Director of the nearly thirty-year-old Environmental Research Foundation, Peter Montague edits two ERF newsletters, Rachel’s Environment & Health News and Rachel’s Precaution Reporter (www.rachel.org and www.precaution.org). In 1980, the New Jersey-based nonprofit began investigating toxics and social justice issues in the Garden State, but the focus became more national when the group started publishing Rachel’s News in 1986.
The first newsletter on health and environment written for the general public, Rachel’s now has a circulation between ten and eleven thousand readers. Montague defines his audience as grassroots activists, but he notes that about a hundred EPA officials read it, and dozens of other subscribers have “dot gov” email addresses. Government-
funded publications do a good job of covering relevant material, Montague says, but non-specialists find them a hard slog. Rachel’s mission is translating technical material for a lay audience, thereby educating local communities on human health and environmental justice issues. I asked Montague how Rachel’s got its start.
PETER MONTAGUE: In 1978 Love Canal was discovered by Lois Gibbs because her children weresick and there was this black crud oozing into her basement, and it was oozing into the playground at her kids’ school. So she started knocking on doors in her neighborhood and asking ‘Is there any illness in your family?’ And she made a little map of it and showed that there were sick kids all around Love Canal. I had been doing anti-nuclear work out in New Mexico, where I lived and was on the faculty at the University of New Mexico. I was aware of the hazards of radiation but didn’t know very much about chemicals. What Lois revealed—and the media immediately picked up—was that there were hundreds of thousands of these places where chemicals had been dumped into rivers or into the soil. It soon became clear that every landfill in the country was some kind of toxic disaster. A citizens’ movement, now known as the toxics movement, arose because people saw what Lois had done and they were concerned about their kids. By 1985 there were at least seven or eight thousand local groups working on toxic chemicals. But there was a huge absence of technical information. People would hear of benzene or dioxin, and they
had no clue what that was. So I started a dial-up database called the Hazardous Substance Databank that you could dial into if you had a computer with a modem. This was before the Internet. In those days there were things called bulletin boards that you could use to communicate. I plugged into that community and put this database online.
As I was doing the research to keep that up to date I realized I could extract stuff and send it out on paper. So I started Rachel’s News as a single sheet of paper printed on both sides. The first issue came out in 1986. Nobody could remember the name of the hazardous substance databank, so I renamed it the Remote Access Chemical Hazards Electronic Library. It was the RACHEL database.
When I was in New Mexico, and even before that, I had become convinced from knowing Ralph Nader and Barry Commoner that citizen action is the only way that anything gets done in this country. If citizens are not on the case, government is not going to start fixing problems. They’re getting tremendous pressure from industry day in, day out, to sit on their butts. And they’d rather do that than anything else because it doesn’t cost them anything, and it doesn’t get them in trouble. As soon as they pick on a problem they’re liable to get in trouble, so they don’t want to do that. But citizens have to have some facts to get government to do anything. My newsletter was aimed at giving people facts that they could use to fight City Hall.
BEN TERRALL: Have your goals changed?
My goals have not changed. But the people who fund toxics activism changed their minds. They decided
they didn’t want to support citizen activism. It took too long, and you couldn’t point to huge successes… they decided they wanted to fund policy work.
The toxics movement has now turned into a policy-debating society. There are lots of activists out there fighting dumps, fighting incinerators, and nuclear power plants, and nuclear waste dumps, and all kinds of stuff, but the infrastructure to support them as a movement is gone. Back in the early days Lois Gibbs had seven regional
organizers who would come to your town, and they would help you beat up the mayor or write a press release and contact the press or do whatever it took… hold a demonstration, whatever you needed to do. They’d help you find a local scientist.
They were what Lois Gibbs called “larger than locals,” organizations that would try to have an overview of what was going on in the state. They would make their presence known to grassroots activists and they would try to be the glue that held the movement together by providing knowledge and awareness of what other people were doing.
As the global economy gets more and more interconnected, do you think that regulation of toxics can be standardized at an international level?
Mark Schapiro’s recent book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power argues that due to its inadequate regulation of pollutants, the US is beginning to look like a backward country compared to other industrialized nations. Shapiro’s book shows how Japan and Europe provide financial and legal incentives to keep their citizens safer from contamination. There is much more consciousness about regulation in those countries.
Europeans, who seem less beholden to money than we are, have passed regulation that’s pretty far-reaching. If you want to sell products in Europe you need to give information about your product. If Monsanto wants to market products in Europe, they have to come up with data backing up its claims. The Europeans are way ahead of us and are dragging us into the modern world kicking and screaming. In terms of regulation here in the US, we’re not going to be able to effectively regulate anything, whether chemicals or use of land in Western states, until there’s effective campaign finance reform. It’s a reality that people in the environmental movement don’t want to grapple with. They’re happy to devise new policies, even though in private they may acknowledge that the current system won’t enforce those policies.
