Rachel's Democracy & Health News #846, 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 responds...]

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 agency?

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 (503)229-5257