A few years ago, Carolyn Raffensperger invited me to a gathering of twenty environmental, social-justice, and community-health activists. We were there to discuss the precautionary principle, which holds that when a substance or activity raises threats to human health, you take preventive or precautionary measures.
Although the principle seems to be common sense, our culture often encourages us to proceed despite the risks. A potential toxin is considered innocent until proven guilty, even when human or environmental health is at stake. The burden of proving that pesticide use or genetic engineering is harmful falls to the public. The precautionary principle would shift the burden of proof, and thus stop potentially damaging practices before they are implemented.
At the end of the discussion, Raffensperger walked around the room and thanked all of us publicly for our contributions. She spoke for several minutes about each person, expressing her gratitude and praising what was unique about that individual. I’ve seen Raffensperger in enough situations to know that this is the type of person she is. When Dutch theologian G.C. Berkouwer said, “Gratitude is the essence of ethics,” he could have been talking about her.
The precautionary principle is part of the foundation of a larger movement to democratize science. The best way to protect public health, Raffensperger believes, is to take the power to make environment-altering decisions out of the hands of scientists and their employers and give it back to the people whose lives stand to be affected. Her ideas are catching on: in the past year and a half alone, Raffensperger and the precautionary principle have been featured in Utne Reader, Scientific American, and even Gourmet magazine.
Raised a Mennonite, Raffensperger is a lifelong pacifist. Though her first love is archaeology, she went to law school to be able to fight for the natural world in court. As an attorney, she is an avid defender of the land and all its inhabitants. Until recently, she and her husband, Fred Kirschenmann, lived on and ran a large organic farm in North Dakota. They now live in Iowa, in a big house filled with books — about fifteen thousand of them. Their large plot of land is also inhabited by hummingbirds, deer, and foxes, which she loves, if possible, even more than the books. Raffensperger is always careful to include her nonhuman neighbors in her calculations. “We are the land,” she says, “and the water, and the grizzly bears, and the soil microbes. This is not a New Age statement. It is a medical statement, a scientific statement.”
Raffensperger is executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, a consortium of organizations promoting safe scientific practices. She coedited the book Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle (Island Press) and writes the “Science for Lawyers” column for the Environmental Law Institute journal Environmental Forum. Over the past fifteen years she has served on various U.S. government committees on risk assessment, pesticides, radioactive waste, and cleanup of Department of Energy facilities.
Raffensperger is an animated speaker, using her whole body to get her point across. This conversation is a continuation of a much longer one that she and I have had at conferences, in cars, and elsewhere. For the interview, I traveled to her home in Ames, Iowa, where we sat across a kitchen table that a few hours later would be covered with organic food from the farm in North Dakota.
Jensen: What is the precautionary principle?
Raffensperger: Before I say what it is, we have to understand that our scientific and political choices — and, of course, scientific choices are political choices — are all guided by principles. The principles that currently guide those choices are leading us to our own destruction and the destruction of much that we love. We need new principles that would lead to different decisions.
The precautionary principle is a simple yet revolutionary idea that turns our culture’s practice of science on its head. It says that, when you have scientific uncertainty and the likelihood of harm, you take preventive or precautionary action. On the most basic level, there’s nothing more to it.
This is the opposite of the current approach to environmental decision-making, which is all about measuring and managing risk. There’s currently nothing in the way we approach science — or business — that says we should prevent harm. Science pretends that decimal points are more real than human values. Its mantra is “Wait for certainty.”
But it’s crazy to say that before we can act to prevent prostate cancer or learning disabilities — both of which have eminently preventable environmental causes — we must first prove with 100 percent certainty that something causes harm. And if there is more than one cause, we must identify them all and rank them appropriately. But how much sense does it make to wait until your son has a learning disability or your daughter has breast cancer before you take action?
Jensen: What’s wrong with trying to prove cause and effect?
Raffensperger: We need to search for cause and effect, but that is different than waiting to take action until we’ve proven it. And cause and effect is so difficult to prove. Maybe we could figure out cause and effect in the old days: if I hit you with my horse and buggy and broke your leg, we knew what happened. But now that we’ve filled our world with toxic chemicals, science is not as capable of proving the relationship between a particular toxin and a particular effect, especially if the effects are spread over long periods of time or large areas of the world. Take the problem of early puberty in girls. It could be caused by a number of things we don’t know much about, such as phthalates in cosmetics, which have the potential to upset hormones. It’s just not reasonable — nor very smart — to expect precise answers before we try to stop the damage.
