Think before you buy: Consumerism warning labels

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.17.2012

Many of us buy too much for the wrong reasons and throw away too much as well. Even as we gauge the health of our economy by continued “growth” in dollar exchanges, the earth is groaning under the weight of our consumerism.

This is vastly different from the kinds of person to person exchanges that we find to nourish us at local small businesses and farmer’s markets—and a few larger businesses of conscience.

We have some hard-won warning labels outlining the health effects of cigarette smoking and side effects of drugs and pesticides (though the latter may be placed in print so tiny it is virtually unreadable).

But what if we looked at the larger picture?   My student Alyssa Bellamy suggested this warning label be places on all consumer items:

Warning: Consumption of this product means you have been brainwashed. Continued use may lead to your becoming ignorant, ill, and to further degradation of our earth and of the women and children and slave labor used to produce this product. And also, you may be tormented with never being satisfied and always trying to catch up.

My student Amanda MacKenzie suggested the items on this list:

Caution: Think before you buy this product.

  • Are you purchasing an item that supports making a quick buck for someone rather than ensuring the planet’s health for our future and for our children’s future?
  • Do you really need this product?  Do you want to be responsible for the way it was produced?   Continuing to purchase unsafe products produced by laborers working under conditions you would reject for yourself or your family will exaggerate these environmental toxins and labor practices.  If we keep buying such products, there is no incentive for companies to change their ways.
  • When we turn to consumerism, we become desensitized little by little.  We start feeling entitled, which opens up the pathway to competition’s replacing caring in us. This causes other humans to appear as potential threats.  This may manifest itself in small ways, like trying to keep up with the Joneses or starting a rumor so you get promoted instead of your co-worker.  This attitude can fester in a society and become more insidious, leading to war, rape, starvation, poverty, and a general disregard for the well-being of others.

I think Amanda’s analysis of the ways in which consumerism erodes our social fabric are especially astute.

Such “think before you buy” cautions ought to go not only on consumer products, but on the ads that we are liable to see flood the media with every political campaign as a result of the recent Supreme Court decision approving unlimited corporate campaign spending.

I would add the following items to the list above in assessing both purchasing choices and campaign ads:

  • Someone somewhere is paying for this ad.  YOU or your quality of life or that of your children may be part of the cost.
  • All consumer products or ads support particular values. An alert consumer will assess these values and if you don’t want to support these, don’t buy the product—or vote for it.
  • Does this ad speak to your ability to make decisions for yourself or does it attempt to manipulate you?  Don’t support anything that demeans you.
  • Who really benefits if you buy this ad or vote this way? (hint: check out who funded the ad.)
  • Does this ad attempt to scare or threaten you?  There is no reason to support this.
  • What information or support is there to back up the statements in this ad? Beware of fake “experts”.  Do you know, for instance, that many of the supposed “doctors” on tv ads are hired actors?
  • If you see the same ads over and over that you didn’t like the first time, stop watching them. There is a subconscious effect of such ads—even if you consciously feel you are ignoring them.

To keep our shared earth as well as our democracy safe and vital we need more than ever to follow the dictum:  Think before you buy”.  Here are links to websites that share information on consumer choices.

Join us in expanding this list. What warning labels would YOU place on media ads, campaign ads or consumer products?


To lead us off here is Marla Chirstensen‘s think before you buy warning label:

“Have you done your research? Which company is behind this product? How are their products manufactured? What toxins are in the product that will harm your body, the employees that manufacture it and/or the environment? What policies does this company have with regard to employee safety and long term protection for our earth?”

And here are Shawna Canaga‘s warnings:

“WARNING: Purchase of this product will lead to destruction of your self-esteem, your planet, and your voice for change.

WARNING: Families, women, and children world-wide have been displaced, lost farmland, are starving, incur disease, and are being violently oppressed so you may have this item. Is this what you want your dollars to do?

WARNING: This ad contains material which leads to anorexia, bulimia, self mutilation, violence against women, low self esteem, depression, severe personal debt, oppression of minorities, suicide, patriarchal support, increased division between the poor and the rich, addiction, sexual assault, and the continued consumer driven reinforcement of the idea that YOU’RE JUST NOT EVER GOING TO BE GOOD ENOUGH.”

And here is Molly Saranpaa‘s warning label:

“WARNING: We are attempting to distract you from anything and everything that does not concern amassing or consuming material goods. Over the years, we have spent billions trying to figure out how your mind works so we can subconsciously persuade you to buy this product (and countless others). We know that you really don’t NEED this product, but beware; we know how to make you WANT it.

“Be careful, without you being fully aware of it, we can skew YOUR values so that they line up with OURS. We value money and stuff above all else. We don’t care about our planet or the people who live on it. We have no conscience, no feelings and ultimately no remorse for what we do because we are a corporation. We can distort your personal values so much that before you know it, you will equate your own value (and that of those in your world) by the useless material possessions that you will never be able to get enough of. We think you are foolish and naive enough to by whatever it is you are selling.”

And Kirsten Tilleman added this:

“Warning:  Would you want your child to visit the farm where this meat was raised?

And we might add, would we want our child to visit the factory where other products are manufactured?”

From Darcy Meyers here is an additional  reminder of the importance of images in selling (and labeling) c0nsumer products:

“Since people consume goods based on images, I think we should also warn consumers about the effects of this consumption with images. For example, would you want to buy a can of tuna with a dead dolphin or seal on the front of the can? Or, what if a picture of the oil spill in the gulf was on every gas pump?”

And here are some suggestions from Carol Davis:

For media:
WARNING: The intent of this ad is to make you feel bad about your physical appearance in hope that you will buy our product(s) so we can laugh our way to the bank.

