simply
disallow the export of the needed chemicals to nations that
engaged in behavior that the U.S. considers unacceptable. Many
variations on this theme are possible, but they all lead to the
same end: control.

As another means of control, water supplies are being rapidly
privatized worldwide. Using rules developed by free trade
regimes (chiefly NAFTA and the WTO), transnational corporations
are taking advantage of growing water shortages in dozens of
countries, buying up water in bulk for resale at huge profit. A
byproduct of this lucrative business will be political control
over any country that allows its water to be supplied from
outside its borders.[6]

Rapid innovation -- aimed at control -- is also occurring in
space warfare. Some corporations, of course, thrive on war but
many others find their business prospects reduced by
international conflict. Thus the corporate ideal would be to
sell everyone arms but prevent their use. But this would require
total control of the world.

The U.S. has three programs with the potential for controlling
the world: genetic engineering of the global food supply with
terminator genes and the privatization of water supplies
(discussed above), and the militarization of space -- providing
an inescapable platform for destroying the enemies of the
"military-industrial complex" (President Eisenhower's phrase).

U.S. plans for the full militarization of space have generally
been kept out of public view, except for the "star wars" missile
defense system, initially proposed by President Reagan to
protect the U.S. against Soviet missile attacks. Even though the
Soviet threat has vanished, the star wars program remains alive.
During 2001, the NEW YORK TIMES explained why: the star wars
program is a "Trojan horse" with a "larger purpose" the
full-scale militarization of space.[7]

Space warfare is already a huge, secret industry based on exotic
technologies, but the goals are quite traditional: control.

The Pentagon has its hopes set on a space-based laser, "the Buck
Rogers kind of thing," says Colonel Doug Beason at Kirtland Air
Force Base in Albuquerque. He hopes to be testing a laser weapon
in space by 2008 -- 6 years from now.

Other exotic weapons are even further along. "I'm particularly
excited about high-power microwaves," says Colonel Beason. A
ground-based microwave weapon already exists. "We're testing it
on humans now," Colonel Beason told the NEW YORK TIMES in

The U.S. intends to be first to militarize space. "Space is our
next manifest destiny," says Senator Bob Smith, Republican of
New Hampshire. And so President Bush in 2001 reneged on the 1972
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a necessary step in U.S. plans to
turn the starry firmament into an inescapable platform for
raining destruction down upon anyone who imperils our manifest
destiny of global corporate control.

Militarizing space will start a new arms race, which will divert
hundreds of billions of tax dollars into the bank accounts of
corporate elites. Thus even if no Buck Rogers weapons are ever
fired, merely building them will increase inequality and degrade
public health.

We environmentalists are failing to recognize and support the
major force that has held inequality in check for the past 150
years, namely labor unions. Even today when the union movement
is relatively weak, unionized workers earn 21% more per hour
than non-union workers. But more than that, it was organized
working people who compelled employers to abide by the standards
that we now take for granted in all civilized societies: a
40-hour work week; weekends off; paid vacations; sick leave;
family leave; retirement (private pensions and social security);
health insurance; limits on child labor; workplace safety and
health standards; legal protections against discrimination based
on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or
physical disability; protection against sexual harassment,
arbitrary firing; and so on. These standards and norms are not
perfect, and too often they are not effectively enforced, but
they are fundamental and essential to civilized life, and we
would not have them without unions.

Since 1980 the U.S. has been openly hostile to working people
and unions. The situation has grown so bad that Human Rights
Watch published a report in summer, 2000, documenting how the
U.S. routinely violates the three universally-recognized human
rights of workers: the right to join a union, the right to
bargain collectively, and the right, if all else fails, to

Unions are not perfect. In the past many have been racist,
sexist, jingoist, and, some of them, corrupt. Many have been
undemocratic, top-down organizations (mimicking corporations).
Still, in our reading of American history, the one group that
has had the greatest and most lasting success in curbing the
power of the corporate elite is organized working people. In
fact, no other group even comes close. Furthermore, the new
union movement is now reaching out to everyone (including
environmentalists, who have, so far, largely turned a deaf ear).

As counter-intuitive as it may seem at first, probably the
single most important thing that environmentalists could do to
protect the environment would be a multi-year campaign to change
U.S. labor law, to allow workers to form and join unions, in
accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
Why shouldn't it be as easy to form a union as it is to form a
corporation? Declare your intention, pay your $50 fee, end of
story.[9] If labor law reform became a top priority of
environmentalists, in a decade or perhaps less, this one
legislative change could move environmental concerns from the
political fringe into the mainstream with powerful new allies:
the 34 million U.S. working people now denied union membership,
who are bearing the brunt of widening inequalities (worldwide)
caused by growing corporate control.

The environmental movement's failure to appreciate and support
the needs of working people is merely a symptom of an even
larger problem: Because we have all pursued single-issue
politics for three decades, natural allies are failing to learn
about each other's struggles, much less work together.

The base of citizen activism at the local level in the U.S. is
astonishingly large and vibrant. Social movements abound: the
environmental justice movement, the toxics movement, the
movements for clean production and zero waste, the movement to
protect and empower people with disabilities and chemical
sensitivities, the community (neighborhood) development
movement, the anti-globalization movement, the democratic labor
movement, the civil rights movement, the faith-based movement
for justice, the sustainable agriculture movement, the animal
rights movement, the peace movement, the women's movement, the
gay rights movement -- together they could create a massive
counterforce that could take us off the earth-destroying path
that our unelected leaders have chosen.

Traditionally, political parties have provided the big tents to
hold people with similar beliefs. Now, however, the Democrats
and Republicans have both embraced the corporate agenda, leaving
the vast majority of people unrepresented. What an opportunity!

Our failure to seek -- much less achieve -- political unity
remains our most pressing problem. We are divided, and so long
as we remain that way, we will be conquered.

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


[1] Alexander Stille, "Grounded by an Income Gap," NEW YORK
TIMES Dec. 15, 2001, pgs. A15, A17.

[2] See REHN #497, #584 AND #654. And see the bibliography in D.
(Toronto: North York Heart Health Network, 2001). And see, for
example: Ana V. Diez Roux and others, "Neighborhood of Residence
and Incidence of Coronary Heart Disease," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF
MEDICINE Vol. 345, No. 2 (July 12, 2001), pgs. 99-106. And:
Michael Marmot, "Inequalities in Health," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF
MEDICINE Vol. 345, No. 2 (July 12, 2001), pgs. 134-136. And see
the extensive bibliographies in the following: M. G. Marmot and
Richard G. Wilkinson, editors, SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH
(Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; ISBN
0192630695); David A. Leon, editor and others, POVERTY,
New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; ISBN 0192631969);
INEQUALITY (New York: Routledge, 1997; ISBN: 0415092353); Norman
Daniels and others, IS INEQUALITY BAD FOR OUR HEALTH? (Boston:
Beacon Press, 2000; ISBN: 0807004472); Ichiro Kawachi, and
INEQUALITY AND HEALTH (New York: New Press, 1999; ISBN:
1565845714); Alvin R. Tarlov, editor, THE SOCIETY AND POPULATION
Press, 2000; ISBN 1565845579).

[3] Bruce R. Scott, "The Great Divide in the Global Village,"
FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Feb. 12, 2001), pages unknown; available at

(Winnipeg, Canada: The ETC Group, 2001); available in PDF:
http://www.rafi.org/documents/other_etccentury.pdf. The ETC Group
(formerly RAFI, the Rural Advancement Foundation International)
can be reached at 478 River Avenue, Suite 200, Winnipeg, MB R3L
0C8 Canada; Tel: (204) 453-5259, Fax: (204) 284-7871. This
report is "MUST READ " for all activists.

[5] Paul Rogers and others, "Biological Warfare Against Crops,"
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN (June 1999), pgs. 70-75.

(San Francisco: International Forum on Globalization, Spring
2001). See

[7] Jack Hitt, "Battlefield: Space," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
August 5, 2001, pgs. 30-36, 55-56, 62-63.

RIGHTS STANDARDS (New York: Human Rights Watch, August 2000).
ISBN 1-56432-251-3.

[9] Peter Kellman, BUILDING UNIONS (Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Apex
Press, 2001). ISBN 1-891843-09-5. Apex Press, P.O. Box 377,
Croton-On-Hudson, NY 10520; or phone POCLAD at 518-398-1145, or
E-mail people@poclad.org. See also REHN #697, #698, #699, #700,