Rachel's Democracy & Health News #846  [Printer-friendly version]
March 16, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In Rachel's #842 we asked whether corporate
power has now outstripped the ability of all governments to curb
scientific fraud and regulate dangerous technologies. A reader

By Sonja Biorn-Hansen**

[In Rachel's News #842, we wrote, "This [chromium contamination]
story raises the possibility that corporate scientific malfeasance has
now grown so bold, so well-financed and so generally-accepted as
standard operating procedure that no unit of government can muster the
will, the staff, the effort or the courage it would take to set things
right. Maybe corporate power has now outstripped the ability of any
government to rein it in....

"Is a workable system of regulation even imaginable under modern
conditions? If you think the answer is 'yes," we'd like to hear your
ideas. If the answer is 'No," then many of us would have to
acknowledge that we have been wasting our time devising new regulatory
approaches that could never, in fact, work within the current
framework of political power." Here a reader responds.--Editors.]

I don't think we have been wasting our time trying to devise
regulatory solutions to environmental problems in that sometimes you
have to work on the wrong solution in order to figure out what the
right one is. I prefer the phrase "successful failure" to describe
such situations: you don't accomplish what you wanted, but you do find
out something you needed to know.

Enough pep talk. I agree that the current framework of political
power (where corporations drive the ship) is a huge problem, but I
have trouble picturing a political solution to our problem. We humans
have a longstanding tendency to create and unleash new technologies on
ourselves. We do it in order to solve problems that other species by
virtue of their more evolved bodies and smaller brains either don't
have, put up with or die from. We develop these technologies with
little regard to the consequences. Sometimes the disregard is willful
on the part of a small number of people who hope to make a bunch of
money off the rest of us. Sometimes it is simply naive. Who could
have anticipated endocrin disruptors? We had to accidentally invent
them and suffer the consequences before we could appreciate them.

Like I said, I have trouble picturing a political solution to this,
though politics can sure make things a lot worse. Instead, I think
about what things would look like if we were all skeptical consumers.
A skeptical consumer is someone who is aware of how inadequate
existing environmental regulations are, and who practices the
precautionary principle reflexively whenever they shop and in how they
choose to live their lives. Here are some examples of thinking like a
skeptical consumer:

1. If it disrupts a natural process, it is probably bad for something
in nature. So, chemicals designed to keep water from freezing,
organic matter from rotting, or me from feeling sleepy, are probably
bad for Something, sometime, somewhere. That certainly doesn't mean I
never buy any such things, but I do think about it. If I can find
something that solves the problem in a low tech way (use sand to keep
from slipping on ice, make the planter boxes out of masonry or at
least of recycled lumber, take a nap), I try to go with that solution.

2. Avoid "solutions" that create more problems than they solve, or
that just externalize the problem. Getting colds is a drag, but using
anti-bacterial soap is not a solution because you would have to rub
your hands with it for something like 2 minutes for it to kill the
germs on your hands, after which you are (still) releasing a toxin
into the environment. Ditto for drinking water out of plastic
bottles. Not only can the plastic release stuff into the water that
isn't good for you, but then there is the problem of all those empty
bottles. Get a filter and carry your own water if you need to.

3. What would it look like if Everyone decided they needed this thing
that I think I need? North Americans are among the richest few
percent of people on the planet but consume far more than a few
percent of the world's resources. Multiply all that needing by 10 or
20 or 50 and the results get scary fast.

4. If a thing has to be advertised in order to get me to buy it,
maybe that means I don't really need it. I mean, if I Really needed
it, wouldn't I notice on my own without the help of an advertising

5. While we are on the subject of advertising, it is worthwhile to get
in the habit of asking what the message of the advertisement really
is. I remember driving one day with my kid before she could read, and
she kept asking about a billboard that showed an ad for a vacation in
Mexico. I told her it was an ad for a vacation to Mexico. She didn't
seem satisfied with that answer. I finally explained that the people
who made the ad want you to think that if you shell out the money to
go to Mexico, you will be gorgeous and happy like the picture of the
couple on the beach. My daughter sat in stunned silence for a minute
and then burst out "But that's not true!" She was three. See, we are
born smart and then advertising gets to us...

My two cents.

**Sonja Biorn-Hansen
Environmental Engineer
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
811 SW Sixth Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97204