For campaign ads:
WARNING: This is part of a huge popularity contest and the purpose of this ad is to tell you exactly what you want to hear so you will vote for me/us. Be advised, I/we will not actually do what I/we said, it’s just for your vote.

On this point I would add,

Warning:  Know who is funding this candidate.

For consumer products:
WARNING: Should you decide to purchase this product, this company will make more from this item than the laborer that assembled it will make in a month, maybe a year, oh, maybe even 10 years. They will continue to struggle to feed their family, while our company president will buy more food than he/she needs.

Here is “warning” from Marissa Dubay  to place on conventional meat products:

WARNING: This product has been factory farmed, prepackaged, and laced with chemicals, hormones and food additives/dyes for your convenience. Ingesting this product can result in health risks that may include cancer, heart disease and high cholesterol. The animal that was slaughtered for your consumption may have been subject to brutal abuse and unsanitary living conditions, denied natural instinct or diet, and raised in an area so small it could not complete a 360 degree rotation for the duration of its short life. The production, processing, and transportation of this product uses large quantities of fossil fuel, depleting finite resources and contributing to global climate change. Your purchase ensures the continuation of these practices and increases demand for them.

And here is a pointed caution from Lindsay Longwell about the ways that modern products supplant our own knowledge and skill:

“ Warning: You did not put the work into growing this product, you did not sew it, ship it, package it, harvest it, you put no effort into this purchase at all, What would you do tomorrow if the world you knew disappeared forever?”

What Labels Really Mean Today

Labels can be very helpful in making healthy and responsible choices.  However, you will also want to avoid “greenwashing”– labels that mean absolutely nothing, such as “natural”, “cage free” or “antibiotic free”.  For what labels really mean, check out this detailed explanation in the March 2011 Audubon

Lessons from Yellowjackets: Speaking with the Natural World

By Madronna Holden

Some years back, my then three year old daughter and I were sitting in our front yard when a decidedly threatening man appeared and insisted I hire him.

For what, he never said.

In fact, without listening to my answer–which was an instinctive “no”– he let himself through our side gate and went around to the back of the house.

I barely had time to register my alarm at the fact he didn’t leave when I asked him to than he came out of our yard again, shouting that he was being attacked.

He was indeed. He had a swarm of yellowjackets in hot pursuit.

We never saw him again.

We ourselves came into daily contact with the yellowjackets who had a nest in our yard, but they never bothered us. I felt no qualms about sharing our garden with insects that had the capacity to be a nuisance, but also assisted us with pollination in the spring and consumption of other insects to feed their young later in the year.

I liked to imagine they refrained from stinging us since we tended the place where they found their sustenance—and they sensed this in whatever way yellowjackets might sense such things.

I liked to imagine that our daily rounds had become an accepted element of their world like rain and grass.

I know there are less poetic explanations for the yellowjacket attack on the stranger when they were so peaceable with us.  But I am reminded of the response Albert Einstein gave when asked if humans might one day reduce everything in nature to scientific explanation. His answer was yes, but that would be like explaining Beethoven through the measurement of sound waves. We could do it, but it would tell us nothing about the music.

Reportedly the anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski once grew impatient with the Trobriand Islanders as they related the reverent actions that made their yam gardens grow. Attempting to elicit a more pragmatic basis for their methods, he asked them whether they didn’t notice cause and effect.

They told him that was the simple explanation. The one reserved for things that didn’t have any meaning.  And growing the garden that gave them life did not fall into that category.

Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel once observed that it is an ” arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

I agree.  I prefer the story of natural creatures who express themselves in their own ways—and sometimes, if we are lucky, do so on our behalf.

I like to think that such creatures—even those we may be least apt to recognize as brethren—might choose to accept us into their communities and form alliances with us.

If we take a different view of the natural world– that of a “mere puzzle to be solved”, we lose considerable capacity for both wonder and vision.

The following Plains Indians story of a vision quest is illustrative.

A man who is seeking a vision fasts for several days.  He cries for his vision, humbling himself before the spirits of the world.

When he has done this for many long days and still no vision comes to him, he becomes desperate.  He climbs to the top of a great waterfall, determined he will live with a vision or die without one.

He jumps, abandoning himself to the roiling water.  And at that moment a magnificent white buffalo appears and swims him safely to shore.

From that day forward, the white buffalo becomes his spirit guide.

For the Indian audience that is the end of the story.

Still, the storyteller knows non-Indians will have questions:  “Was that really a white buffalo that pulled him out of the water?  What would someone standing on the shore see?”

So the storyteller adds something for their sakes:  “Something pulled him out of that water,” he asserts, “And whatever that was, belongs to him.”

It is only because the observer is a mere watcher on the banks of the river of life that he questions the life-saving vision another has found for himself.  Such an observer, with his self-proclaimed “objectivity”, is all too ready to declare his view of reality superior to that of the one who has chosen to dive in.

When I worked among the Chehalis Indians several decades back, elders were indignant that members of non-Indian culture might deem their traditions as “just stories”.   In such stories, passed down through thousands of years, was the collected wisdom of a people.

For their part, the elders who kept this knowledge on behalf of their people expressed considerable epistemological sophistication.  They understood that their individual views of the world were not reality.  To make such an assumption would be to insult those who shared their world. They honored all their unique voices as they asserted, “No one speaks for anyone else”.

By contrast, “even the best scientists” in Western tradition have made the profound mistake of believing, as Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute, put it, “that the world operates by the same method they use to study it.”

With parallel arrogance, colonizers regularly deemed the beliefs of those whose lands they usurped as “superstition”.  Anthropologist Ruth Benedict had a response to that:  an analytic response that makes the way modern industrial society uses technology the real superstitious behavior.