Jensen: Critics have called you a “safety Nazi.” Isn’t there such a thing as being overprotective?
Raffensperger: In the United States we’re all expected to be cowboys on some level: “What, you’re not going to let your kids climb the apple tree? What’s your problem?” We believe it’s neurotic and un-American not to take risks. And there’s part of me that thrives on that culture. I like experimentation and daring. But along with this American love of pioneering and risk taking, we need sentinels watching for trouble and scouts out finding good and safe paths. I prefer these images to the repressive image of the overprotective, smothering mother.
There are also those who have twisted our position around to suggest that the precautionary principle is not compassionate, because we want, for example, to make sure that a drug is safe — for those taking it, and for the larger community — before it is put into general use. The public-interest scientists and the activists I know who are working on these difficult issues show great compassion. They bear witness to the suffering, including the cause of the suffering, and they act to prevent any more suffering. Our opponents say that we want African babies to die of malaria because we would outlaw DDT. But why are we forced to choose between two terrible options? Why can’t we mount a serious research campaign to find safer alternatives?
When name-calling doesn’t work, we’re accused of wanting to make decisions based on popular opinion or politics rather than on the sound foundations of science. But the precautionary principle doesn’t reject scientific evidence; it simply calls for science to ask different kinds of questions and, in the face of uncertainty, give the benefit of the doubt to the environment and public health and the community of all beings with whom we share this earth. Doing this actually requires more science.
For instance, under current scientific practice, we’re very concerned with avoiding false positives. But imagine turning that around and protecting ourselves just as much against false negatives — against not seeing a connection where there is one. That would actually drive more science, because it would demand more information. Right now, if you take a water sample that shows the presence of pfisteria, you go back and take another sample, to be sure the first wasn’t in error. But if you take a water sample that doesn’t show pfisteria — perhaps because you miss it — that’s it: you stop looking in that particular area. But you haven’t proven the absence of pfisteria with any greater certainty than a single positive sample proves its presence. The precautionary principle says: check again.
The precautionary principle not only drives more science, it asks that science protect public health and the environment, rather than serve financial goals. Instead of asking, “Is this level of harm acceptable?” scientists should ask, “Are there alternatives that are less harmful?” We need a new social contract for science.
Jensen: Wouldn’t this shut down the entire economy?
Raffensperger: We’ve been told that we’re going to stop civilization as we know it, or that we’re asking everybody to go back to horse-and-buggy days.
Jensen: Because if the precautionary principle had been in place a hundred years ago, there would be no automobiles?
Raffensperger: Probably, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have a modern transportation system. It means we might not have used fossil fuels. It means we might actually have used human ingenuity to create a transportation system that honored our place on earth, that didn’t fundamentally pollute the planet just so we could go a little faster. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have technology; it means we wouldn’t have technology that is so overwhelmingly destructive.
Jensen: Is it even possible to predict what future harm a new technology might cause?
Raffensperger: Surprise is the rule rather than the exception in ecosystems, particularly when we employ a technology on a global scale rather than tailor it to the local level. It is possible, however, to scan the horizon for problems using principles of ecology and evolutionary biology. Right now, we use toxicology instead of evolutionary biology as our touchstone. As a result, we ask, “Is this safe for the 150-pound male?” rather than, “How does nature work?” We plant genetically engineered corn on millions of acres, because it seems safe to eat, and then are caught by surprise when it has environmental repercussions. We’ve asked the wrong questions. We don’t have systems in place to catch our mistakes before they become global problems, like CFCs destroying the ozone layer.
Jensen: But could anyone, for example, have foreseen global warming when Henry Ford began selling the Model T?
Raffensperger: Global warming is a scale issue. If we’d thought about billions of cars using fossil fuels, we would have been able to predict problems. Large-scale use always has some problems attached.
Jensen: What about computers? They’ve been around for twenty-five years, and people still argue over whether they are harmful. If that question cannot be answered definitively now, how could the matter have been decided when they were just starting to be made?
Raffensperger: The issue is that we, the public, haven’t established our goals for communications technology. Harm can result from having the wrong goal or the wrong idea about what is good. We can’t decide whether computers help us meet our goals until we know what those collective goals are.
Jensen: How can scientists who develop a new technology predict what it will be used for in the future? What if it’s harmful only if overused? Should we assume that people will abuse it?
Raffensperger: The trouble is that scientists are trained to evaluate new technologies only with a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis. Why aren’t we grounding our scientists in ethics? Why aren’t we requiring that they learn evolutionary biology — a far better basis for evaluating technology than some kind of pie-in-the-sky cost-benefit ratio?
