Beyond damage control: getting the future we want

By Madronna Holden

In the face of emergencies like the Gulf oil spill, many of us feel like the man in the traditional story who pulls one drowning man after another out of the river.

But even as he reaches the end of his energy and wits, he sees another man running upriver to stop the one pushing all these people into the river in the first place.

Though in an emergency, it may seem that damage control is all we can, so, we should never let it replace our vision—or our rational perceptions of what needs to be done.

Community planner Eben Fodor, who is doing an independent evaluation of “Envision Eugene”,  Eugene’s Comprehensive Lands Assessment, observed in a South Eugene Neighbors meeting last night that such damage control has replaced vision in this process. Thus, instead of asking how to create a vital and thriving community of humans and nature, we must figure out how to eke out sustainability and cut carbon emissions in the context of the same growth-oriented development model that has caused our problems in the first place.

In this context, we can only pull as many as possible out of the river—and community members fight with one other over which are the most important to keep from drowning.

As innovative environmental designer William McDonough has put it, such a “visioning” process is like setting a goal of going 20 miles per hour rather than 30 in the wrong direction.

What we really need to do is turn around.

Robert Emmonds of Lane County Landwatch, also at the neighborhood meeting, outlined the ideas that might make this happen– with a primary goal of matching human use to the character of the land. Fitting people’s actions to the land rather than attempting remake the land to fit human convenience is an ancient and effective strategy in human history.  One that develop a partnership between humans and their land.

Whether or not we agree with its details, this proposal deserves to be on the table– which cannot happen, since the comprehensive plan is working under the constraints set out by the Oregon State Legislature to allow for growth.

I am glad there are those working on changing this.

As the statement of the recent global People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia points out, all peoples need the development necessary to sustain their lives. But neither the earth nor the human community can afford the current growth-oriented development strategy, which would require five planets just to accommodate the continued resource use of the current developed nations alone.

We also need to shift from damage control to rational planning in dealing with environmental health issues, according to the recently released report of the President’s Panel on Cancer.

The panel’s report noted that when forty-one per cent of US citizens will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes and nearly one in four will die from this disease–and the fastest rising cancer rate is among children– our medical rescue operation needs to look at what is happening upriver to create all these cancer victims.

The culprit is clearly environmental pollution. Thus the panel states that in order to stem the current cancer epidemic we much shift federal policy from a “reactionary” to a “precautionary” approach with respect to the over 80,000 human-made chemicals currently released into our environment. The panel has a clear and accessible list for individual and citizen actions to protect your family, your community, and your personal health—like curtailing of lawn chemical use and switching to organic foods wherever possible.

As with the cancer epidemic, current research implicates environmental toxins in the rates of obesity and diabetes among the current generation of children.  Researchers have isolated pesticides that are “obesegens”. Children exposed to this class of pesticides are more likely to grow up obese and to become diabetic.

Together, cancer, obesity and diabetes make children in this generation the first to have a predicted lifespan shorter than that of their parents.

US children are also subject to the fast food/junk food environment created by the concentrated corporate powers that produce and distribute US food. Our system of subsidies for such foods makes it more expensive for the individual consumer to buy organic, locally produced fruits and vegetables than a cheap burger. There is a painful scene in Food, Inc., in which a poor family assesses the costs of items in the fresh produce isle and rejects them all as too expensive.

Kelly Brownell, Director, Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, put it point blank:  our kids “haven’t a chance unless we curtail the junk food industry”. Not only does this industry carefully calculate salt, sugar, and fat percentages in fast food recipes to trigger addictive responses, but they use psychological and physiological research to find ways to bypass the decision-making areas of our brains and produce ads accordingly– to the tune of 100 million dollars every four days.

We pay these costs not only with our food dollars but with our health.

We also pay the costs of researching, marketing, protecting patents and fighting labeling genetically engineered foods. If we shifted to the precautionary rule with respect to these products we would not only require that they be labeled, but we would test them according to their long term effects—and require industry to foot the bill for this before they release their products into our environment.