How do you see individual human health connected to the overall health of the planet?
They’re inextricably connected. The Earth is the only place in the universe conducive to human life as far as we know. By putting fluorocarbons in the atmosphere we almost made the planet uninhabitable. CFCs almost made the surface of the planet uninhabitable. We should have learned from that, but we didn’t. We’re playing with fire, risking making our only home inhospitable. Cancer, autism, attention deficits, nervous system disorders, immune system disorders are all warning signs. Evolutionarily we grew up as a species in a certain chemical environment, and now we’re changing it. The increase in human disease conditions is surely evidence of that.
What do you think is the greatest challenge to creating a healthier world?
I think the greatest challenge to creating a healthier world is our firm belief that an economy has to grow year after year or it’s a failed economy. We have exceeded the capacity of the Earth to absorb the consequences of our economic activities, and as a consequence we are destroying our only home. Our footprint is already so large that we have exceeded the Earth’s capacity to absorb the byproducts of our economy. We have got to learn to live without economic growth. We need what’s called a steady state economy where we are merely replacing the stuff that’s wearing out rather than creating new stuff.
You’re thinking of Herman Daley’s [former World Bank economist, now a critic of the “Washington Consensus” status quo] model?
Exactly. Those ideas seem entirely foreign right now. But they’re not foreign to Gus Speth, who wrote the important recent book The Bridge at the Edge of the World. This is the first time that a thinker who you would have to call mainstream has injected these very radical prescriptions into the public discussion of what needs to happen. Capitalism is a system that either grows or collapses. That’s just the way it is. There’s no such thing as a steady state in capitalism. You’re either growing at a healthy clip, like seven percent per year, or you’re collapsing into a recession or a depression. A recession is defined as the absence of growth for two consecutive quarters. So you can either have a healthy economy that’s destroying the planet, or you can have a collapsing economy that may be taking some of the pressure off the planet but is putting thousands of, or tens of thousands of, people out of work and not providing the human benefits that an economy is supposed to provide. But most people in the mainstream would rather destroy the planet than contemplate changing capitalism.
It’s surprising that people are saying that by 2010 or 2011 things will be back on track, when what they mean by that is that we’ll be back to growing at our old rate. As if peak oil wasn’t a real problem, or as if the destruction of the oceans was not accelerating, or as if global warming was not happening, or as if chemical contamination of the entire planet was not worsening year after year. It’s like there’s this huge disconnect between what people see as the economic problem and the really fundamental problems that are simultaneously emerging in the biological platform upon which the economy rests. The Wall Street folks seem like they’re deaf, dumb, and blind to the fact that the biological platform on which the human economy rests is being trashed every bit as bad as the human economy is being trashed. Or maybe the loss of the biosphere is even accelerating more rapidly than the destruction of the human economy. But they think that the economy is somehow floating in the atmosphere, disconnected from the biological systems that produce everything we need.
We either explicitly or implicitly make most of our decisions on cost-benefit analysis. We weigh the costs of doing something and the benefits of doing something. And if the benefits either directly outweigh the costs, or if we just don’t know—we don’t have enough information—we assume, we give the benefit of the doubt to economic activity, that it will produce benefits that are greater than the costs. The assumption underlying that system is that the costs can grow without limit.
So it doesn’t factor in toxins in the environment, for instance.
It doesn’t factor in all the cumulative costs of cutting down forests and warming up the atmosphere
and dumping toxins into the environment and fishing all the fish out of the oceans and converting all the forests into farmland and then spreading pesticides and fertilizer on that farmland—all of those decisions to do those things are justified in the sense that the benefits to humans are very large and the costs are presumably smaller than the benefits. But those cumulative costs are now catching up with us.
In the context of protecting the biosphere, the precautionary principle says we must assume at this point that whatever we are about to do is going to be harmful, unless we can show that it won’t be harmful. And if you can show that it won’t be harmful, then by all means, let’s do it. But until that time, it’s probably not a good idea. So it shifts the burden of proof onto the proponents of some new change that would significantly affect the biosphere.
The second thing is you have to look for the least harmful way to achieve it. So it puts a permanent obligation on economic enterprises to continually look for the least harmful way of doing business and to phase out old ways as soon as a new better way becomes available.
A third change that a precautionary principle would entail would be that regulatory officials, like the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, will often say explicitly—she said this when she was the head of the EPA in New Jersey—my job is to balance between environmental protection and the economy… I want to protect the environment but I’m not going to do it in a way that harms the economy. Well, in a world in which our only home is being destroyed and the rate of destruction is accelerating, that is a completely wrong picture of the role of government. The role of government is to protect the biosphere.
New evidence appears every day that we are ruining our only home. Government must stop that, that is government’s duty, to make it possible for all of us to survive. And if government doesn’t do that, then government has failed and needs to be replaced.