According to her, superstitious behavior is based on adhering to simple stimulus and response. (This is the view of cause and effect without deeper understanding that the Trobrianders decried).  We do something—wear a black sock– and something happens—our team wins.  And so we continue to wear that sock every time our team plays in hopes of controlling the outcome.

Superstitious behavior attempts to control the world through magical thinking.  And thus we cast our lot not only with the black sock but with science’s magic bullets.

Incidentally, the story of the yellowjackets with which I began this essay could  also become an instance of such superstitious thinking  if I interpreted it to mean that I might blithely trounce through the natural world without ever worrying about yellowjackets.

Like all stories, this one belongs to a particular time and place.  I have been elsewhere–out in the woods–in the front of a line of other humans on a hike when I inadvertently stepped too close to a yellowjacket nest and was stung.

And I can tell you a yellowjacket sting is no fun.  But the appropriate response seems to me not to try to get them because they got me– but to pay attention.  I have not learned to magically control all yellowjackets but to live with some of them for our mutual benefit.  They still are very much creatures of their own.

By contrast, our characteristic pesticide use is an instance of superstitious behavior by Benedict’s criteria.  We spray pesticides and insects die—until they no longer do because they have grown immune. But our behavior has becomes a reflex action.  So we spray more, still hoping to control the world for our convenience–not noticing the effects on the environment and our own health that a deeper assessment would bring us.

According to Benedict, the contrasting attitude is based on dialogue. It is about reverent communication with the world.  Thomas Berry eloquently expressed the same view when he stated that the world is not a “collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.”

The first kind of behavior—the manipulation of our world—has left us with climate change and cancer epidemics and skyrocketing autism rates. The other one left us with sustainable models by which humans lived in harmony with their natural environments for thousands of years.

Wonder cannot be commanded, but if we view the world with humility and respect, there is just a chance it will respond to us with marvelous rather than deadly surprises—as happened in the modern community of Gaviotas in Colombia.

The consequence of their careful partnership with place was the serendipitous restoration of the rainforest in all its biodiversity on once ravaged aluminum-laced llanos.

We should all be so graced.

How can you not plant a rose in wartime?

046

By Madronna Holden

updated 8.16.2011

“They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places.  We wanted the hardest place.  We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere.”

— Paolo Lugari (Gaviotas)

Some forty years ago, Paolo Lugari and a group of supporters founded the community of Gaviotas on the llanos-an aluminum-laced plain in Colombia situated between the territories of drug lords, guerrillas, right wing militia and an indigenous people trying to make their life there.  In partnership with native people and holding fast to values of cooperation, non-violence, sharing, and reciprocity with one another and with nature,  Gaviotas shaped a community that restored thousands of acres of rainforest with astounding biodiversity in a formerly ravaged area.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this restoration is the fact that the community of Gaviotas did not set out to do it intentionally. But as they held to their values of respect for the land and refusal to use chemicals and pesticides, their actions created this magnificent surprise.  Standing amidst its canopy besides a village where peace reigns in the midst of social turmoil, a bacteriologist declared, “This place is proof God exists”.

There is a folk story in which a man asks, “How can you plant a rose in wartime?”  The answer comes back: “How can you not plant a rose in war time”?

Kenneth Helphand cites this story in his book, Defiant Gardens-Making Gardens in Wartime, in which he describes gardens planted in the worst of times-by the prisoners in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, for instance, who planted gardens they knew they would not live to harvest.  But as these prisoners tended their gardens, they also tended something inextinguishable in their spirits, Like that to which W. S. Merwin refers in his poem, “Place”: “On the last day of the world, I shall plant a tree”.

“Plant a  tree and plant a new beginning”, says Kenyan Wangari Maathai.  Planting trees led this Nobel Laureate and leader of the Kenyan-based Greenbelt Movement, to her courage and her persistence–and the hope that she wants above all to pass on the next generation despite the crushing challenges the future brings.

Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye expressed the sustaining power of the natural world this way, “The only word a tree knows is yes”. Perhaps all humans, like Nye in this poem, “are born to answer a tree”. Daryl Forde researched an African tale known by many of those sold into slavery that helped them endure the horrors of their oppression.  In that tale, the protagonist plants a “life tree” that survives him when he is stolen into a world where he is helpless.  However, his spirit revives when his brother comes upon the tree he left behind and waters it.

In line with such ancient wisdom some have transformed the “worst places” by finding a way to plant a garden there.  West Oakland is one such place, a disaster zone created by the industrialized global economy, where children are subject to lead poisoning, and residents are sandwiched between ports and warehouses, rail yards and diesel truck depots. Seventy per cent of the 30,000 people here live below the poverty line. Five years ago, this was no place to look for a garden.  There was no oasis anywhere where children could contribute their labor to an effort that mattered to them while they felt physically secure. But thanks to Willow Rosenthal and a dedicated band of neighborhood residents, that has changed.

Rosenthal chose West Oakland as a place to focus her efforts on organic gardening not in spite of the conditions there but because of them. Her effort started with a 2000 foot lot lent to her– and community support.  She worked on the supposition that the community contained its own answers to the desperate issues of hunger and pollution that faced them.  The first year, they harvested 2000 pounds of quality produce from their tiny garden and their effort grew from there.  Today West Oakland sports a Saturday farm stand which sells produce on a sliding scale that begins with zero and offers starts that residents can plant in their back yards, a local composting program where residents can either drop off their scraps or learn to compost them, cooking and gardening workshops, barbecues and other community-wide celebrations, a medicinal garden (established with the help of a local Filipina herbalist), and back yard gardens built and maintained with community effort, in addition to the intensive gardens farmed communally.