Jensen: Is there any technology that literally does no harm?
Raffensperger: Yes: The sitar. The flute. The hoe. Knitting needles. The potter’s wheel. These are all technologies that are designed for right livelihood and for making beauty.
Jensen: Is it the job of scientists to decide which technologies are good?
Raffensperger: Not by themselves. We may think scientists can make all of our decisions for us, but do we really believe that they will always have our best interests at heart? Why should we surrender the responsibility for decisions that affect our health and the health of our loved ones and our community — human and nonhuman — to distant others? Even when those scientists do have our best interests at heart, decisions that affect communities need to be made by the people in them. This is the fundamental challenge in a democracy. Right now we have ceded our decision-making authority to corporations in the guise of the “market.”
It’s interesting to compare our system to those of other countries. Germany is very like the United States in its love for technology and its acceptance of risk. But Germany has used the precautionary principle as a tool to force technological innovation and to clean up the most damaging and destructive technologies. This has worked well for them internally. Unfortunately, it’s also proven to be a problem in international trade, because some of those new, less damaging technologies cost a bit more. The reason, of course, is that the cheaper products externalize their costs: a company doesn’t have to pay for damage to a river. So comparing costs across borders isn’t always comparing apples and apples.
Jensen: Wouldn’t the precautionary principle destroy our competitive advantage the way it did Germany’s?
Raffensperger: I would turn that question around and ask what maintaining a competitive advantage destroys. The idea that we can compete solely by lowering costs destroys. The idea that we measure our nation’s wealth only in dollars destroys. What if we measured the gross national product by the number of bird nests in the environment, or the number of migratory-bird hatchlings? We would figure competitive advantage in an entirely different way. But financial competition drives a quest for a lower bottom line and increases the probability that we’re going to externalize costs onto the environment and our citizens. As science writer Janine Benyus and many others have pointed out, nature favors cooperation over competition. So, to the extent that the precautionary principle would destroy our competitive advantage, I would say, “Good.”
The whole quest for competitive advantage leads to absurdity. There are some things that are just plain stupid to trade. Why are we moving bottled water around the planet using fossil fuels? Is Perrier really better than water bottled in the United States, or even tap water? This is not rational.
In the United States we’re all expected to be cowboys on some level. . . . We believe it’s neurotic and un-American not to take risks. . . . But along with this American love of pioneering and risk taking, we need sentinels watching for trouble and scouts out finding good and safe paths.
Jensen: You’ve said that it’s not enough to avoid future problems; we have to address the problems we have.
Raffensperger: Yes, the precautionary principle’s fundamental idea is that we prevent problems rather than clean them up or fix them afterward. And we have some laws that attempt to do this. But, quite often, we find ourselves having to clean up messes after the fact.
We’ve caused so many messes that we need to restore the environment. My friend Steve Packard and others have developed wonderful methods for restoring tallgrass prairies. We also need to clean up breast milk. Human breast milk is now one of the most contaminated food sources on the planet. Flame retardants and DDT are just two of the many chemicals found in breast milk. These substances are persistent, biocumulative, and bioactive, and are moving all over the globe on wind currents, being deposited in places where they’re not used. DDT is not used in the Arctic, where there is no malaria, yet that’s where the insecticide is concentrating, because of wind patterns. We need to reverse the damage we’ve created, to restore tallgrass prairies, marine fisheries, and breast milk. And we need to bear witness to the suffering that has already occurred through our foolishness. I want to be able to tell the young mother dying of cancer that we will do our utmost to ensure that her daughter doesn’t get cancer. In so doing, we alleviate suffering.
Jensen: You’ve written about something called the public-trust doctrine. What is that?
Raffensperger: In its largest sense, the public-trust doctrine says that you can’t privatize everything. Some things belong to all of us — or maybe to none of us. You cannot own the bed of a river, or a lake, and then withhold my access to it. Unfortunately, there’s a movement worldwide to privatize water and even air. It’s truly frightening to think that people could withhold access to water or air. We need to expand the public trust, not eliminate it.
Jensen: What other areas would you like to see fall under the public-trust doctrine?
Raffensperger: A clean, healthy environment. Several states have a provision in their constitutions saying that their citizens have a right to a healthy environment, so you cannot privatize your ability to pollute; you cannot privatize access to resources by polluting the earth and then requiring those sickened by pollution to buy drugs from you to heal the very ills you have created.
Jensen: What about food? Since the beginning of civilization, the privatization of food has been central to the regulation of the workforce: If you have access to food, you don’t have to work for someone else. But if those in power can control the food supply, they can force you to work for them.
Raffensperger: Wouldn’t it be interesting if we treated agriculture and food as we do public education, and made sure it was available to everyone? Even better, what if we guaranteed access to land on which to grow your own food as a basic right? Access to land would be far more efficient than a centralized bureaucracy growing all the food and distributing it through a central warehouse. How much sense does it make to use herbicides on public parklands to keep them a grassy monocrop, when that land could be used for community gardens? The answer to why we don’t do that, of course, is that the present system makes corporations rich. We have a system built on economic competitiveness, even for something so fundamental as food.
It all comes down to democracy, to the questions of how we decide and who decides. We currently take dictates from corporations and nonelected government officials. All our life is prescribed — whether by “scientific certainty,” judicial decisions, economic decisions, or at the point of a gun. We have to check all the things we love and value at the door, so that those in power can make decisions based on their financial ledgers.
Democracy is fundamental to the precautionary principle. Affected communities need to have a voice. Allowing them a voice would change how we practice science. For instance, members of a community are more likely to have observed changes over time. Their observations can guide data collection and the formation of hypotheses. And by “community” I mean this web of relationships that sustains life; not just humans, and not even necessarily just living things. As Wes Jackson of the Land Institute says, we have a “bias toward the biosphere” because we’re living, breathing things. Rocks may have another opinion.
Finally, we’ve got to consider future generations. Laws like the Endangered Species Act and the mandates for national parks and wilderness areas are based on the idea that these places are not just for current generations to use up, but must be available for future generations to enjoy.
Jensen: Is the precautionary principle a fringe idea, or has there been some movement toward the mainstream?
Raffensperger: I don’t know that I’d call it a fringe idea. I’d rather use a microbial analogy, and suggest that the precautionary principle is like yeast: it’s giving rise, I hope, to new ideas in many places. The New York Times Magazine said it was one of the big new ideas of the past year. They didn’t attach a person’s name to it, but that’s good: you can’t point to one person as being the guru of the precautionary principle.
The principle — in some form or another — is appearing in codes of ethics for professional societies like the International Society for Ethnobiology, in the body of the Persistent Organic Pollutant Treaty, and in the Biosafety Protocol, which more or less governs the use of genetically modified organisms as food.
One reason the precautionary principle is moving so quickly — and, in a sense, so microbially — through the culture is that it’s based on very simple wisdom: Look before you leap. A stitch in time saves nine. These sayings may seem trite, but they have a deep resonance. We understand them. To go contrary to what we know at a deep level actually takes more effort than it does to honor the precautionary principle.
Jensen: You’ve written in many places about “ecological medicine.” Could you define that?
Raffensperger: Ecological medicine attempts to look at health and disease in a way that makes ecological sense. It’s a great irony that healthcare is itself a toxic industry. For example, we incinerate PVC medical devices that have been used to treat cancer, sending the toxic residue out to cause disease in someone else. What sense does that make? We use mercury in thermometers in hospitals and then send that up the incinerator to be deposited in fish and eventually to give the child who eats that fish brain damage.
The idea of health as part of the natural world has much broader implications than just whether burned PVC bags are causing disease. We know that health — both mental and physical — is enhanced when you can see a tree outside your window.
There are many strands in ecological medicine. One is environmental medicine, which has been used primarily to address a condition called “multiple chemical sensitivity” and diseases related to toxic chemicals. Another is conservation medicine, which looks at, among other things, the crossover of diseases between wildlife and humans.
What we really need to do is rethink medicine with the understanding that we are the air and the water. Ecological medicine certainly obeys the precautionary principle, but it’s far more than that. We need to understand that health itself is an ecological process.
Ecological medicine seeks to reconcile individual care with community well-being and ecological wholeness. We understand, of course, that there are times when one must make difficult choices, which is why the word reconcile is in there. When you have cancer, for example, what do you do when you’re offered a treatment that may cause environmental damage down the road?
Jensen: You and your husband have faced that very question.
Raffensperger: My husband has metastatic prostate cancer. The decisions we’ve made about his care were, for me personally, the genesis of many of these ideas.
I don’t think most people face even their own possible death with the same ferocious intensity that they face the impending death of a beloved family member. When we talk about what ecological medicine might mean in terms of healthcare, many people say it would be OK to limit their own care. Fewer say the same about the care of their loved ones. Being no different, I came at my husband’s cancer with a desperate, I’ll-do-anything-to-save-his-life attitude. I didn’t care what it would take.
