Posted by: Carl Magruder | April 20, 2009


One of the challenges of working on environmental health issues is that good scientific data about the effects of industrial toxins on human health is necessary in order to advocate for good protective policy.  Unfortunately, the sources of this information are often biased industry studies, studies by educational institutions that are funded by industry, or studies by government entities such as the FDA or EPA which are politically influenced by corporations.  As a result, it is hard to know what is real.  Consider that it took 25 years to get the lead out of gasoline, or that the tobacco industry successfully blew clouds of smoke around the dangers of tobacco for half a century.  Every American school kid for four decades was taught a nutritional “food pyramid” based on industry recommendations which saw us become the most overweight nation in the world.  Although the first studies on greenhouse gases were done in the late nineteenth century (yes, more than one hundred years ago), there is still enough scientific obfuscation about the severity of the problem that according to a recent Gallop poll, 41% of Americans believe that news media exaggerate the threat of global warming.  Sobering for those of us at the National Council of Churches Ecojustice Programs, a Pew study shows that people of faith are less likely to take this threat to God’s Creation seriously than agnostics!  58% of those who claim no religious affiliation are concerned about human-generated climate change.  Mainline Protestants follow the national average (48%) of concern about climate change, non-Hispanic Catholics slightly less, black Protestants less than that, and only about one third (34%) of white evangelicals think that anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem, with a nearly proportional number (31%) believing that there is no evidence that the globe is warming.  Apparently, there is a lot of confusion about things that should be scientifically quantifiable. 


How can we move out of the realm of ideology/theology and into the realm of science?  Environmentalists who have spent decades opposing the coal industry are hardly able to speak rationally about Carbon Capture and Storage (the idea behind “clean coal”), and whether it might provide some workable solutions to climate change.  People opposed to nuclear armament can hardly hear nuclear energy spoken of as a reasonable alternative to fossil fuels. In other words, Greenies carry their own biases.   


Enter the so-called “precautionary principle.”  Characterized by such axioms as “look before you leap,” or “better safe than sorry,” the precautionary principle proposes that where there is a lack of scientific consensus (practically everywhere—there is still a Flat Earth Society, after all), policy should err on the side of caution.  Currently policy in the United States tends to be decided by whether a course of action will create profits for shareholders, which includes the consideration of whether there are laws that would make it not cost effective.  (Consider the instance of Ford Motor Company’s exploding Pinto automobile which CEO’s decided would make more money for the company than the wrongful death lawsuits would cost it.)  Since the market puts no value on rivers, human health, the atmosphere, just distribution of resources, prevention of deadly conflict, contamination of soil, etc., etc., our current method is woefully inadequate for predetermining and mitigating the harmfulness of certain products or industries. 


Sometimes, the English language “translation” of concepts and words really loses something.  We use the word “co-housing” to describe something the Danes first called “bofællesskaber,” meaning “living together” or “living community.”  The word “co-housing” sounds quite sterile and legalistic in comparison.  We call a subscription farm “Community Supported Agriculture” or CSA.  Participants in these farms receive a box of vegetables weekly in exchange for giving the farm money in spring (before harvests come in), and perhaps some labor.  The Japanese originated this model, and called it by the poetic and whimsical name, “Food with the farmer’s face on it.” 


In the instance of the “precautionary principle,” English has once again sterilized a term that originally had quite poetic and emotional implications.  In this particular case, it is a translation from a language which is certainly capable of great poetic and emotive power (try Rainer Maria Rilke on for size), but also one in which the phrase, “I love you,” sounds a lot like one would expect the phrase “I’m gonna kill you” to sound—“Ich liebe dich!”  (Eeek leebuh deek!)


The German word, vorsorgeprinzip is what we in English would call a compound word.  We translate it as “precautionary principle.”  Prinzip is principle, obviously.  But, vorsorge is best translated as ‘forecaring.’ Not just foreseeing, but forecaring.  To employ der vorsorgeprinzip to our forests is to miss them before they are gone.  To apply it to polar bears is to be sorry about their decreasing numbers before they are extinct.  With Bisphenol-A it is to care about poisoning children with toxic baby bottles before the children are poisoned. 


That this caring, this loving, must become actualized should be obvious, particularly to those who claim to follow Jesus Christ.  “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.’ And yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)  To claim concern for Creation (which includes all of humanity—it is now clear that the two cannot be separated), and not to act accordingly is to be a hypocrite.


We have been clearly instructed to love our neighbors.  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40)  We do not forsake the things we love and care for.  That this caring requires action, policy, and even economics that reflect compassion does necessitate that we come up with legalistic interpretations.  But let us not forget that the root of our actions on behalf of humankind and the biosphere is caring; caring for things before they are lost, and putting that caring to work.  As the Christian abolitionist, John Woolman said, “Love was the first motion.”



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