West Oakland’s community gardens have some publicity-for instance, an article in spring 2008’s Earth Island Journal.But there are those gardens we may not hear much about that are inspiring in their own quiet ways.  Lily Anderson describes one such garden:

“Two years ago, in the middle of a long period of unemployment, my father was living in Emeryville (also in the Bay Area) and found solace in a community garden, Big Daddy’s Complete Rejuvenating Garden. The garden is on top of what was once a gas station. The plants climb up art installations, sculptures, and paintings. I used to come into town and walk with my father, over the 580 freeway, to help tend his plot. Pesticides are forbidden at Big Daddy’s and so we would lay egg shells and halves of cut melon to distract the bugs from the tomato and spinach plants. I have never seen such a beautiful representation of nature and community before. Surrounded by industrial buildings and road noise, there’s a little oasis where people come together, discuss their garden, and sit among the flowers.”

There are solitary individuals working to green their cities in ways most of us will never hear of.  I would not have learned of “Gardener Robert” but for the information shared by my student, Kristian Godfrey, who worked in a bagel shop in Gainesville, Florida where Gardener Robert bartered his produce.  In her words, Robert “was a man who made gardens, and I mean he MADE them.”  Robert roamed the outskirts of modern American society, since he didn’t work. Perhaps he carried some mental distress that prevented him from doing so, “because he simply couldn’t sit still, he had so much energy he vibrated”-and he refused to deal with money-even the fee for a community garden plot.  He needed more space than that anyway. “Thus Robert would find abandoned plots of land; plots squished between buildings and apartments and businesses, and then proceed to track down the owners and then beg/ barter the use of their land for his gardens. He always had at least four in town. He would also ride his bicycle to abandoned places away from the city and garden. He offered space to anyone who wanted to garden with him, no charge. And the gardens fed him, every bite he ate. He would come to the bagel shop and barter, bags of bagels which would normally be thrown into the dumpster at the end of the day were traded for Robert’s Seminole pumpkins, bags of basil, or whatever happened to be in season.”

Gardener Robert would become depressed when the owners of his city plots would reclaim them, and his beautiful gardens would be paved over. But he would ride on seeking out his next spot to plant and beautify, even if it was only temporary.  As in the community of Gaviotas, “Gardener Robert survived and re- introduced plants in the hardest of places.”

Priti Shah adds another example of what she terms “guerrilla gardening”:

“I had the opportunity to participate in “guerilla farming” when visiting a friend in Honolulu.  We toured a few blocks and harvested greens from patches in front of restaurants and strip malls and dead space between high rises. I then helped plant a garden in the center of a busy road on the strip of dirt enclosed in concrete dividing the lanes. We tore up the dirt, added compost and soil, and then planted beans, sweet potatoes, greens, herbs and flowers. I was incredibly moved and thankful to see how much can be done with such a space.  I later checked in with my friend who notified me that the garden was doing well and people who live on that road are now care-taking and eating from it!”

If ever there was a “hard place” for such a garden, it was North Philadelphia where artist Lily Yeh began her work, in an area over half the original population had recently fled, leaving behind vacant buildings and lots full of garbage-and a remaining population where 32 per cent of the labor force was unemployed, houses were riddled with dangerous disrepair and schools provided the most meager of educations.  There was youth violence, high levels of incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution.

Why should she come to work in such a place by choice? Yeh was driven by a need to reclaim the meaning of art. Being Chinese, she had witnessed the massacre in Tiananmen Square.  Instead of turning away from that horror, she re-dedicated herself to proving the power of art to heal and redeem society.

In North Philadelphia, Yeh felt vulnerable, but not discouraged. She recognized her weakness as her strength, since what she could not do alone was an invitation for the community to help her.  That help early on included a former drug dealer who seized the opportunity to create real meaning with his labor. Yeh worked on “reconnecting what is broken, healing what is wounded, and making the invisible visible” in the most concrete of ways: by hauling garbage from abandoned lots and replacing devastation with plants and with the beauty of her art-sometimes she transformed the very garbage she  found into inspired mosaics.

Today, The Village (as it now called),  sports fourteen parks, numerous community gardens, educational facilities, a youth theater, offices and a crafts center serving 10,000 low income people whom Yeh’s leadership-through-art helped  re-possess and re-build their homes.

It all began with the simple idea that Yeh could offer a bit of beauty as a token of respect for the citizens of inner city Philadelphia.

After all, how can you not plant a rose in war time?

Breast Milk and Salmon Waters: shared contamination and what to do about it.

Post updated 12.12.2013

I reviewed Tainted Milk, in which Maria Boswell-Penc investigates why so little attention has been paid to the contamination of breast milk in the U. S. with dangerous chemicals such as endocrine disruptors.

After assessing the data, Boswell-Penc concludes that breast feeding is still the best way to nourish your baby, especially since organic formula is lacking immune factors passed on in mother’s milk. And since this book came out, even some “organic” formula has been found to have been processed with a toxic chemical. Moreover, today  (September 21) the Washington Post reported that the EPA has bowed to White House and Pentagon pressure in its likely decision to fail to regulate perchlorate in drinking water. This chemical, which causes irreversible thyroid damage in some infants, will be delivered at fifteen  times the body weight safety limits to infants fed formulas mixed with drinking water from many municipal systems.

Breast milk is not only environmentally friendly (no packaging, no processing), but distribution friendly.  When I was nursing my daughter, I could not believe formula makers could get away with marketing their product as more “convenient”.  I didn’t have to buy, prepare and heat my milk in the middle of the night-or ever.

