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Strong environmental movements averts extinction—coalitions are key

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Strong environmental movements averts extinction—coalitions are key

Lerner 97

(Michael Lerner, MD, MacArthur Prize Fellow, is the president of Commonweal, a healing center in Bolinas california, and of smith farm center for healing and the arts in Washington, D.C. He is Co-Founder of the commonweal cancer help program. “The Age of Extinction and The Emerging Environmental Health Movement,” 1997,

The premise of this essay is that we may be witnessing the emergence of an environmental health movement that could have a profound impact both on human health and the future of the earth. What is certain is that we live in an Age of Extinctions caused by humanity. It is also certain that a significant and critical segment of humanity is awakening to the profound threat that this Age of Extinctions poses both for human health and for all life on earth. The purpose of this essay is to explore the relationship between this great and irreversible awakening of human consciousness of environmental health and the widely shared hope that this consciousness is birthing a movement that will make freedom from the chains of a toxic global system of production and consumption one of the great human rights issue of new millennium. It is a fact certain that people around the world are increasingly concerned about the relationship between their health and the environment. This is a concern that in America we can date back at least to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. From the 1960s onward, this concern with environmental health has grown with each passing decade. Specifically, people are troubled by scientific evidence that manmade chemicals, the depletion of the ozone layer, climate change, and the new infectious disease agents emerging from habitat destruction may threaten their health and the health of those they care about. People are awakening to the reality that we live in a sea of 75,000 manmade chemicals, most never tested for their effects on human health. They know that some of these chemicals are partially responsible for the modern epidemic of cancer. They are learning that, even more troubling, some of these chemicals in pregnant women are disrupting fetal development and affecting intelligence, fertility, and health. People are generally aware that the destruction of the ozone layer is linked to rapidly rising rates of malignant melanoma and weakened immune systems in humans and to devastating effects on other species of life. People are profoundly uneasy with their growing direct experience that the weather isn’t the same anymore. They know that climate change is increasingly disrupting weather patterns that can drastically affect human well being with floods, droughts, changing infectious disease vectors and many other impacts. People are increasingly aware that new infectious diseases are emerging from disrupted ecosystems in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. They may be less aware that toxic chemicals and ozone depletion are both weakening our immune resilience both to new infectious diseases and to old ones. Conversely, awareness is growing that the same forces that threaten human health — synthetic chemicals, ozone depletion, climate change and habitat destruction — are increasingly threatening the health of the biosphere. Environmental health, as I will use the term, includes both the impact of the environment on human health and the impact of human activity on the environment. 2. InterBeing: A Hundred Year Perspective This observation of a widespread and irreversible public awakening environmental health concerns may seem in itself mundane. Its implications may not be. If we look back fifty years to 1950, we can see how far awareness of environmental health has come. There was no environmental movement then. Manmade chemicals were seen as a largely unmixed blessing: “Better living through modern chemistry.” Climate change and ozone depletion were not concerns. Habitat destruction was something that troubled a handful of ecologists. Now let us look forward to the year 2050, a half century hence. Where will awareness of environmental health concerns be then? Will this wakening plateau, or will it increase further? If it continues, can we imagine where it will go? I believe that, in the hundred year perspective, 1950-2050, environmental health will prove to be one of the most dynamic areas of change in human consciousness. I am proposing that we may now be close to a decisive shift in our collective sense of the profound connectedness of personal and planetary health — and therefore ineluctably of personal and planetary healing. We have no adequate word in English for environmental health consciousness understood as an awareness of the interweaving of personal and planetary health experienced in true depth. Environmental health is not a poetic phrase that invites deep contemplation of the great mysteries of the biosphere that surrounds the earth, which, scientists remind us, is proportionately no deeper or less delicate than dew on the petal of a rose. In fact, Michael McCally has pointed out that “environmental health” as the term is traditionally used is too narrow a concept for what we are exploring in this essay. He suggests that perhaps we should more accurately speak of a “health and environmental” consciousness or movement. Terminology is always a problem as new forms of consciousness and new movements arise. I have participated for two decades in the debates over what to call the mind-body health movement, for example. We never solved the language problem, but the movement ignored our linguistic dilemma as it transformed health consciousness throughout much of the world. The great Vietnamese monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh, who walked with his monks through the fields of fire of the Vietnam war to rescue villagers caught in conflict, calls this deep awareness of the relationship between health and the environment the consciousness of InterBeing. We are, Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to reflect, one with all life on earth. A skeptic can protest that InterBeing is only a partial truth; that in many obvious respects we are not one. The skeptic is right. Our separateness is also real. But the direction our deepening understanding of environmental health is taking us is toward a greater consciousness of InterBeing. Watched at any given point in real time, the shift in attitudes in the United States over the past century toward worker’s rights, human rights, and women’s rights would have seemed painfully uncertain. Yet when we speed up the film, we can see that these revolutions in human consciousness have been dramatically swift in historical terms. In the past quarter century, Americans have also experienced the rapid shift in our awareness of mind-body health that I referred to a moment ago. This shift in how we see our own health has triggered nothing short of a revolution in self-care, health care, smoking patterns, eating habits, exercise, the dynamic growth of the organic foods and sustainable agriculture movement, and much more. What I believe the next quarter century may well bring is an environmental health movement that will merge with the mind-body health movement, and merge with many other social movements as well. I believe the emerging environmental health movement can knit together occupational health concerns, environmental justice issues, and traditional public health issues that involve the environment. While occupational health has long been a concern of working people and environmental justice a deep concern of oppressed minorities, I believe that the emerging environmental health movement can create a potentially majoritarian constituency by engaging great middle class concerns, based on the growing middle class recognition that the health of children and families is massively threatened by the toxic production and consumption system. The social and cultural movements around the world that are developing environmental health concerns are not and will not be a unified movement. We seem to be witnessing a wide range of civil society movements around the world for which environmental health is a leading concern. These movements may, as they adopt environmental health concerns in their local or sectoral agendas, find resonance in a broadening public for which the belief that it is time to heal our relationship with the biosphere simply seems like urgent common sense. For simplicity, I will refer to this complex of civil society movements as a single environmental health movement, recalling that the labor movement, the civil and human rights movements, the women’s movement and the gay rights movement and the mind-body health movement have been equally diverse and complex in their evolution. 3. Will Women Lead the Environmental Health Movement? How can we imagine that ordinary people might be able successfully to challenge the overwhelming internal logic of the global economic system because of concern over environmental health? There is an Ethiopian proverb that when spider webs unite they can tie up a lion. The lion of the globally destructive patterns of production and consumption may one day be ensnared and ultimately domesticated by the gossamer webs of human consciousness and community action. What will happen when ordinary people, whose lives are often mortally wounded by the destruction of the biosphere, come to understand that their wounds are so often intimately related to the wounds of the earth? What will happen when a working woman comes to a realization that her own breast cancer, her husband’s lymphoma, her brother’s melanoma, her son’s learning disability, his best’s friend’s attention deficit disorder, her daughter’s endometrioisis, her niece’s cleft palate, her cousin’s chronic anxiety and panic disorder, her best friend’s severe chemical sensitivity, her best friend’s daughter’s asthma, her uncle’s infertility, her neighbor’s son’s testicular cancer, and her sister’s daughter’s childhood leukemia, may form a pattern? What will happen when this working woman begins to understand that these new human pandemics, that affect her family and her community directly, may be profoundly connected to what is happening to the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and the animals of the earth? I believe this working woman will understand that the cancers and infertility of the fish, the disappearance of the frogs, the cleft palates of the mice, the shifts in gender orientation of the birds, the susceptibility to viruses and infections of the seals, the disappearance of the songbirds, — that all this and much, much more may be telling us a story that is also our story. The story that the birds and the fish and the mice are telling us is the story of InterBeing — the story that all life on earth is truly, breathtakingly, concretely connected right now, and that what we do to the mice of the field and the birds of the forest, we also ultimately do also to ourselves and our families right now. I do not believe that we can hide from this story much longer. It is among the great stories of our time. I believe that when this working woman truly understands this story, she may decide that the time to end her silence has come. I believe in fact that she and her counterparts around the world will play a critical role in the leadership of this emerging environmental health movement. I believe that her silence cannot be bought, and I think it unlikely that she will be dissuaded from this cause. Just as in Argentina the wives and fiancees and mothers of the disparecidos came forward in the public squares to confront the military assassins, and ultimately brought that oppressive regime down, I believe that women may ultimately decide that this global regime that is so destructive of all life must be transformed. This very human protest against a massive entrenched global system of production and consumption may seem unrealistic economically and politically. But is it any less realistic than the Quaker protests in Europe and the United States that played such a key role in ending the 350-year-old slave trade? I do not invoke the parallel to ending the slave trade lightly. For we are as enchained by toxic chemicals and ozone depletion and climate change and the destruction of nature as we were once enchained by slavery. I believe environmental health may be one of the greatest human rights issues of the millennium. That is our best hope. 4. A Personal Perspective Let me briefly tell one person’s story of this emerging awareness of environmental health, to give you, the reader, a sense of where the personal urgency behind this essay comes from. * Over the past twenty years, my colleagues and I at Commonweal, a small health and environmental research institute in Northern California, have worked extensively with children with learning and behavioral disorders, with adults with cancer, and on global environmental issues. Let us start with children. Virtually any clinician or school teacher will tell you that there appears to be an epidemic of learning and social disorders among children, difficult as that assertion is to quantify. There are many genetic, social and environmental factors that contribute to learning and behavioral disorders. But the mechanisms by which developmental and reproductive toxins interfere with thyroid function and neurological development are increasingly well understood. We do not know what proportion of the apparent epidemic of learning and behavior disorders are related to developmental toxins. But the fact that every human mother carries traces of hundreds of these chemicals in her bloodstream through pregnancy, and that some of them at infinitely low doses can affect neurological and endocrine development, suggests that chemical exposures account for a significant part of the epidemic of learning and behavior disorders among children. * Over the past twelve years, I have spent over ninety weeks living with small groups of woman and men facing life-threatening cancers and seeking some way to come to terms with these catastrophic illnesses. This has been one of the most deeply formative experiences of my life. Most of those who come on the Commonweal Cancer Help Program for a week of exploration of the possibilities for physical, emotional and spiritual healing are women, and many of these women are young women with young children facing either primary or metastatic breast cancer. There is no question that we can be deeply helpful to those who come to us with cancer in helping them learn how to live and to die with this devastating illness. The question is whether helping people to learn how best to live with cancer and the other pandemic diseases of our time is sufficient for anyone who thinks truly holistically. I look at these young women with advanced breast cancer and small children, and I think to myself: This is not okay with me. It is not okay with me that we have created a civilization where breast cancer is epidemic. And it is not enough to help these young women fight for life, or prepare for early deaths, one by one. This, more than any other single thing, has brought me to the work for an environmental health consciousness and an environmental health movement. Less than a century ago, cancer was rare in the United States. Now by any standard it is epidemic, and not only because we are living longer or because other diseases have been cured. Cancers of children, for example, are increasing, and one cannot say the cause if lifestyle factors. So are testicular and breast cancer, among young men and women not yet old enough to be threatened by other diseases. We do not know what particular mix of environmental factors cause many of these cancers. But we do know that many of them are diseases of industrial civilization. And we know that some of them — including some childhood cancers, testicular cancer, and Non-Hodgkins lymphomas — are strongly linked to chemical exposures. * At a more personal level, my father died of cancer. My mother has had cancer. My half-sister Pamela died as a young mother of cancer. I am a DES son. Had I been a DES daughter I would have had a very high risk of dying of cancer. I have two brothers. The three of us have had a total of four sons. Not a single one of our four sons would be alive today without intensive modern medical interventions. Is it a coincidence that all our children needed the most advanced modern scientific techniques to survive? * If I look around me at friends and colleagues with whom I work, there are many young women I know whose young lives and potential for motherhood are scarred with the pain of endometriosis. In animals, endometriosis is known to be related to exposure to dioxin at infinitesimally low levels during key windows of fetal development.. In humans there is a high suspicion that the apparent epidemic of endometriosis is chemically induced. * And how many young couples do I know for whom pregnancy has been nearly impossible to achieve? The decline in male fertility in industrialized countries is increasingly well documented by meta-analyses of multiple studies. Numerous animal studies have linked declining fertility to endocrine disrupting chemicals. A recent study in the San Francisco Bay Area recently linked increased spontaneous abortion rates to chemicals in the water supply. It warned pregnant women to consult with their physicians about limiting their intake of tap water. And yet pregnant women are told to drink plenty of water. Many cannot afford bottled water. And bottled water is by not necessarily any less chemically polluted than tap water. Moreover, many chemicals are absorbed as readily from showering or swimming as they are from drinking water. And while this specific study of drinking water and spontaneous abortion rates showed no relationship between showering and abortion rates, who knows what other effects on pregnancy these other routes of exposure to developmental and reproductive toxins may have. * Of those couples who do manage to have children, what proportion of families find that their children have the learning disabilities or related behavioral disorders that we work with at Commonweal? The New York Times reliably estimates that 20% of American children have learning disabilities. But The New York Times never asks why 20% of American children suffer the trials and often the agonies of a learning disability. Is 20% the level that learning and behavioral disorders have always been at in the human family? Or have the level and nature of learning and behavioral disorders shifted with time and circumstance? In many places and times young minds have been and are stunted by famine, by infectious disease, and by war, abuse and poverty. But what of the young minds stunted now by chemical exposure in utero and in early childhood? Is an insidiously increasing proportion of contemporary learning and behavioral disorders related to developmental and reproductive toxins? It is a complex situation. Despite the apparent epidemic of learning and behavior disorders, we cannot ignore the global secular increase in IQ scores over the past three decades, something we would not predict if developmental toxins had reached the point at which they were overwhelming other factors in driving IQ downward. In every area we consider, complexities like this make definitive statements almost impossible. * And what of those we all know who suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? Or chemical sensitivities? Or Systemic Lupus or Multiple Sclerosis or other autoimmune diseases? Or with chronic anxiety conditions? Or depression? What of the increasing incidence of teen suicide? What about the five-fold increase in recent decades of asthma in children and adults alike? People can’t breathe. They lose their stress resilience. Their immune systems lose the capacity to protect them.. Their nervous systems lose resilience. They become depressed. They become more susceptible to infections and more vulnerable to chronic and degenerative illnesses. Can we sort out what — in the hothouse soup of thousands of chemical exposures, increased radiation exposures, altered diet, altered stress patterns, and other circumstances of an increasingly manmade world — causes what? Usually, we can’t sort out causation. Conclusive scientific evidence is frequently impossible to come by. But the “weight of the evidence,” a less stringent criterion, often points to suspicious causal patterns. And the precautionary principle — a preventative environmental public health perspective — gives us even more latitude to reverse the burden of proof about environmental exposures. There is nothing “scientific” that determines for us whether we take a precautionary principle approach, or a weight of evidence approach, or an absolute proof approach to the health impacts of climate change, ozone depletion, manmade chemicals or habitat destruction. Should we figure out precisely which developmental toxin, at what level and what window of fetal development, causes which specific developmental tragedy, before we start to get these chemicals out of the bodies and breast milk of young women? Except for the fact that fate drew me to work with troubled children and adults with cancer, there is nothing unusual in middle-class American experience about the health conditions that have affected me, my family, my co-workers and my friends. Cancer, infertility, endometriosis, learning disabilities and behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, chemical sensitivities, chronic fatigue syndrome, and a wide range of neurological and immune conditions are the commonplaces of American family life. The trouble is that these commonplaces are growing ever more common. And there are deep and legitimate suppositions that they are often linked to human economic activity and not natural environmental causes. 5. The Four Horsemen of the Age of Extinctions It seems unlikely that the scientific truth that we live in an Age of Extinctions can be hidden from informed public consciousness for too much longer. In fact, there are those familiar with poll data who would argue that the American public is already widely aware of the broad outlines of what we are sketching here. They simply get no systematic confirmation, no authoritative articulation of what we are describing, from the media. I will speak here of an Age of Extinctions, because extinction is the most dramatic of the facts of species life today. A more accurate description of our age would be of an Age of Extinctions, Diminishments, and Disruptions of Species. The great naturalist E.O. Wilson of Harvard University reports we are in the midst of a spasm of extinction that is reducing the number of species on earth to the lowest level since the cataclysmic end of the Age of Dinosaurs 65 million years ago. While there is endless debate on the level of these extinctions, Wilson estimates the rate at which species are dying is now one thousand times the “background level” at which whole species would otherwise disappear. There have been only five great Ages of Extinctions in the history of the earth. How has humanity, in its brief time on earth, come to be the first species to cause a such a spasm of rapid mass extinction? Eric Chivian of the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment lists the four principle causes of this Age of Extinctions that I cited earlier: climate change, ozone depletion, toxic chemicals and habitat destruction. We could add other causes, but this list will do for a start. * Climate change is shifting the weather and temperatures in which species live faster than they are able to adapt to these changes. These changes may become drastic. This is now officially the year of the worst El Nino conditions in a century in the United States. Some scientists are concerned that a deep freeze settling over Europe. The ice at the South Pole is melting. Many scientists predict that rising sea levels will wipe out Pacific island nations and flood coastal areas around the world. Ultimately, the health impacts on families, communities and nations of these changes will be so profound that a transformation of understanding of the relationship between health and the environment seems inevitable due to climate change alone. The great scientific debate is about the degree to which the climate change we are experiencing is part of natural climatic variation, or due to solar activity, or changing ocean currents, or human activities, or some combination of all these factors. * Ozone depletion is exposing species to ultraviolet radiation at levels that their immune systems cannot absorb. In New Zealand and Australia, public awareness of the health effects of sun exposure and incidence of melanoma is now widespread. Radio and TV programs warn families against sun exposure without a hat and sunscreen. But new studies show sunscreen has no effect on preventing skin cancer. Does that mean children should no longer play in the sun in New Zealand and Australia — or should go out with not only a hat but protective long sleeved shirts and long pants? Ultraviolet radiation exposure also lowers immune function, with deadly consequences for many species. Humans cannot be exempt from the impact of ultraviolet radiation on our immune systems. The thinning of the ozone layer is by no means restricted to the growing holes in the ozone layer over the North and South poles. How many of us, myself included, feel that direct sun exposure “stings” our skin in a way that it did not forty years ago? I personally feel a deep sense that I can only describe as outrage that it is no longer safe to go out in the sun without covering myself with chemicals that I have no wish to put on my skin and absorb into my body, and which, moreover, scientists now report do not seem to work. It is true that the Montreal Ozone Protocol has begun to control the production of ozone depleting chemicals — but that protection is far from complete and the thinning of the ozone layer has not yet reversed. One example of the ongoing threat is the continuing use of methyl bromide, which depletes the ozone layer, on strawberry crops in California. A second is the growing contraband production and smuggling of banned chlorofluorocarbons. We cannot assume this battle has yet been won. * Traces of toxic manmade chemicals are now found in the hundreds in the bloodstreams of peoples all over the earth. New research on endocrine disrupting chemicals, and other chemicals that function as fetal contaminants or developmental and reproductive toxins, shows that, at infinitesimal doses, these chemicals disrupt the development of human infants, and the infants of many other species, while they are still developing in their mother’s wombs. This disruption of the developing fetal endocrine system causes a remarkable array of diseases and disorders that are now at epidemic levels in many societies including are own. The final irony is that, when women breast feed, they transfer much of their lifetime burden of some of these lipophilic toxic chemicals, such as dioxin, in their breast milk to their infants. The scientific fact that we are poisoning our babies in their mothers’ wombs and at their mothers’ breasts is a tragedy by any classical standard. Mother’s milk is now sometimes so toxic that it could not be sold as a baby food product by FDA standards. This is tragedy in the deepest sense of the word. We should not avert our eyes. To avert our eyes, to succumb to what Robert Lifton has called psychic numbing, is to stumble blindly toward a future we are unwilling to face honestly. The truth is that nothing less than fundamental restructuring of the petrochemical backbone of industrial society is called for. This is the insight of the great program called The Natural Step, initiated by a remarkable oncologist Karl Henrik-Robert in Sweden, who has dared to think fundamentally about these issues, and has found a way to talk to large numbers of people and to mobilize his society, at least, to begin to reverse course. The genius of Henrik-Robert’s work is that he identified basic principles of scientific consensus that virtually all scientists agree on which demonstrate that we cannot continue to pollute and degrade the earth and expect humanity or the rest of life to survive. * Habitat destruction has many forms. As amoral corporations and desperate poor people cut down rain forests around the globe, they literally cut away the lungs of the planet. Climate change in combination with ancient practices of agricultural burning of rain forests create conflagrations like the one that has covered much of Southeast Asia with smoke, and threatens the Amazon as well. And as corporate raiders and poor people pour into these awesome storehouses of biological diversity, viruses and bacteria once safely housed in animals that could tolerate them “jump” into the human species. Many science writers exploring this topic have warned that new viruses from these hot zones may spread at any time as we continue our assault on the storehouses of biodiversity. Chivian did not intend this list of drivers of extinction — climate change, ozone depletion, chemical exposures and habitat destruction — as an exhaustive list. Nuclear war and nuclear radiation could, at any time, join the list of leading drivers of the Age of Extinctions. There are other candidates as well. Population growth is, of course, a leading factor in these extinctions, standing behind the increase in all four of the drivers that Chivian has listed. A widely used general statement that describes how population growth and technology interact in their impact on the biosphere states that the human impact on the earth (I) is the result of population (P) times consumption (C) times technology (T), or I= PxCxT. Like everything else, the interaction of population with extinctions is complex, since poor people in southern countries consume so much less than rich people in northern countries. And it is very important to recognize that new and less polluting technologies can give the (T) in the equation a value of less than 1.0, thus diminishing the human impact as surely as reductions in population or consumption does. And yet, simply put, more and more people, consuming more and more of the earth’s resources, with the application of frequently (not always) more toxic technologies, driven either by blind affluence or blind desperation, have become the leading cause of basic changes in the biosphere. 6. Effects on Human Health It is simply not credible to maintain that humanity can traverse this Age of Extinctions without the health of our own species being profoundly affected by it. Yet this is the assumption which undergirds the triumphalist free-market ideology of our time. For the triumphalist free-market ideology maintains that there is no reason restrain or guide the growth of population or consumption or technology — the three factors that combine to create the human footprint on the earth. In truth, the effects of the unrestrained growth of human population, consumption and technology on our health are already well underway. It is very important to emphasize that some of these global changes will favor the health of some people in some regions for some periods of time, even as they attack the roots of human life and biodiversity around the world. In some parts of the world, the effects are dramatically visible. They include wars, famine, and awesome events like the clouds of smoke and toxic pollution that hung over much of Southeast Asia from uncontrolled forest fires mixing their smoke with uncontrolled urban pollution in 1997. Tens of thousands sickened, and many died, simply trying to breathe in this unprecedented regional shock to environmental health.

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