Posted by: Carl Magruder | August 14, 2008

David and Goliath

            One of the great gifts of my new job at the National Council of Churches is that I was assigned specifically to the area of environmental health.  Why is this such a gift?  For the simple reason that I was terribly ignorant of environmental health issues before starting.  Almost any other aspect of environmentalism—from species loss to climate change—I would have been inclined to think that I knew something about.  My Master’s degree in sociology was structured entirely around the human/earth relationship–economics, religion, technology, policy, etc.–so I tend to think that I know something about ecojustice.  However, environmental health I know that I know nothing about.  It is an opportunity to inhabit what Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind.”

            Theoretically, it is good to retain beginner’s mind no matter how much knowledge you acquire about a subject.  I remember listening to the last interview that Miles Davis gave.  In the interview he said that one of the reasons that he loved jazz was that he was always learning something new and improving as a musician.  So, maybe in some paradoxical way, beginner’s mind is the key to true mastery.  Miles Davis was a true master.

 I’m learning about body burden, bisphenol-A, legislative preeminence, the Kid Safe Chemicals Act (coming soon to a Congress near you), and a host of other things.  Much of the information is depressing, scary, infuriating, and even downright ludicrous—(the E.P.A. has tested less than 2% of the chemicals used in manufacturing products that are on the market in the U.S.A., and in the thirty-two years since the implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act has only banned nine).  Despite my extreme novice status, however, it is easy to see that Exxon/Mobile is a whole lot of the force behind keeping consumers ignorant and powerless over our exposure to harmful chemicals.  They aren’t even subtle about it!

            Take the American Chemistry Council.  (  It is a thinly disguised industry P/R endeavor attempting to appear unbiased and empirical.  When you follow links looking for “plastics” and “child safety,” you end up finding out about all sorts of wonderful plastic devices that will keep your child safe from drowning, electrical shock, cleaning supplies, etc.  You have to dig a bit to find out anything about safety risks to your children from plastics.

            The American Chemistry Council spent a hefty sum to try to defeat California SB 1713, a law to ban bisphenol-A statewide in specific, child-related products. An August 11th  SF Chronicle editorial by Charlotte Brody, RN and Executive Director of Commonweal ( said, “The American Chemistry Council has been mounting a shamefully deceptive campaign against state legislation that would ban the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) from food and drink containers aimed for consumption by children three and younger.”  Brody went on to say, “It is one of the more misleading lobbying efforts we have seen in a long time.” 

Representative John Dingell launched an investigation into the ACC as recently as April of this year.  When you check the funding sources for the studies cited on their website, they tend to be industry studies.  None of this inspires my confidence.

            In an article entitled, “Why Journalism is Failing the Public on the Risk from Plastics” ( linked from the ACC website, it is implied that the public has been subjected to a kind of media hysteria in its concerns over Bisphenol-A.  However, the article itself contains, “There is a possibility but not a certainty that BPA is causing problems. Time will tell how this all pans out…”  I don’t know about you, but that’s all I need to know.  The Precautionary Principle would seem to govern here.  “Time will tell” sounds a whole lot like, “We are testing out the safety of this chemical on you and your children.”

            Do you know the Precautionary Principle?  It is just what it sounds like it is—products or actions are guilty until proven innocent.  The German word from which we derive the precautionary principle, Vorsorgeprinzip, translates to something like “To miss it before it is gone.”  I feel that way about polar bears.  The 1998 Wingspread Statement gives it this way: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” (The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network).  You may have noticed that decisive action on depleted uranium, genetically modified organisms, global climate change, getting the lead out of gasoline, getting the MTBE out of gasoline, getting the ethanol out of gasoline, and getting the gasoline out of gasoline are all things that waited/are waiting for scientific certainty.  Meanwhile, where are we going and why are we in this hand basket?  The precautionary principle says that you don’t wait until your child falls off of the roof to get them down from there in case it turns out to be dangerous.  It shifts the burden of proof of the safety of chemicals from the government after the fact to industry before the chemicals are marketed. 

            This is related to but different from Risk vs. Hazard-based assessment, which we will blog about at another time.  (I promise.  Christian ethics are just fascinating!)

A recent article by Melinda Brown published in “The Hill” about last month’s federal phthalates ban states that, “Opponents include the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and ExxonMobil , which say there is insufficient evidence that the chemicals cause health problems.”  There isn’t any subtlety to the fact that the big eco-baddie, ExxonMobile, is still pursuing its global hegemony regardless of effects on people, the planet, or anything else, all the while posting record profits last quarter of $10.7 billion.  (“Exxon Mobil posts record profit of $10.7 billion”  I suppose that the profits are the point, however.  By the way, the record of $10.7 billion broke Exxon’s previous all time record, so that it holds first and second place.

Now, here’s the thing:  Most of the folks who work with big companies like Exxon, Dow Chemical (which ate Union Carbide of Bhopal infamy), Monsanto, Tyson, DuPont, Lockheed Martin, etc. are good folks who are pretty sure that the work they do makes the world a better place.  Oodles of them consider themselves Christians.  Vilification of anyone is not exactly a core Christian value, and isn’t my purpose here.  However, standing up for Truth is.

I know that one is supposed to see that David is this unlikely shepherd-boy hero in Samuel 17.  But I just don’t see it that way, perhaps because as a neophyte in this national conversation about toxics, I’d like to believe in the underdog, the unlikely warrior.  To me David is the obvious hero, mostly because he isn’t a champion’s champion.  He’s young and not set in his ways, he’s not a part of the military hierarchy, he uses creative methods that he is very practiced at, and seems to have no fear.  While the other soldiers are concerned with preservation of their own well-being, David is willing to take risks for the achievement of a higher vision.  He is willing to sacrifice, if necessary.   He is successful because he is ‘outside the box.’  Reminds me of Rosa Parks.

Christian earth care is similarly outside the box, or unorthodox, if you will.  I hope that our willingness to hold the value of people over profits, to sacrifice, to tell the truth, and to carry the broad vision of a harmony throughout Creation will help us to form a constituency of moral suasion that redeems the principalities and powers that would seek to perpetuate the status quo.  To paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we will love ExxonMobile into righteousness.



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