A recent study peer-reviewed by 14 scientists indicates  the contrasting effects of a healthy nutrient in human milk versus its unhealthy variant– at least to infants–  in certain cow’s milk.  The presence of variants of this peptide or protein fragment is implicated in the fact that cow’s milk  formula fed babies are ten times more likely to experience psychomotor developmentally delay than breastfed babies.

Soy milk formulas that are not organic are also problematic.  They are poorly digested, are missing essential nutrients and contain high levels of “proto-estrogens”  or false estrogens that mimic hormones of adult women.  Inorganic soy is laden with pesticides (some of which are also estrogenic). Moreover, current inorganic soy products are overwhelmingly genetically engineered.

Formula is important for mothers unable to nurse. Boswell-Penc suggests a network of breastmilk banks to support such mothers.  She gives examples of successful breastmilk banks-and in fact, this is the ancient human solution for tribal peoples who classically nursed one another’s babies to provide mothers with newborns the chance to sleep through the night or go on extensive gathering trips without their babies.   Here is a link to one such bank.

For now, however, I would suggest that mothers who cannot breastfeed– or do not have access to breastmilk from any other source at least use organic formula.

Altogether, the fact that relatively few US women breastfeed as a matter of course has other repercussions. The facts about breast milk contamination spread rapidly in the European Union where the large majority of women do breastfeed. This led Sweden to prohibit the manufacture of the toxic chemicals found in their breast milk-and thus to make their breast milk supply safe very quickly.  The REACH program in the European Union, based on the precautionary principle, has resulted in the pulling from the market a large number of chemicals.  And it was put into practice partly because of the evidence for contamination in breast milk.

This is a matter of environmental justice to the vulnerable among us.  It goes without saying that the relative concentration of toxic chemicals has a greater potential for harm in small and developing human bodies.  Not incidentally, such contamination has been found in the wombs of pregnant women throughout the U.S.

There is pragmatic logic as well as justice here.  Contamination in breast milk is another of those canaries in the coal mine:  it signals the body burden of toxic chemicals we all bear.  Indeed, as Tainted Milk notes, testing breast milk turns out to be a simple, non-invasive way to test for more general chemical contamination in human bodies.

REACH regulations have led to some interesting responses on the part of manufacturers in the U.S.  Because the European Union will not accept toys made with particular hazardous chemicals, for instance, some US toy makers currently have two assembly lines.  In one they make goods for the European market using EU standards. In the other, anything goes-and they sell toys made that way within the U.S.

Tainted Milk makes the case that one of the reasons we haven’t cleaned up our breast milk supply is the misconception that its contamination is limited to particular “hot spots” of environmental contamination, like superfund sites.  It is certainly true that those living in areas of particular chemical contamination suffer more body burdens of these chemicals. But modern contamination is a systematic rather than an individual “trouble spots” issue-as the quick curative action on the part of Sweden indicates.

Chemical pollution travels:  mercury from coal burning in China can be found on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. And chemicals we dumped on third world countries when we outlawed them here are still found today in the U.S., partly because such chemicals, like DDT, are persistent in the environment, partly because they have come back to us on imported foods-but also because they have spread to us on natural systems.  Thus the air in the White Mountains of New Hampshire tests positive for chemicals produced decades ago in the U.S. and sold to and used in Mexico.

Shouldn’t our alarm bells be going off concerning this?  Why isn’t the U.S. expressing leadership in this arena rather than lagging behind the European Union?  Why are we still allowing the manufacture and sale of chemicals like the dangerous ones found in breast milk-many of which are on the same list as those 7 chemicals which the National Marine Fisheries Service tells might well cause the extinction of endangered salmon species in Oregon?

We could use some national leadership on this issue.

Ultimately, we all swim in the same waters and breathe the same air, and so the fate of the salmon-or the polar bear or the wolf-or the third world countries to which we import certain of our chemicals and from which we buy cheap goods- is the fate we all share.

Concerned about this?  Here are some things you can do:

1.  Don’t use pesticides on your lawn and garden. For alternatives, see the site and newsletter of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.  http://www.pesticide.org/

There are other consumer products to avoid here.

They also have a program to stem the use of pesticides in parks and playgrounds.

Support the Safe Chemicals Act.
2. If you want to spread the word to your neighbors, the City of Eugene Stormwater Division has a great postcard with the heading, “Is your lawn pesticide free– maybe it should be”.   If you don’t live in Eugene, get a copy and see if you can get your municipality to print and distribute it.

3.  Support any of the suits brought by earthjustice against the sale and use of dangerous chemicals.

4. If you are in the Willamette Valley, use the detailed map developed by the Corvallis Environmental Center detailing toxic discharge sites along the Willamette River to clean up the river.

Update: there was formerly a petition for you to sign letting US health officials know that breastfeeding should be supported as the healthiest alternative for our babies.  However, that petition has since been sent on.  If you live in Canada, however, here is a current petition you can sign on the same topic.

Moreover, here is the UN program linking child health with infant formula issues from the site of the “International Baby Food Action Network.”

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One thing NOT to do is give to the following charities, which have listed by investigative reporters of the Tampa Bay Times as on the list of the 50 worst charities (they are on that list because they spend the vast majority of their money on their own administrators and on professional fund raising rather than on actual help for breast cancer victims or breaset cancer research).

American Breast Cancer Foundation

Breast Cancer Relief Foundation

Woman To Woman Breast Cancer Foundation

United Breast Cancer Foundation

Links to legitimate charities that support women’s healthcan be found on our links page.

Other information:

Breastfeeding Moms Boot Nestlé from Maternity Wards

Milk sharing networks for mothers unable to breastfeed their babies:

Valerie Fowler provided this link to “milk sharing” (rather than milk banking which can, in the US be very expensive).  Erica Henderson has provided us with links to another milk sharing network noted above.  Thanks to both of you!

