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#746 - The Environmental Movement -- Part 6: Changing The Climate Of Opinion, 13-Mar-2002

The environmental justice movement (described briefly in REHN
#744 and REHN #745) has produced many victories in its short
lifetime, a few of which were listed in REHN #500 (available at
www.rachel.org). But what does "victory" mean?

There are three kinds of victories:

(1) First there are local victories in which citizens tackle some
problem, vanquish their adversaries, and thus improve or at least
maintain the local environment: a "low level" radioactive waste
dump is defeated, a community garden is created, an oil refinery
reduces its poisonous emissions. Local victories have other
benefits as well -- they give people real experience making
democracy work, they create connections between strangers, and
they can even plant the idea that the community should be
planning ahead to take control of its own destiny.

After a series of local fights has highlighted a problem,
government policy becomes ripe for change. The federal "right to
know" law is a typical example. Congress did not invent the right
to know law. Congress passed right to know only after a dozen
locales across the country had passed their own municipal or
state-wide right to know laws. So local fights are the basic
engine for identifying problems, inventing solutions, and
eventually changing government policies. Local fights "trickle
up" to higher levels of government where they generate new
policies. It has always been so.

(2) The second kind of victory is the policy victory itself,
which occurs when government changes its normal way of doing
business. Examples: the burning of hazardous waste by ocean-going
incinerator ships is banned nationwide, or Congress declares that
workers have a basic right to a safe, healthful workplace.
Unfortunately, policy victories are rarely permanent and usually
must be defended again and again.

Sometimes policies change not because local ideas have "trickled
up" but merely because of a lobbying campaign (which I call
"whispering in the king's ear"). In those cases, the resulting
policies are especially fragile and likely to be short-lived
because they can be reversed by someone whispering more loudly in
the king's ear (for example, someone with more money). Thus
policy victories, especially robust policy victories that have
widespread support at the community level, are desirable but even
fairly robust policies are not the ultimate goal of advocacy --they are
just important steps along the way toward the third kind
of victory.

(3) The third kind of victory -- by far the most important kind
-- is changing the "climate of opinion." Today slavery is not
only illegal, it is unthinkable. The "climate of opinion" would
not allow a serious proposal to bring back slavery. Likewise, the
"climate of opinion" would not allow a public debate over the
proposal, "Women should be prohibited from voting." Once a
"climate of opinion" victory has been achieved, it is much more
difficult to reverse than a policy victory. The "climate of
opinion" determines what kind of behavior is unthinkable.
"Climate of opinion" changes are so big that often we aren't even
aware of them.

Now let's examine the victories of the environmental justice
movement. The movement has had thousands of local victories and
dozens of policy victories. A few of these victories have been
described in books.[1] But what makes the environmental justice
movement truly important is the changes it has begun to make in
the "climate of opinion." I can think of two really big ones, so

(1) The common definition of "environment" used to be "wild
places" NOT including the places where most humans live. I recall
that as recently as 1968 the membership of the Sierra Club voted
decisively NOT to focus the Club's attention on urban
environments, where the majority of U.S. citizens spend their
lives. However, during the 1980s, the environmental justice
movement succeeded in redefining "environment" from "wild places"
to "wild places plus all the places where we live, work, play,
and learn." (Sierra Club has slowly accepted the new definition.)
This is a sea change and it's unlikely that we will ever go back
to the old way of seeing things. Now "environmental" issues
affect -- and can appeal to -- huge numbers of people.

(2) The second major "climate of opinion" change created by the
environmental justice movement is reflected in its name:
environmental JUSTICE. This needs some explanation.

About 1970, the emerging legal/scientific environmental movement
lobbied successfully for new national laws intended to curb
environmentally damaging behavior, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water
Act, etc.

These laws focus almost exclusively on scientific information,
and they require citizens to prove scientifically that harm is
occurring to humans and/or to the environment before regulatory
action can begin. I call this the "prove harm" system of
environmental regulation. Initially corporate polluters
complained bitterly that the new system was going to put them out
of business, but this turned out to be just another "Brer Rabbit
in the Briar Patch" story -- polluters LOVE the "prove harm"
regulatory system. They thrive under the system.

With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, we now know why the
system can't protect the environment or humans. Here is a partial
list of reasons:

(1) The "prove harm" system of regulation requires that harm must
occur before action can be taken. This means that many millions
of people had to become sick (with childhood cancers, lymphomas,
reproductive cancers [breast, prostate], Parkinson's disease,
chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, endometriosis, asthma, and a
host of other environment-related diseases) before regulators
could pay attention. Thus regulators were put in the futile and
frustrating position of trying to close the barn door long after
the horse had left.

