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

#424 - Big-picture Organizing, Part 5: A 'Movement' In Disarray, 11-Jan-1995

[Continuing from last week: excerpts from a previously-unreported
speech by Gordon K. Durnil, former U.S. Chairman of the International
Joint Commission (IJC), which recently recommended new ways of
protecting the environment.[1]]

Now some thoughts about MORALITY. And no, I am not going to preach to
you about what values you should personally adopt. I am no smarter
about all that than are any of you. But something that David Crombie,
the former Mayor of Toronto, said last fall really made an impression
on me. It was his explanation of why the environmental movement is
growing. Why so many people are stepping forward demanding action.
People not particularly organized by anyone, not just Democrats or
Republicans, both liberal and conservative. Just many, many people who
have an environmental problem in their community, usually associated
with a sick child; people who are frustrated because they cannot get
the attention of the polluter or the government to prevent additional
pollution or to rectify past mistakes.

Crombie said something like, "When people start asking questions about
nature, they are, in reality, asking questions about their God. Their
activities and their concerns are based in their religious beliefs. And
for that reason, they have staying power and will not be going away
soon. In all probability, their numbers will continue to grow."
Thoughtful words from a thoughtful guy. And, of course, he is right. It
is the motivation to do the right thing that will be the real catalyst
for environmental success. And whether you call it religion, morality
or ethics, there are right things to do and wrong things to do. I
contend that it is morally wrong to continue to put quantities of a
persistent toxic substance into the environment when we do not have
good evidence that it will not cause harm to humans or wildlife; but
when we do have sufficient evidence to know that caution is in order.
What ever happened to the Golden Rule?

As I heard someone testify last fall, "In our system," he said, "it is
not chemicals that should be thought innocent until found guilty. It's
people."

And, it is morally wrong for our national legislature to refuse a
thorough study of the adverse health effects of chlorine, as they now
are proceeding [to do] in the Clean Water Act debates. "What we don't
know won't hurt us," seems to be their creed. I have the opposite
fear....

Most environmental progress in the United States and in Indiana has
come under Republican leadership. Still, when Republicans speak, they
tend to refer to aesthetics or think in terms of conservation. You
know. The river is so pretty we need to save it. The forest is so full
of deer for hunting that we need to preserve it. But in reality,
contemporary environmentalists are primarily concerned with health --
what caused their neighbor's child to have a birth defect? Words about
conservation or beauty sound cynical to those folks who wonder why
their child's immune system is suppressed. So Republicans need to learn
the difference between conservationists and environmentalists.

Republicans are too often determined to use words and phrases such as
cost/benefit analysis when considering an environmental standard. It
makes sense, we always say, to weigh the benefits of the environmental
standard against the costs. But the parents on the west side of
Indianapolis might wonder what are the benefits of lead exposure to
their child? Certainly the diminished learning capacity of a small
child is not a benefit. Measuring monetary factors against adverse
human effects and conditions is a common Republican mistake. I agree
that cost/benefit analysis needs to be done, but part of the cost
factor must include health effects....

So --can a political conservative be an environmentalist? Can an
environmentalist be a political conservative? Sure. Why not? Who says
otherwise --besides those in the media; teachers of political science;
non-thinking liberals and unthinking conservatives? Let me tell you why
I think those folks are wrong. When I attend meetings of the [National]
Wildlife Federation, and other environmental groups, even Greenpeace, I
have people come up to me after my speech telling me that they are
Republicans and political conservatives. They thank me for giving them
an excuse to come out of the closet, so to speak. Why are they at those
meetings? It is simple. They have experienced an environmental problem;
they or someone in their family or neighborhood have been an
environmental victim and they are trying to learn more. Such
environmental groups are often the only source of environmental
information, especially information about adverse human health effects,
available to average people. For them their political philosophy is not
a barrier to learning....

It is important to point out that most environmentalists I have met are
not organized by any large group. Most are environmental victims,
relatives of environmental victims or friends of environmental victims.
Their numbers are growing in the same proportion as is breast cancer,
testicular cancer, reproductive problems, learning problems, juvenile
crime and hyperactivity. A lot of those environmental victims are
Republicans....