The Story Given to Me by Seals

Ancient stories taught our ancestors to hear the voices of the larger than human world.  There are those stories, for instance, in which men find themselves married to seals-who nonetheless still long for the sea.  No matter how much the seal-wife loves her human husband, she will abandon him for her first home if she gets the chance.

And if her husband is not wise enough to give her that chance, she will die. As with the seal-wife in this tale, something of the wild may profoundly touch us–it may even come to live with us for a time.  But if we attempt to keep it under our control, we will kill its vitality. We will also lose something essential in ourselves in the process.  There is the telling origin of the word “nightmare” related by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.  Those who first domesticated horses in Britain believed that for every mare broken to a stall, there was a “nightmare” that haunted the craggy cliffs and bogs where humans dared not go.  And with her long teeth and dangerous hooves, she trampled those who would domesticate her in their dreams.

The sense of the wild as something in need of taming is a relatively new one in human cultures– and as the historical incident above indicates, it carries considerable psychic ambivalence. Pope Benedict recently observed that we need to reclaim an understanding of natural law: of the perception that we might find a guideline for human conscience in the profound spiritual order of the natural world. This idea directly coincides with traditions of indigenous Northwesterners such as those on the Columbia River who understood the “laws of creation” as necessary and ethical human behavior.

Indeed, many cultures understand that natural life has something essential to say to us both about the sacred and about human conscience.  Take the story from the Black Sea, which tells how seals and whales once lived on land and built an empire with their hands whose bones are still very much like those in our own hands. According to this story, they also created a sophisticated technology– but they used it to make war on one another and ravage the earth.

In short, they violated natural law in a way parallel to what many humans are doing today.

The Mother of Life intended to destroy them before they destroyed life itself. But the holy men among them struck a bargain with her. If she would let their people live, they would take to the sea, and exchange their dangerous hands for flippers.  As part of the bargain they would warn others away from the mistake they had made.

Thus it is a seal might follow us along the shore, as if trying to catch our attention, or a whale will beach near a ship as if it has something to tell us– in spite of the dangers to itself in doing this.

It is not so great a distance between listening to the earth in order to understand “natural law” and attributing agency to the wild. Indeed, if we truly believe that the natural world is animated by law that transcends human whims, mysterious things follow.   Folktales from traditions throughout the world reach across species lines to the mythic times when “all the animals and humans spoke the same language”–and animals had much to teach us about being human.

Such tales are not limited to non-Western societies.  There is an intriguing European folktale from the Middle Ages, in which a young boy outcast by his rich father for failing to be a social climber has one marvelous trait:  he can understand the language of animals. This skill not only helps him foil the plots of those humans who conspire against him. The story ends by his being chosen Pope, since the doves of the Holy Spirit speak not only with him but about him to the faithful.

What folktales tell us in their mythic inspiration, the natural world expresses in its own mysterious ways when wild creatures reach across the species lines to us– as has happened to me–and likely to each of your in various ways.  Such experiences have led me to believe there are no coincidences- -only stories waiting to be told.  Those stories are gifts that life blesses us with: our job is to be alert enough to recognize them.

One such story of depicting my own experience begins at Sunset Bay on the Oregon coast almost twenty years ago. In winter, when I came to Coos Bay to teach, I regularly walked the beach alone, in companionship with sea and sky–and a certain baby seal who would follow me along the edge of the tide line, popping up to eye me with its  wide unblinking stare. In response to its curiosity I began a spontaneous song

“You with your ocean eyes,

I with my feet on earth.

What will say to me?”

As I sang, I happened to look down at the beach where I strolled. And there at my feet was a flat rock, half the size of my palm that was shaped exactly like a seal!

I placed this in the glove compartment of my car as a memento of the mysterious ways in which our world is bound together.

A few months later I was camping at that same beach with my seven year old daughter, who was fascinated by the seal-stone and its story.  As I ran in the sand a short distance away, she took it out to play with. And amidst the uncounted stones on this beach, it slipped away and disappeared. No matter how hard we looked, we could not find it again.

My first response was frustration.  How could she be so careless with my treasure? But then I understood something.  Perhaps she has done just what she should.  What good is a thing with a story to it preserved in the dash compartment of a car? (Or a museum or a zoo?) It should be taken out, admired, played with-and ultimately given back to the elements once again.

After all, my daughter had only given back to the beach what belonged to it. Such a thing we may hold in our hands only long enough to glimpse something luminous from the heart of life. Only long enough, that is, to feel how precious it is-before we release it back to the natural world from which it came.

And if we do give it back, as I did only with my daughter’s help, more wondrous things may happen.

A short time after the stone was lost, I was at Cape Arago beach, a vigorous walk from Sunset Bay.  I like to imagine that this was just time enough later for a stone to be swept up by the tide and travel back to the sea with a story attached to it.  For, as I sat against a driftwood log, half dozing in the sparkling sunlight, a baby seal climbed out of the sea, pulling itself laboriously through the sand, and placed its head on the log on which I leaned my own head less than a foot from my own.

During the time I stayed by the log, the seal dozed beside me.  When I walked up the cliff to my car, I watched her slide back down the beach to the sea and swim away again.

She left me with this story that indicates how much larger the world is than our rational conception of it–the limiting rationality that the Pope decries as constraining us only to analyze and manage our world rather than to feel our full embeddedness in it-and accept the messages it wishes to bring us.

But if we do perceive the way the wild places us in its story, we can hardly fail to honor a world so full of gifts.

Please note that this material is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden.  I welcome you to link to this site, but you need my permission to reproduce the material here.

Burning down the House

As Chehalis elders reminded a visiting anthropologist in 1926, human power strong enough to heal is also power strong enough to kill. It would not have surprised them that the third leading cause of death in the US today, after cancer and heart disease, is undergoing a medical procedure.

