Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mark Schapiro at Penn State

Today Jackie Edmondson and I went to see Mark Schapiro, long-time environmental reporter for The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's (the index is awesome) held at the Penn Stater. He gave a really quite interesting talk on how the United States' lack of environmental regulation is actually causing the U.S. to lag economically. In short, the European Union's comprehensive rigor regarding the natural environment is driving innovation the world over.

The E.U. is the largest single economy in the world. With a population of 500,000,000 people dispersed in 27 nations combined into a single economic and political entity, they have enormous influence. Regulators within it can transform the market by demanding that business and industry change. They do this in a number of ways that, so far as I understand it, fall under the "Precautionary Principle" which assumes that a chemical is guilty until proven innocent. It is a standard in government policy that says that we need to see ample evidence that an action, chemical, or product will not harm humans and, by extension, the government. At Rio in 1992, the "precautionary approach" was worded as follows:

Principle 15

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

This wording is a bit confusing. I'll try to state it more simply:

We want to protect the environment.
We will apply the precautionary approach broadly.
However, it will be enforced according to consituent states' ability to enforce it.
Where threats are serious or irreversible, scientific uncertainty will not postpone cost-effective measures that prevent environmental degradation.

The Wingspread Conference defines the precautionary principle as follows:

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. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.
This is more or less the opposite to what the U.S. has (more on that some other time). In the U.S., we the public have to prove that a chemical is guilty and we carry the burden of its costs, not the originator of the chemical.

Yes. That's crazy.

What does this mean for us in the U.S.? Schapiro illustrated his argument using cosmetics. The E.U. has demanded that cosmetics be safe and free of cancer-causing agents. We do not. Who gets the cancerous lipstick, mascara, etc.? We do. Who gets genetically modified organisms (GMO) to eat? Us.

GMOs may be safe but their effect on the larger environment and agriculture was not considered in the U.S. in 1992. Who eats them? Us. Not Europe in lots of cases. Whose agriculture suffers? Ours. Who can't eat? Lots of people who might otherwise eat American produce. [Note: There is a lot more to this and I don't want to paint industrial agriculture nicely here. But notice that because of GMO's, the American farmer is further blocked from selling his goods and subsidized by the government in a command economy scenario.] There are more examples. Toys. All kinds of plastics.

Suffice it to say that regulators could do a lot more to drive a much more potent green revolution in the U.S. But the whole structure of American capital markets and the government stands in the way, from the Department of Agriculture and its tight relationship with so-called agri-business companies, and members of congress who are in their pockets. The iron triangle there is behind the times and we the people suffer for it. But if we can get good regulation, we can change this. Schapiro paraphrased Anne Marie Slaughter from New World Order: "Regulators are the new diplomats." Let's influence them with sound evidence and good reasoning. Let's change this stuff. I don't want to be a dump and I don't want my kid's world to be a dump.

As educators, I think we need to be activists and not just sit down because the government says so. We are regulated so much that it's painful. Educators are supposed to serve the common good for our common welfare on our common land and in our common water. Surely allowing us, our children, our neighbors, and our food to be poisoned is antithetical to all of those things.

If you are interested in reading more of Schapiro (I am), you can get his book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products.


  1. This is a great summary of Schapiro's talk. