Acting As If Future Generations Matter

By Carolyn Raffensperger, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine

"Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky.
It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable."
Rebecca Solnit

Of all the questions I am asked as an environmentalist, the hardest to answer is how I keep on going given the odds. Social workers, college students, moms and dads, mechanics and doctors hear the environmental threats scratching at their door and smell the trouble in the air. They want to know if their babies will be born healthy, if their grandchildren will have wild whale, honeybee and pelican companions, if the redwoods will still reach to the sky when their great grandchildren come of age. The odds are against us.

My dirty secret is that I hide behind numbers. It is easier to hold the sorrow at bay when we hear statistics -- this many birth defects, this many lost species, this many rivers contaminated, this many acres paved over -- since the numbers and the decimal points have no faces, no story. But sometimes the numbers have their own ghoulish power.

Consider these from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families:

  • Leukemia, brain cancer, and other childhood cancers have increased by more than 20 percent since 1975.
  • Breast cancer went up by 40 percent between 1973 and 1998. While breast cancer rates have declined since 2003, a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is now one in eight, up from one in ten in 1973.
  • Asthma prevalence approximately doubled between 1980 and 1995 and has stayed at the elevated rate.
  • Difficulty in conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy affected 40 percent more women in 2002 than in 1982. The incidence of reported difficulty has almost doubled in younger women ages 18–25.
  • The birth defect resulting in undescended testes has increased by 200 percent between 1970 and 1993.
  • Since the early 1990s, reported cases of autism spectrum disorder have increased tenfold.

This list of statistics is like Pandora’s box that contained all the evil in the world.

Each number is a story of suffering. Each child who has leukemia or autism or a birth defect is an entire book of lamentations. The great sorrow is that so many of those problems can be prevented. So many of those cancers, birth defects and learning disabilities are caused by environmental contaminants. We have good scientific evidence that certain chemicals cause certain diseases and that the effects of toxic chemicals can be magnified by poor diet and social stressors like poverty or racism. There are strong links between some pesticides that are designed to be neurotoxicants and Parkinson’s disease. We have demonstrated tight causal chains between some chemicals and the disruption of hormone systems that cause the beautifully orchestrated development of a fetus in the womb to go haywire, resulting in deformities of the penis.

I went to work for the Sierra Club in the 1980s. Our major approach to siting radioactive waste facilities or to protect endangered species, or promoting environmental health was to say “no." This meant that environmentalists, including me, were an angry lot. “No, you can’t build that dam. No, you can’t site that garbage dump. No, you can’t."

We had plenty of evidence that indiscriminate yeses got us into big trouble. Toxic messes like Love Canal, Chernobyl or Bhopal let us know that our approach to toxic chemicals or hazardous facilities had failed. Saying no was the only tool we had since our environmental policies are not designed to further health of either the human community or the Earth.

If we agree that the system isn’t working to protect the health of the land, air, water, fish and mammals; the health of babies, teenagers and elders, what can we do?

Continue reading here.

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