Today we are great at developing new technologies– but not so great at considering the results of applying them– or even understanding what those results might be. Thus we sorely need the “precautionary principle” instituted in European Union countries and some municipalities in the U.S. That principle states, “No data, no market” with respect to innovative technologies. That is, we shouldn’t market such new technologies until we have researched their safety. As modern philosopher Andrew Light observed, we look both ways before crossing the street even though we are not one hundred per cent certain a car is coming. We might certainly apply the same basic standard of precaution to the thousands of new chemicals and genetically engineered foods their developers are releasing annually into our shared environment.

Indeed we might apply parallel standards of care to all human technology. Take the example of the wildfires currently burning everywhere in the West. One could hardly find a more basic form of human technology than fire. Learning to set that first fire was an important step for humans. No more cold winters and raw meat. It seems we like this about ourselves. Western culture cheers those who “set the world on fire”. But that does not absolve us of choices. A deed that is “world burning” is only a good thing until we come face to face with global warming. And even a single campfire may spread out of control and set someone else’s house on fire if not properly handled.

We might do well mull over traditional stories told by indigenous Northwesterners such as the Chehalis, which encouraged care in dealing with fire-and by extension, with all human technology. Fires burned on the prairies between the land of the living and the land of the dead in such tales. In one story, Bluejay has to cross these prairies-and learn lessons about how to deal with fire-lest he get himself burned up and relegated to the land of the dead forever.

This story taught pragmatic lessons to those who regularly gathered in inter-tribal groups to set fires to clear out the underbrush in their landscapes that otherwise provided fuel for more dangerous fires. At the same time their fires encouraged habitat for game animals and important food crops. Those fires were essential, and they set then with care.

Without their own stories that helped them deal with fire, pioneers stopped native burning and suppressed fires started by natural causes. Smokey the Bear became our icon. But that didn’t exactly work out as planned. If an area has no small fires, fire fuel builds up there. When that area does burn in the inevitable course of things, it burns with a larger and hotter fire. Today Forest Service policies have put that lesson into effect to allow for controlled burning and/or fires started by natural causes to burn unabated.

Fire is not good or bad in itself. It is not a matter of whether we should laud it or outlaw it. Instead we have to learn how to handle it. And as the example of fire illustrates, in learning how to handle it, we must account for the cumulative and spreading effects of our actions. In parallel fashion, we must assess the health effects of chemicals currently in production before we release new ones into the environment, as stressed in a memo sent recently to the members of Congress crafting the Kid-Safe chemicals Act by the Science and Environmental Health Network.

I am impressed by the compassion for their fellow citizens exhibited under emergency conditions. Last night (July 10) shelters housing those who evacuated because of the fire in Spokane issued a call for donated toys. They were flooded with so many responses, in only a few hours they had to issue a request to stop sending donations.

But on the flip side of our compassion, we have our carelessness. It is true that wildfires may be started by lightning strikes-and these in turn are exaggerated by global warming and its destabilizing weather patterns. But it’s also true that the vast majority of the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California were started not by lightning but by individual humans.

It seems our frontier mentality is still with us. According to the dictum of “full steam ahead” and “dam the torpedoes”. asking an entrepreneur to pause in getting a designer chemical to market is an unpatriotic as throwing a damper on a firecracker on the Fourth of July.

The Fourth of July gave campers in northern California ample opportunity to start the majority of thousands of wildfires there. My neighbor related her own experience celebrating the Fourth of July on the beach where crowds gathered to set off fireworks. She watched a father hand his toddler a lit bottle rocket- I imagine he wanted to share the excitement of shooting it off with him. The toddler, not knowing quite what to do with it, turned around in a circle and finally launched it-into the open door of the family van. Out of the van poured the rest of the family who happened to be lounging there out of the wind to watch the family fireworks. Then someone remembered the rest of their fireworks were still in the van. Back in they went with sand and water and fortunately captured the miscreant firework which miraculously hadn’t lit anything else on fire.

While my neighbor was laughing, she heard a whoosh and turned around to note that someone from another family group had tossed a sparkler into the backseat of her own car through an open window. After they managed to put it out, her family went home. They had had all the fun they wanted for one night.

Some seem to hold to the idea that if we’re on vacation, nothing bad could happen to us. We’ve entered a realm where none of the cautions we otherwise use in daily life apply. That’s the frontier mentality as well: if we’re pushing the boundaries of human technology, nothing bad will happen as a result.

As a first step in rectifying such abdications of caution, it would help to name things correctly. Just as we can’t rightly call the recent flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa a “natural disaster” (since it was due to the breaking of levies humans built to protect houses situated in a flood plain), we can’t blame the wildfires burning in the West “natural” disaster. There are a number of dams in Oregon with cracks in their infrastructure-dams holding back water from the flood plains where currently reside hundreds of thousands of people. If those dams break under stress, as did the levies in New Orleans and Cedar Rapids, it’s ignoring our own responsibility to label the results a “natural” disaster. And acknowledging our responsibility is the first step to taking care of both ourselves and our environment.

Assuming such responsibility allows us to learn from our mistakes. Forest Service policy aside, things haven’t changed much since pioneer times on the score of our carelessness with fire in the Pacific Northwest. Those who played out the bottle rocket version of keystone cops on the beach were only following precedent. The year before first Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens came to announce his unacceptable treaty provisions to the indigenous folks on the Olympic Peninsula, local emigrants accidentally set the forest on fire during their own Fourth of July celebration. That fire raged out of control until the autumn rains finally put it out.