Before I say anything else, I need to point out that I’m not prescribing medical care. People should use their own best wisdom to approach their medical issues. I also know that it’s much harder to make these decisions in the heat of the moment, faced with a catastrophic illness.
That said, we made choices based in part on what we’d learned from our organic farm. How did we deal on our farm with nonnative species and noxious weeds, which by law we had to eradicate? We remembered that poisoning weeds hadn’t worked as well as taking them out, so we chose surgery as our first option, based on that understanding and on the best medical advice we could get.
A year later, we were sitting in our oncologist’s office discussing experimental protocols for prostate cancer. One of those protocols involved thalidomide.
Now, thalidomide has caused serious birth defects when taken by pregnant women. My husband and I didn’t know what happens to thalidomide in the body, so we asked the oncologist what would be metabolized, what would be excreted, what would be the environmental fate — and thus, the environmental effect — of the thalidomide. The oncologist had never considered any of those questions. We told him we didn’t think we could use something unless we knew. We could not see putting something into the environment that was going to give birth defects to frogs, deer, muskrats, and others. We couldn’t do it.
This is a very real concern. A number of drugs, including caffeine, are now showing up in much of the surface water in the United States, because we excrete these things.
Jensen: Fish are changing gender because of hormones from birth-control pills.
Raffensperger: It may also be due to menopausal drugs — Premarin and other estrogens — or growth hormones used by the livestock industry. There could be multiple causes. Regardless, we know that what you take in comes out in some form or another.
I subsequently got more information about thalidomide and learned that it lasts about a half-hour outside the body. So thalidomide raises questions about the cumulative effect of lots of people using it. A half-hour here, a half-hour there, and all of a sudden you have an environmental load. Treating cancers, which might have environmental causes, with toxic chemicals that will end up in the environment is not a logical long-term approach.
When my mother got married, one woman in twenty-five could expect to get breast cancer. Now it’s one woman in eight. The genetic change from one generation to the next is insignificant, so something else is going on. We’re seeing an increase in some brain cancers and in types of children’s cancers, and it’s not just because we’ve got better detection methods. If you look at Parkinson’s and learning disabilities and other neurological problems, you see changing patterns — and we know that Parkinson’s has been linked to pesticide use. If you look at reproductive problems, you see changing patterns; there are indications that sperm counts are declining in some parts of the world. If you look at autoimmune diseases, you see changing patterns.
Jensen: I have Crohn’s disease, which is probably an autoimmune disorder, and it’s almost nonexistent in nonindustrialized nations. As a country becomes industrialized, Crohn’s disease increases. Nobody knows whether it’s the diet, or chemicals, or something else.
Raffensperger: If we look at our Western diet, at our whole food chain, from how we raise crops to how we move them around the world — using heavy doses of fossil fuel at every stage — it’s no wonder we’re seeing strange illnesses. A friend of mine has pointed out that we’re one of the very few countries whose citizens eat old food from far away. You see the difference in the color of the food. When I raise vegetables in my garden, the colors sing. When I look at produce in the grocery store, imported from Mexico and Chile and Australia, I don’t see the same color.
Jensen: Nor do you find the same taste.
Raffensperger: And you’ll find that these foods are often priced below production costs. Corn, soybeans, and wheat all cost more to produce than the farmer gets per bushel. This is not a good system; it’s not sustainable on any level.
We are creatures of local ecosystems, adapted to the microflora — as well as the macroflora and fauna — of a specific region. The fungi on my apple, the microorganisms you can’t even see: that’s what I’m adapted to. The minerals in that soil: that’s what I know. That’s what my body knows. That’s what the E. coli in my stomach know. What does this mean for the global transport of foods? We know that pests have been brought into this country on food and have gone on to devastate trees and waterways and animals. What is the response of the community of my body to microorganisms brought in from New Zealand?
Jensen: A lot of people are familiar with “Montezuma’s revenge,” the water-borne intestinal parasite that afflicts tourists in Mexico, though the locals are immune to it.
Raffensperger: Exactly. Your immune system has worked out its agreement with the world around you, and that world is local. People with allergies know this, too. I’m not saying human beings aren’t migratory or that we are not adaptable. Of course we are, or we wouldn’t be found from the Arctic to sub-Saharan Africa. But as a matter of health, we may want to pay more attention to the fact that we’re creatures of local ecosystems.
Jensen: You’ve not just talked about the importance of growing food locally; you’ve acted on it in your own life.