A central reason why this does not happen is lack of oversight in regulatory agencies– as in the one that exempted BP from developing a plan for handling an accident like the one that is currently spilling as much as two and a half million gallons of oil a day into  the Gulf of Mexico– though a citizen group has a plan — a petition to stop offshore drilling.  Industry that funds research also oversees its results, leading to a scandal with regard to the scientific peer review process—an attempt to draw up a new ethics policy to keep scientific research independent.

We can see how industry might nix the publication of the study done by a scientist who found that genetically engineered  soy fed to three generations of hamsters caused sterility—and triggered gene expression for things such as hair growth inside their mouths.   In fact, the industry has worked to restrict  independent (non-industry funded) research on genetically engineered products.

But amidst all this dysfunction, there are those who are working at staying the hand of the ones sinking all the lives currently lost to cancer and diabetes. Senator Lautenberg recently introduced the Kid Safe Chemicals Act into Congressional committee. This legislation would institute a precautionary policy with regard to chemical usage in the US., following the lead of the European Union’s REACH program. The Environmental Working Group is tracing the progress of this bill and ways you can support it.

It is about time. In her congressional testimony, EPA director Lisa Jackson agreed, noting how outdated our current 1976 act is in this regard.

The old law does not even allow us to ban asbestos or to clamp down on the use of formaldehyde in construction products, so that this chemical, directly linked to asthma, is more prevalent in new construction than in houses several decades old.

“Fore-caring”—another term for the precautionary principle urged by Jackson and Lautenberg– is an essential moral act.  It is also a central pragmatic one. What, after all, is more pragmatic than protecting our own future?

Some would like to take this vision of “fore-caring” even further:  creating a society with the central value of caring.  Only a caring society would replace an economic system that rewards the acts that threaten our survival. Such a shift to a caring society is the goal of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, who plan a conference with this goal and an impressive array of speakers to be held this coming June in Washington, D.C..

They would like to invite all of you who are reading this to attend.

The network supports a constitutional amendment that states that corporations are not persons with the rights of human beings (as our law currently has it) and all US citizens have a right to a healthy environment.

A shift to a society of caring is only a return to the central value that made humans survivors for one hundred thousand years of our history. Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples gathered from around the globe at the People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia and asserted it in their statement:: “It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings,”

There are too many lives of all species going down in the current river of carelessness and greed. We need not only to care for those wounded by our present policies, but to recognize what is wounding them—and develop a vision for changing that.

As the People’s Agreement on Climate Change observes, knowledge should be the shared inheritance of humanity.

So should vision.

Hunger Hell

By Madronna Holden

What is your idea of hell? In 1976 Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee (from the Grays Harbor area of Washington State) told me his version of the traditional story in which Bluejay visits the Land of the Dead. There, amidst entire nations of Indian people and animal species, Bluejay found a white man, munching away, declaring, “Eat it all up!” Cultee’s version of hell was tragically prophetic. In a consumer society that seems hell-bent on eating up the natural world, we also have a current epidemic of obesity among children. As indicated in the PBS special recently aired on this topic, the loneliness, shame, and personal agony of these overweight children does not seem far removed from anyone’s idea of hell.

At the end of show a panel discussed ways to address the childhood obesity epidemic. It is no small health challenge. Those who suffer obesity at such a young age tilt the odds toward losing their eyesight to diabetes before they reach thirty. Panel members spoke of regaining cultural choices in place of fast (maybe we should call it “fat”) food. They also discussed impoverished food choices in underprivileged communities, where less expensive foods supply calories without nourishment. How many white bread buns or candy bars or chips does it take to give the body the nutrients it needs? Until its nutrient needs are met, surely the body will still hunger. I love one solution to changing their children’s eating habits put forth by members of a Latino community on the PBS show: sharing meals together.

One thing the panel did not address was what the desperate hunger of these children might be telling us, especially when we place it alongside the other diseases of hunger in this nation of plenty—such as anorexia and bulimia. When a child cries over a hamburger he feels he should keep himself from eating, we feel his helplessness, his sense that he has no real power—or right—to nourish himself.

Certainly our media works to distort and manipulate our sense of our own hunger. It is more than lack of exercise that associates obesity with hours of television viewing; it is exposure to this kind of propaganda. Disassociation from our authentic hunger is a boon for a system built on consumption. As an addiction counselor once phrased it, “We can never get enough of what we don’t want in the first place”. Those who never get enough will never stop consuming.

Only a nation out of touch with its own real hunger would allow the pollution of its food—and reward those who create such pollution with financial profits. How can we tell children that they should limit their eating when consumption is so tied into with success in our society—even as our levels of consumption are undermining the natural sources of our nourishment?

Take the pollution of breast milk, which Sweden (but not the US) has effectively addressed by prohibiting the use of dangerous chemicals found in that milk. The chemicals in breast milk reflect the chemical burden we all bear, though infants bear this burden especially uneasily. Their own chemical exposures are linked with escalating rates of autism and developmental disabilities—and of cancer, which is currently the main killer of children in our society.

Recently, a study of the Mohawk community at Akwesasne, where diabetes is epidemic, found that the larger their body burden of particular chemicals, the more likely they were to have diabetes. Tragically that body burden is linked to the consumption of the traditional healthy fish diets of the Mohawk. The problem is that these fish now come from polluted waters—not, need I say, polluted by the Mohawk.

Another growing body of research links obesity with body burdens of particular chemicals as well. It is no surprise that endocrine disruptors should disrupt our body’s ability to metabolize food and regulate our weight. And it is no secret that impoverished communities bear the brunt of environmental pollution and so have the highest body burdens of endocrine disruptors such as dioxin, chlorinated pesticides and fire retardants.

A nation that sanctions such pollution by rewarding it with profit is also a nation divided. It is a nation very different from the kind of society where hunger is shared and satiated by those who live close to the earth that sustains them. In the traditions of elder Henry Cultee’s people, only “low class” people failed to share food with others. “If someone was hungry, somebody else would come along to help”. In this context, it was bad manners even to ask, “Are you hungry?” You just brought out the food. Cultee’s views were linked to an intimate respect for the shared earth that sustained his people for generations.

There are parallel beliefs where people live close to the shared earth that nourishes them. An elderly neighbor of mine tells me that in her natal Czech farming community one did not say “thank you” for a gift of anything—such as the fruit or flowers I sometimes bring her—that comes from the earth. She lavishly praises me (far beyond what my small acts deserve) for my labor and thoughtfulness, but for the gifts themselves she thanks the earth. My Czech grandfather had a similar reverence for the natural world—a reverence that also mandated sharing. My father tells of the time the police caught two men stealing meat from his tiny Iowa butcher shop. When they asked my grandfather if he wanted to press charges, he replied, “If they are hungry, the meat belongs to them. Give it back.”

Hunger is not a sin, nor is nourishing ourselves. Nor is poverty, for that matter. I agree with my grandfather’s assessment that true poverty is expressed by those who have too much when others are starving.

I would like to suggest that if we wish to cure the epidemic of obesity outlined in the PBS special, we should feed ourselves well, addressing our hunger for such things as community, belonging, purpose, acceptance, creativity, time to ourselves, and physical exercise—not to mention sustaining food, fresh air and clean water. One of the hopeful signs I see is the (literal!) sprouting of urban gardens in which healthy eating, care for the land, and community are combined.

A world in which we truly nourish ourselves would be one in which we listen to our bodies to tell us how to meet our physical hunger (even if we have to work to relearn this), and our hearts to tell us what unique gift each of us is meant to give back to the life of our shared world.

In which we care together for the earth upon which we rely to feed us all—rather than “eating it all up”.

You are welcome to link to this post.  Note, however, it is copyright 2008, Madronna Holden. Feel free to email me if you wish to pass it on in any other way than linking to it.