Let's wrap up this discussion with some practical reasons why
conservatives should be interested in and leaders for environmental
protection; interested in what we are doing to ourselves and to our
children with some of the chemicals we use and the processes we employ.
I start with the presumption that all reasonable people prefer clean
air and clean water; that such people are opposed to unknowing
exposures to various poisons to our children, our families and our
friends. So where do we start? The best way, the least expensive way,
the conservative way and the least painful way to accomplish the goal
of protection from the most onerous pollutants is prevention. Just
don't do it in the first place. Governments, jointly or singularly,
will never have sufficient funds to continue cleaning up all those
onerous substances lying on the bottom of lakes or working their way
through the ground. So for economic reasons and for health reasons,
prevention is a conservative solution. Let's not continue to put in
what we now are paying to clean up.

Conservatives want lower taxes. Conservatives want smaller government,
with less regulations and fewer regulators. Pollution prevention,
instead of all the high-cost bureaucratic mandates and regulatory
harassment at the tail end of the pollution trail, can achieve those
conservative purposes. If you don't make an onerous substance in the
first place, you won't later need to regulate it; you won't need
regulators or the increased taxes and fees to pay their expenses. If
you don't discharge it, you don't need to buy a government permit with
all the attendant red tape and bureaucratic nonsense to which
businesses are now subjected. Pollution prevention corrects not just
the physical health of our society, it promotes economic health.

Conservatives believe in individual rights. We believe in the right to
own private property, and to use it as we see fit. Private dry lands
should not be deemed to be wet by a remote government. Such actions
violate our basic constitutional rights. But is not the insidious
invasion of our bodies by harmful unsolicited chemicals the most
flagrant violation of our individual rights?

We conservatives bemoan the decline in values that has besieged our
present day society. We abhor government and media assaults on our
constitutional right to freely practice our religion in today's value
neutral, politically correct society. Why then should we not abhor the
lack of morality involved in discharging untested chemicals into the
air, ground and water to alter and harm, to whatever degree, human life
and wildlife?

We conservatives preach out against the decline in learning in our
schools; the increased incidence of juvenile crime; we worry about
abnormal sexual practices and preferences. Should there be evidence (as
there is) that some of those things are being caused by chemicals
tested and untested flowing into our environment, should we not add
them to our litany of concerns?

We preach self-reliance, but can we be that if unbeknown to us
mysterious chemicals are affecting our ability to be reliant upon
ourselves?

We conservatives believe it unconscionable that government programs
such as welfare are tearing at the fabric of the family. We are upset
with the growing incidence of birth out of wedlock, of single parent
families; with children bearing children. Why then are we not so
concerned with the causes, and the increased incidence, of childhood
cancers? Why not visit the local children's hospital and visit with
those brave youngsters with ineffective immune systems trying to fight
off the devastating evils of cancer? Observe the parental pain. See how
that circumstance tears at the family. Why not add childhood cancer to
our concerns about the family; asking why the emphasis is still on how
to cure it, instead of on how to prevent it?

These are grim matters, but I am optimistic about the future. I have
always been an optimist. I always believe things will turn out as they
should. Oh, it might require an extraordinary effort by me, and you,
but given the desire and a willingness to work, things in my life
normally turn out okay. I believe that about the environment. The
symmetry of nature is loaned to us for human use over relatively short
periods of time; seventy or eighty years, if we are fortunate. Each of
us has a moral duty to not disrupt that balance. For centuries humans
met that moral duty, but over the past one half century we have become
just too urbane to worry about such mundane things. We have unknowingly
done with chemicals what we would never have intentionally done had we
pursued the moral basis of the conservative philosophy I described
earlier.

Daily we are being exposed to more and more information about the need
for environmental stewardship; about the need to exercise precaution
before putting harmful chemicals into the environment. I would just ask
that you pay a little more attention to what is being said. Don't
immediately dismiss worrisome words. Investigate the facts on your own.
Don't be diverted by the formalized concentration of attention on
trash. Don't demand 100% proof of harm before acting. Think about
morality and the Golden Rule. Set priorities, make some decisions and
then act on those decisions. I have done that and I have come to the
conclusion that we are unintentionally putting our children and our
grandchildren in harms way. And I have concluded that we need a basic
change of direction.

=====

[1] 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.) 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 erf@igc.apc.org). In the fall of
1995, Indiana University Press [phone: 800/842-6796] will publish Mr.
Durnil's book, THE MAKING OF A CONSERVATIVE ENVIRONMENTALIST.

Descriptor terms: ijc; pollution prevention; religion;
environmentalism; david crombie; ethics; morality; wildlife; human
health; children; chlorine; republican party; in; conservation; cost-
benefit analysis; nwf; greenpeace; taxation; economy; economic
development; growth; chemical trespass; golden rule; gordon durnil;
great lakes; philosophy;