Raffensperger: When I married Fred, I moved to North Dakota. We have a thirty-five-hundred-acre organic farm, where we raise cattle and grains: wheat, rye, buckwheat, sunflowers, sometimes lentils — lots and lots of food, but we weren’t eating much of it. We ate our own beef, and, like everybody else, we put a couple of tomato plants in the ground, but that was it. One day I looked at our store-bought diet and was spooked by what I saw: we were eating old food from far away.
I started calculating the cost of my food based on the miles it had traveled rather than the dollars I had paid for it, and I found I was eating very, very expensive food under the guise of cheapness. So we decided to raise all our own food — in North Dakota. Everybody said it couldn’t be done. What about oranges and bananas? But I set out to solve that problem and others. I ended up with a garden that was just under an acre, not counting our orchard and the six three-quarter-mile rows of sweet corn. It produced the most beautiful food I’d ever seen.
There were many different challenges I had to overcome. For example: how to get leafy greens in February in North Dakota. At first, we figured we’d have to grow iceberg lettuce, because that’s what we were used to. But instead I froze about sixty quarts of kale, collards, beet greens, and wild mustard — which is a weed that torments North Dakota farmers, so I thought we may as well eat it.
But I still wanted fresh food in March, so we grew things like carrots and apples. I canned a magnificent corn-cabbage relish and froze watermelon and cantaloupe. We had smoothies; we had canned beets; we had salads, even though they weren’t made with iceberg or romaine lettuce. It was a wonderful experience.
So there I was, a farmer’s wife. Then, four days after his surgery for cancer, Fred accepted a job as a professor at Iowa State University, where he would be director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. It was a major upheaval for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I wanted to continue gardening, and my whole food-production system was designed for North Dakota. We were raising squash that had been bred for more than forty years for the North Dakota climate. We had Hutterite soup beans and chokecherry wine.
Jensen: But you moved to Iowa.
Raffensperger: I moved to Iowa. The first thing we did was buy a house with a big yard. A very wise friend came by and said, “Well, who owns this land?”
I was perplexed. “What do you mean? We own it!”
Clearly, though, this wasn’t the right answer. It finally dawned on me what he meant: who owns it, really? It’s the deer and the woodchucks and the raccoons and many other creatures. If I was going to garden here, we would have to put up big fences and use all sorts of deterrents — basically declare war on the wildlife — and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Perhaps we had a different role here than we’d had in North Dakota. There, we’d proven we could feed ourselves. Now it was time to go beyond self-sufficiency to community sufficiency.
I set out to see if we couldn’t get our food year-round from within the state. My preference was from within thirty miles, and my real preference was from within ten. The good news was that there were several community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms here in Iowa. The bad news was that the CSAs were all set up to provide food just for the summer. Our homes are set up the same way — we’ve lost our winter-storage capacity. We don’t have room for canning. We don’t have cold storage in cellars.
But a couple of CSA farmers have joined us to try to figure out how to create a year-round local food system. One farmer delivers a box of food filled with my preferences once a week. At another CSA, some neighbors and I go to pick up our food one day a week. We’ve turned it into a sort of community gathering. We’ve had a small reduction in diversity, because I planted much more variety in North Dakota than they do in Iowa. It’s a matter of figuring out this place, this climate, this community. But it’s been more than sufficient: it’s been wonderful.
When my mother got married, one woman in twenty-five could expect to get breast cancer. Now it’s one woman in eight. The genetic change from one generation to the next is insignificant, so something else is going on.
Jensen: If everyone ate the way you did . . .
Raffensperger: We’d need thousands more farmers. I gave a talk recently, and the person who introduced me described himself as my “personal farmer.” We all have a personal dentist and a personal doctor, and we don’t use their services nearly as much as we use the services of a farmer.
Jensen: Can the average person put what you’re describing into practice?
Raffensperger: Sure. It takes some planning, the same way you plan your summer vacations. What are the local sources for cheese or meat? What are the local sources for vegetables? Can you store them through the winter? For instance, we bought potatoes in the fall and still have some left in April. They’re starting to sprout, but they’re fine. Sweet potatoes last a long time. You just start with the foods you love, and eating becomes a story. You know the weather conditions that produced it. You know the travails and joys of the farmer that year. You have a relationship with the food you eat.
Jensen: And it tastes better.
Raffensperger: Oh my, yes, because it’s not old food from far away.
Jensen: I buy my meat from a local rancher. Not only does it taste better, but it’s much cheaper.