By the time Washington became a state things weren’t going much better. That year was 1889, the same year a Seattle fire consumed two dozen business blocks and all the mills and wharfs on the bay, in spite of the help of volunteer firemen from Victoria to Portland. A similarly devastating fire hit Spokane in late summer of that year, as did fires that took much of downtown Vancouver and destroyed parts of Ellensburg, Goldendale and Roslyn. As a Snohomish County pioneer put it, it seemed “inevitable in all pioneer towns” that fire “virtually destroyed the entire town”.

As smoke pours into the Willamette Valley and hunkers down here from the thousands of wildfires burning in northern California, I am reminded of an historical image relayed to me by venerable Lower Chehalis elder Nina Baumgartner. When the first Scotsman arrived on the Olympic Peninsula with his red hair flying out in all directions, her people joked that they thought his head was on fire. This joke was about more than appearance. Baumgartner went on to relate the tale in which Bluejay crosses those burning prairies– which she emphatically slanted toward the necessity of being careful with fire.

With our heads set on “full steam ahead”, we don’t dwell on the disastrous potential of our power. We forget that what seems adventurous or profitable in the moment might eventually burn down our neighbor’s house-or give our children cancer.

But to balance that dangerous foolishness is the level of community response that brought firefighters from Portland to Victoria on the scene in Seattle in 1889-the same kind of community response that caused those fighting California fires to travel 24 hours and then begin their work without sleep.

Imagine if we could put such community feeling to work on caring for the future of our shared planet, as those in the Science and Environmental Health Network are currently doing.

Olympia Peninsula elder Nina Baumgartner’s people had ten thousand years to learn how to live in partnership with their land–and to observe the effects of their own actions. We don’t have the luxury of such timing. But the precautionary principle, which states that human innovations need to be proved harmless before enacted, is a good place to start. This principle helps compensate for the intersection of the limits of human knowledge with the power of human actions. It helps protect humans and natural systems from harm as did traditional indigenous stories stressing care in how we use our power.

The Precaution Reporter provides a wealth of information on the movement to institute the precautionary principle globally. And the Science and Environmental Health Network provides an outline of this principle and ways to support it.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, by Madronna Holden, and if you wish to copy it, please email for permission. Thanks.

Blessing the Water: Gifts for a Gift

By Madronna Holden

Cottage Grove, the self-proclaimed “All American City” was an interesting site for the ceremony that took place on the banks of a tributary of the Willamette as the hazy heat hung in the air. Oral history recalls gatherings of pioneers and Native peoples at this site on Silk Creek. The gathering this afternoon was every bit as mixed. It included members of the Washat Longhouse religion brought here by a Nez Perce man, native and non-native members of the Willamette Valley and Cottage Grove Grandmother’s Councils, and miscellaneous others, including a young boy whose prayer ribbon boasted the Hindu blessing “Namaste”.

From the Longhouse singers with blankets folded over their arms to the white-haired woman from Eugene in a wheelchair the electric crowd had something in common that overrode their differences: their prayers for the earth’s waters upon which we all depend for survival.They offered songs of praise to the water from different traditions and poured water blessed by grandmothers from around the world into the river. And they gave gifts of songs and rose petals and sage and foxglove (to strengthen the heart of the water) to the river. It was important to pass on something beautiful to the river to replace the dumping in it that is all too common. Indeed, one participant pulled a twisted metal sign holder out of the river during the ceremony.

As one gray haired speaker recently arrived from Mexico observed, there are too many people on this earth who have never known what it is to drink clean water, much less to bathe in it. Grandma Aggie has seen the places where such deprivation exists first hand in her travels around the world with the other grandmothers.Water, its shortage and quality, is a worldwide crisis that is already here.

In the context of such imperatives, we might ask what difference it makes if a few dozen citizens of earth gather together to honor their local river. I have more than one way to answer this: for one thing, it is my sense that addressing our current environmental crises is not a matter of technological fixes, but of changing how we think and act. Honoring the river as was done this afternoon is certainly a disincentive to dumping in it– or allowing anyone else to do this.

It strengthens this sense of intimacy with the river when we remember that our own nourishment is linked to the way we nourish our earth.This was underscored in the ceremony when we all drank water that had witnessed our blessings for it.

In one of the conversational groups that formed after the ceremony, talk turned to the heyokas, sacred individuals of Plains culture who heal by doing things backwards in order to undo and rewind the ribbon of life tangled by our mistakes.Giving songs and praise and flower petals and sage to the water was such an unwinding: a reversal of the knots in our thinking which license us to take and take from this land rather without giving back to it.

Another story I heard in the circles afterward was this.A woman had just lost a dog and was grieving over this when she was given a new puppy.She was happy about this—except for the fact that an eagle took to circling over the puppy’s kennel. She knew well enough how fast and strong a golden eagle can be when it set its sights on something.Whether or not it was good for her, she stated, she really wanted that puppy—and had to do something about her fear for it.So she went to the log where she has a “gift plate” and left an offering of food for the eagle with the prayer that it not eat her puppy.When she returned, the food was gone and an eagle feather was in its place. Notably, the feather had a tiny splotch of blood at the tip of the quill. She had never seen a feather with blood on it like that.

This led to speculation that the eagle had pulled out its feather to give her. In any event, it left her puppy alone after that.

I would not presume to tell you what was in that eagle’s mind. But I like to contemplate what our world might look like if we all treated the natural world with this kind of diplomacy—the kind of diplomacy entailed in the gifts to the water at the ceremony at Cottage Grove. The is the way Grandma Aggie, the guiding force behind this ceremony and the local grandmother’s councils, urges us to treat the water: as if it is a live thing that can hear us and understand when we honor it.

Thanks to all those who offered me this vision this afternoon.

This post is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to use it.