Where We Are Now
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WHERE WE ARE NOW
Half of the American people believe in lucky numbers. We do
not count ourselves in that half, yet a nice round number like
500 invites us to reflect on events of the 500 weeks that have
passed since we began publishing RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH
WEEKLY. Much that has happened has been powerfully positive,
uplifting and inspiring, but it has occurred chiefly in response
to events and trends that are decidedly dangerous and
In the past decade, new, serious threats to human health, and to
the natural environment have emerged. We won't catalog them here
because we have done so in past issues which are available free
to anyone who has access to electronic mail. (To learn more, or
to get a complete index to all past issues, send the word HELP by
itself in an E-mail message to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Suffice it to say that the juggernaut of toxic technologies
(including traditional petro-chemicals, and now
genetically-engineered organisms intended for use in non-medical
environments), combined with growing human populations and the
"development" mentality (which views the Earth and all its
inhabitants, including humans, merely as objects to be
manipulated for private gain), threaten the fundamental bases of
life as we know it.
The response to these growing problems has been a massive
outpouring of thought and effort by people working mainly at the
local level. Starting with Lois Gibbs's fight for her family at
Love Canal in 1978, an enormous social movement has emerged to
confront toxic technologies. It is still a youthful, even an
infant movement. (For comparison, recall that in this country it
took a century of struggle to overcome slavery, and women had to
fight nearly a century for the right to vote.) Yet during the
past decade this social movement has had phenomenal successes.
It has severely limited radioactive waste burial in the ground;
killed 80% of all planned municipal incinerators; closed at least
90% of all solid waste landfills and dumps; cast a pall of
suspicion over, and forced much tighter regulation of, boilers
and industrial furnaces, cement kilns, and medical waste
incinerators; forced new regulations on solid waste and hazardous
waste incinerators; severely curbed and regulated international
commerce in hazardous wastes; forced a virtual end to the
licensing of new toxic waste dumps; stopped ocean dumping of
radioactive wastes, sewage sludge and dredge spoils; ended
ocean-going incinerator ships for hazardous wastes; stopped the
dumping of garbage by naval vessels and ocean-going ships; curbed
the dumping of raw sewage into the oceans; forced the agriculture
establishment to at least pay lip service to integrated pest
management and, more importantly, convinced a significant
proportion of the American people that pesticides are dangerous
and unnecessary; forced legislation and billion-dollar
expenditures to clean up old toxic dumps; killed food
irradiation; killed sewage sludge irradiation; passed laws
requiring corporate polluters to self-report the immense tonnages
of toxics they dump routinely into communities (via air, sewage
treatment plants, and direct discharges to local streams); and on
This is clearly a powerful movement that is changing the way
industrial people relate to the Earth. School children growing
up today view the Earth totally differently from the way it was
viewed even 10 years ago --children are now taught that the Earth
is something to respect and protect, not to "develop" and use up.
(When they grow up and go to work for corporations, these
children's views must be sublimated and suppressed, but that is a
different problem. Those views now reside in the hearts of an
overwhelming majority of young people, and the corporate form
that keeps those views from fruition is, itself, now targeted for
Most importantly, this young new social movement now fully
acknowledges that the most important issues are justice, power
and control. There is no more important question than, WHO GETS
TO DECIDE? As a result of this awareness, what used to be the
"environmental movement" is now the "environmental justice
movement." The landmark "People of Color Environmental
Leadership Summit" in 1991, which formally adopted the
"Principles of Environmental Justice," forever changed
grass-roots activism in this country and probably in the world.
Now it seems to us that the environmental justice movement itself
is broadening its field of vision to address economic justice and
local economic development and to demand corporate
accountability, thus melding into something much larger, which we
call the democracy movement. (There does still exist a remnant
of the traditional environmental movement which does not
particularly value democratic decision-making, which often works
at cross-purposes to community activists, and which, to maintain
its shrinking base of support, plagiarizes and takes credit for
the accomplishments of grass-roots activists and adopts the
language of environmental justice while forging alliances with
anti-democratic corporate poisoners. But their sun has set and,
unless they fully embrace democracy, they will not survive except
as toadies kept by corporate polluters.)
This new environmental justice/democracy movement has no
illusions about the power it confronts. This movement knows that
federal elections this year will spend over $600 million to woo
voters, and that such huge sums can only come from corporations
(and their executives, lawyers, and consultants) who thus
purchase and subvert government for their own selfish,
This new democracy movement knows well that the mass media are
owned and controlled by the likes of Walt Disney, General
Electric, and Westinghouse, and that therefore stories about our
anemic democracy, our disgracefully-apportioned economic pie, and
our dangerously degraded environment will generally be blacked
out on the evening news. If an informed electorate is essential
to democracy, the ultra-concentrated control of the mass media is
a clear and present danger. On the bright side, an alternative
media of astonishing skill and vigor has grown up to fill those
yawning gaps with splashes of the truth.