Raffensperger: The fiscal issue is complicated. My husband questions whether these CSAs are really sustainable economically. For example, one of our farmers is a war-tax resister who chooses voluntary simplicity. Not everyone wants to live that way. We have to ask: do we adequately compensate our farmers with families so that they can buy their children eyeglasses, or go to a concert, or do the things the rest of us do? I don’t think our country’s food policy is fiscally responsible for our farmers.
Another fiscal problem is that often rich people can afford organic, CSA-produced vegetables, whereas poor people cannot.
Jensen: Which is why, by the way, I’m against the labeling of genetically engineered foods — instead, I’m for their prohibition, because labeling will just turn it into a two-tier system in which the rich get to eat nonengineered food and the poor don’t.
Raffensperger: We’ve got to rethink the economics of this. We have two complete economies set up side by side in the United States: one for-profit and one nonprofit, with different laws that govern each. In my opinion, the more we can move over to the nonprofit economy, the better.
As long as food is part of the for-profit economy, we’re going to have a system in which rich people get the best and poor people are left to eat an impoverished diet. Look at the school lunch program, which is a nutritional disaster: you’ve got meat coming from packing plants that have known quantities of harmful bacteria, and processed, industrialized foods. But there are other models. The Berkeley school system is trying some creative programs where children are getting locally grown, nutritious, organic foods. Why can’t we follow that model in other parts of the country? We know that the health effects of a poor diet will come back to haunt us. We now spend more than 10 percent of our earned income on medical care, and a little less than 10 percent on food. Those two figures seem connected to me. It doesn’t have to be that way.
All across the economy, whether we’re talking about our diet or the toxification of our food, water, and air, we’re doing things we’re going to have to pay for down the road. Food, medical, and other systems built on this for-profit, dollar-conscious model are bound to fail.
Rather than dissecting frogs and dithering over just how much atrazine it takes to feminize their larynx so that they can’t call to each other in the spring, scientists could see healthy frogs as part of a healthy, beautiful world, a healthy humanity. . . . The precautionary principle calls for us to act, not dither.
Jensen: It seems that a type of precautionary principle does apply to the economy: if something may harm people or the environment, cause and effect must be scientifically established, but if something may harm profits, it will be outlawed tomorrow.
Raffensperger: Strange, isn’t it? We use precaution in the abstract transactions we carry out with green paper, but not when it comes to the very real trade-offs we make in our culture, which involve things far more important than money.
Jensen: I think that’s because, if we were to institute the precautionary principle on a massive scale, it would be the end of industrial civilization as we know it. I don’t consider this a bad thing, but from the perspective of those in power, this is a truly frightening idea.
Raffensperger: A built-in notion of the way we do business now is that you can’t stand in the way of progress. We’re told, for example, that in order to feed the world, we must have genetic engineering. What if, instead, we made our goal a healthy world food policy built on justice and beauty? Then we would identify alternatives to genetic engineering and come up with other ways to provide access to food. Do we really want to export food from country to country, all over the world?
The precautionary principle really is revolutionary because it says we get to decide the answers to these questions. We have a right and an ability to decide. Not only that, we have a duty to set a goal and bring it into reality.
I mentioned earlier that the scientists I work with not only bear witness to the suffering, but also help to alleviate it. Just as importantly, they bear witness to beauty. What a different role for science that would be: rather than dissecting frogs and dithering over just how much atrazine it takes to feminize their larynx so that they can’t call to each other in the spring, scientists could see healthy frogs as part of a healthy, beautiful world, a healthy humanity. If you want to use science for dithering, go ahead, and watch what happens to the world. But the precautionary principle calls for us to act, not dither.
Jensen: As a lawyer, what do you feel should be done in our legal system to promote the precautionary principle?
Raffensperger: So often the precautionary principle has been conceived of merely as a regulatory device. We’ve turned over environmental protection to administrative agencies in the belief that the EPA can solve most environmental problems if they just come up with the right rules. The problem is that, by the time a pesticide gets sent to the EPA for a regulatory decision, millions of dollars have already been spent on research and development. So the government and industry have a vested interest in making certain the pesticide is approved, whatever its safety. We need to build the precautionary principle into the research agenda, so that we ask the right questions up front, instead of spending $26 million on some new technology and then leaning on the EPA to approve it.
We need to define property rights narrowly. Allowing property rights to be defined broadly leads to enormous problems, because defining things as property limits what we can do with them. Privatizing genetic information or water will only lead to more haves and have-nots. We have built an entire legal system, with a few exceptions, on property rights, but there are other ways of constructing a legal system. As a lawyer, I want to promote a set of rules that will help our communities flourish. Instead of defending one person’s property, I want to make peace within that community, and with all the creatures with whom we share this world.