As a result, the entire planet is now contaminated with potent,
long-lived industrial poisons that were released (and, in most
cases, are still being released) on the assumption that they are
"safe" because no on has proven otherwise. By the time scientific
proof of harm accumulates it is too late to prevent harm. Thus
true prevention is generally not an option under the "prove harm"

(2) Science often cannot define "harm" very clearly, much less
prove that it has occurred. Take the case of the toxic metal,
lead. In 1975, 39 micrograms of lead in a 10th of a liter of
human blood was declared harmless (40 was the "action level"). We
now know that 39 can cause severe brain damage in children. As
science improved, 29 micrograms was declared harmless, then 14
micrograms, and now 9. Today -- 30 years and tens of millions of
brain-damaged children later -- many scientists acknowledge that
ANY amount of lead in your blood can damage your central nervous
system and reduce your IQ. However scientists hired by the lead
industry dispute these conclusions, pointing to uncertainties in
some of the data, and so the scientific debate continues while
the "safe" level of lead remains at 9 micrograms, which most
knowledgable scientists consider damaging to children.[2]

(3) As in the case of harm from lead, there is always some
uncertainty in any scientific conclusion. Under the "prove harm"
regulatory system, scientific uncertainty provides a green light
for business as usual. Under the "prove harm" system, when you're
flying blind, it's full speed ahead until science proves harm. If
you don't know what you're doing, just do it.

When scientific uncertainty is allowed to create a green light
for business as usual, scientists can always be found who will
cast doubt on any study, any set of data, thus creating
scientific uncertainty for the purpose of allowing their
employers to proceed with business as usual. Some members of the
oldest profession in the world (male and female) now dress up in
white lab coats.

(4) The "prove harm" system focuses its attention on the "most
exposed individual" and sets regulations intended to protect that
hypothetical person. If "risk assessment" concludes that the
"most exposed individual" will probably not be harmed by the
industrial discharge of chemical X, Y, or Z, that discharge is
approved. What the system fails to take into account -- because
science has no means for doing so -- is the cumulative effects of
thousands upon thousands of "safe" discharges, which add up to
contaminated neighborhoods and a contaminated planet. By focusing
on individuals and by requiring science to "prove harm," the
system has sacrificed ecosystems and communities.

(5) The "prove harm" system has no way to account for the fact
that all people (and these days, all plants and animals as well)
are subject to multiple exposures -- from the soot from power
plants and garbage incinerators; from pharmaceutical drugs; from
diesel exhausts; from excessive ultraviolet light streaming in
through the Earth's damaged ozone layer; from pesticides in air,
rain, fog, food and water; from industrial poisons discharged
into sewage treatment plants and then into rivers; from
radioactive fallout left over from the era of A-bomb tests, from
artificial growth hormones widely used in agriculture, etc. etc.

Scientists have no agreed-upon methods for evaluating the
combined effects of multiple exposures to toxicants, and so they
ignore multiple exposures, pretending that the world is much
simpler than it really is. As a consequence, none of the
regulatory system's "scientific" determinations of "safety"
actually have any scientific validity. They represent seat of the
pants estimates, gut feelings, best professional judgments, and
plain guesses, all laced with a strong measure of hope that
everything will turn out OK. Two scientists analyzing the same
data can draw vastly different conclusions.

(6) The "prove harm" regulatory system bases its determinations
only upon science, thus omitting many essential human values. For
example, many people today want to protect the environment simply
because it is God's creation. The "prove harm" system provides no
place for such unscientific ideas to be expressed, much less
acted upon. Many women want their breast milk free of industrial
poisons just because their maternal instinct tells them that
their babies will be better off. Until science can "prove" that
they are right or wrong, their instincts have no place in the
scientific debate over industrial discharges. (Indeed, such women
are likely to be told that they should go home and leave these
matters to the experts.)

Now the environmental justice movement is forcing a change in the
climate of opinion, making the "prove harm" system unthinkable.
Having confronted the "prove harm" system in thousands of local
fights, grass-roots activists have now invented a new approach
based on real prevention. Call it "precautionary action." Under
the new system, scientific uncertainty creates a yellow light or
even a red light -- if you're flying blind, slow down. If you
don't know what you're doing, don't do it. Better safe than

Under "precautionary action" the government has a duty to prevent
harm whenever there is credible evidence that harm is occurring
or is likely to occur, even when the exact nature and magnitude
of the harm is not proven.

Under "precautionary action" manufacturers have a responsibility
to show that they are using the least harmful alternative to meet
a specific need. With "precautionary action" the potential for
harm is thoroughly studied before a new chemical or technology is
used, instead of assuming it is harmless until proven otherwise.
In addition to using all the available scientific data,
precautionary decision-making will also respect and use other
kinds of knowledge -- ethics, morals, humility, the human sense
of what's right and good and just. This major change in the
"climate of opinion" is well along. Thanks to the environmental
justice movement, "prove harm" is becoming unthinkable and is
slowly being replaced by "precautionary action." This is big.

--Peter Montague


[1] Robert D. Bullard, DUMPING IN DIXIE (Boulder, Co.: Westview
Press, 1990; ISBN 0-8133-7954-7); Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai,
(Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1992; ISBN 0-8133-8513-X); Robert
THE GRASSROOTS (Boston: South End Press, 1993; ISBN
0-89608-446-9); Jim Schwab, DEEPER SHADES OF GREEN (San
Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994; ISBN 0-87156-462-9); Robert
D. Bullard, editor, UNEQUAL PROTECTION (San Francisco: Sierra
Club Books, 1994; ISBN 0-87156-450-5); David E. Newton,

[2] Bruce R. Fowler and others, MEASURING LEAD EXPOSURE IN
D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993; ISBN 0-309-04927-X)

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