Furthermore, this new environmental justice/democracy movement
has reversed the trend of the '60s and '70s, recognizing that the
source of most of our ills is not government but is a legal
entity called the corporation, an astonishingly powerful social
invention that is now quite out of control, systematically
pillaging the Earth, demolishing here and in Europe a century's
worth of human-welfare institutions, and, most recently, even
taking a wrecking ball to democracy itself, buying and
dismantling governments to better serve the selfish demands of
corporate marketeers. The ultimate struggle for democracy
will be fought --probably fought to the death --over control of
corporate behavior. Can these entities be made truly accountable
to their neighbors, their compatriots, their shareholders, their
employees and their customers? Or must they be dismantled and
forever outlawed in their current form? It is an open
question. One thing is clear: we cannot have a government
responsive to people's needs until we put corporations back into
their proper, subordinate place, where the Founding Fathers
clearly wanted them.
Lastly the new environmental justice/democracy movement has given
rise to new criteria for decision-making. Here Greenpeace has
led the way. Under the direction of Peter Bahouth, Greenpeace
staffers such as Dave Rapaport, Jim Vallette, Ken Bruno, Charlie
Cray, Bill Walsh, Jack Weinberg, Sebia Hawkins, Ann Leonard, Pat
Costner and others spent the 1980s developing what turned out to
be new technical criteria for decision-making. Although the
organization became known for its in-your-face, confrontational
style, in actual fact Greenpeace became an intellectual
powerhouse that drew together important new principles for
decision-making. Then in the early '90s ETHICAL criteria for
decision-making emerged from the unlikliest of places, to
complete a new system of decision-making for dangerous
The new technical criteria include:
** The goal must be prevention because managing problems after
they have been created is too costly.
** The only way to achieve prevention is to set a goal of zero
discharge for persistent and/or bioaccumulative toxic substances.
** The only way to achieve zero discharge is to phase out and ban
toxic substances that are persistent and/or bioaccumulative; the
words toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative are each defined, so
this adds up to a fairly rigorous prescription for sustainable
** To maximize the likelihood of prevention, chemicals of unknown
character are to be assumed harmful until shown to be otherwise.
(Limitations of science will prevent this from fully protecting
human health and the environment; nevertheless, it offers a major
step toward sustainability, compared to the risk-assessment-based
decision-making techniques we rely upon today.)
** To maximize the likelihood of prevention, chemical-by-chemical
risk assessment shall be replaced by simulta-neous regulation of
whole classes of chemicals (e.g., chlorinated compounds with few
exceptions such as pharmaceuticals).
These are the technical bases of a new regulatory approach to
toxic materials. In addition, a set of ethical principles for
decision-making has also emerged in recent years:
** The polluter shall pay.
** The burden of proof for safety of a chemical, or of an
activity or technology, rests with the proponents, not with the
general public. (The principle of "reverse onus.")
** To deal with scientific uncertainties, the principle of
precautionary action shall be invoked. As stated in the 1992 Rio
Declaration on Environment and Development, the precautionary
principle says that, "Where there are threats of serious or
irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not
be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to
prevent environmental degradation."
** Lastly, Robert Goodland at the World Bank in 1993 developed
the principle that, "To be ethical, the project with the least
environmental impacts should be selected."
This last principle has the most far-reaching implications: it
means that proponents of a new chemical, new process, new
technology, or new project of any kind (even consumers making
individual choices) have an ethical obligation to consider
alternatives (including the alternative of doing nothing), AND TO
ADOPT THE LEAST-DAMAGING ALTERNATIVE. Mary O'Brien of Eugene,
Oregon has developed the case for "alternatives assessment" in a
new book, soon to be published. The assessment of alternatives
had previously been embodied in the National Environmental Policy
Act of 1969, but until now it has not been put forward as the
basis of ETHICAL decision-making. This is a new departure,
These, then, are the main developments of the last 500 weeks, as
we see it. They are exciting, far-reaching, and filled with
hope, and we will continue to report on them. We thank our
readers for their kind attention to our work, but most
importantly for their own thought and action. Together we can
take back America from the poisoners.
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Poll reported in H.W. Lewis, TECHNOLOGICAL RISK (N.Y.: W.W.
Norton, 1990), pg. 13.
 See THE WORKBOOK Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer, 1996). Available
for $3.50 from Southwest Research and Information Center, P.O.
Box 4524, Albuquerque, NM 87106.
 Edward S. Herman, TRIUMPH OF THE MARKET (Boston: South End
Press, 1995). And see Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, FOR THE
COMMON GOOD. Second edition. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).
 David C. Korten, WHEN CORPORATIONS RULE THE WORLD (West
Hartford, Connecticut: Kumarian Press [phone: (203) 953-0214],
 Robert Goodland. "Ethical Priorities in Environmentally
Sustainable Energy Systems: The Case of Tropical Hydropower."
Paper prepared for International Colloquium on Energy Needs in
the Year 2000 and Beyond: Ethical and Environmental Perspectives.
Montreal, May 13-14, 1993.
Descriptor terms: overviews; environmental justice; democracy
movement; successes; corporations; ethics; decision-making; risk
assessment; alternatives assessment; burden of proof; chemical
safety; mass media; regulation;
Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic
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$500.00). Please send your contribution to: Environmental
Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036.
--Peter Montague, Editor