Another problem is in the courts. In the past couple of decades we’ve seen an organized takeover of the courts by people who don’t like the environment, who think we have a right to use up and destroy the earth. And when judges make decisions, they can set precedents that last for a very long time. They can undermine democracy. The stage is now set for any number of bad decisions with far-reaching consequences.
Jensen: How does this relate to the precautionary principle?
Raffensperger: It could make it extremely difficult to prove that one particular chemical caused one particular disease. In 1993 a Supreme Court decision set in motion a whole new approach to science in the law, such that you now almost have to prove cause and effect before the trial. I’m simplifying this, but you get the idea.
Increasingly the cases that should be up to juries to decide are never even presented to them. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which puts out Science, wrote letters to every federal judge recommending that court-appointed science experts help judges make decisions on silicone breast implants, or pesticides, or whatever. This strips away the democratic component of the courts. The jury should get to decide the case, not some behind-the-scenes scientist who has potential conflicts of interest.
By the way, the New England Journal of Medicine, which has been one of the lead advocates for court-appointed experts, just this week changed its guidelines to allow writers to have up to ten thousand dollars in financial conflicts of interest. The journal just couldn’t find enough experts without any conflicts of interest. This doesn’t bode well for the entire system.
It gets worse. Say a corporation is being sued by someone who’s been terribly injured by a product. We all know what happens next: the corporation buries the injured person’s attorneys under mounds of paper, frivolous motions, and so on. But let’s just say that the plaintiff perseveres and is able to prove cause and effect to a degree undeniable even to the judge, and the corporation settles. At that point, all of this information that was entered into the public record through the court process can be sealed by protective orders. This evidence cannot be used for the next case against the corporation, so the next lawyer has to go through the exact same process of discovery. It’s crazy. There are cases in which you want to seal the records to protect people, but when a case concerns public health and safety, you don’t want to protect the perpetrator by sealing the evidence.
One more thing that I think is important: I’m sure you’re aware of the “reasonable person” standard in the law: The court asks, “Would a reasonable person act in this way?” If the answer is yes, the behavior is excused. I’d like to change that to the “respectful person” standard. A much better criterion is: would a respectful person do this? Because there are some places where reason isn’t enough. Rather than just be reasonable, rational people and ignore the enormous love we feel for this world, wouldn’t it be better to be respectful to this earth, with all of its beauty and wonder?
Jensen: What can people do?
Raffensperger: One of the most important things you can do is to help young people find a way to be of service to something larger than themselves. In Wes Jackson’s words, “The only real major offered in college is upward mobility.” We fail to teach our children that service to something greater than themselves is far more likely to lead to a joyful and satisfying life, not to mention one that is environmentally rich.
I fell prey to the upward-mobility logic myself. After college and graduate school, I worried that my archaeological degree wouldn’t provide a secure future, so I thought I’d go to law school. I took the LSAT and scored at rock bottom. That’s probably a good thing, because if I had gone then, I likely would’ve become a typical lawyer. Later I decided that I had to go to law school so I could work for environmental protection. This time I scored in the top few percent on the LSAT. I was the same person, but now I had the right motivation. When people know what problem they’re trying to address, they often know what they need to do next.
Another thing you can do is choose the nonprofit over the for-profit world. Why not purchase your clothes and furniture at the Salvation Army or Goodwill, or from a local artisan? If you do buy new from a store, ask whether the shareholders of the companies you buy from have a role in the company itself. If not, then the goal of the company is to make its shareholders rich, and not to provide you with goods and services that protect the earth. Staying away from those sorts of corporations is a useful step.
Here’s another wild idea: whenever possible, reject the copy. The copy is the hallmark of industrialization. We have become a culture of the copy, rather than a culture of the masterpiece. We no longer deal with original ideas but with regurgitated clichés. Look at cloning. A clone is a copy. Sex, on the other hand, breeds originality. You get something entirely new. Does anyone believe that you can have a livable world based on the copy? Rejecting the copy will do interesting things to your purchasing habits, and to your experience of beauty and integrity.
We can protect the things we love. We have the tools to do it. We can prevent this terrible damage, and we can restore the damage that we’ve already done. How? Part of the answer is to put love back at the center of our decision-making process. We have allowed science to take over and displace love: love for our children, love for the natural world, love for the places we live. Somehow we think science is going to give us the answers, when our instincts, our guts, tell us it can’t. Science can tell us many things, but we cannot let it take the place of love.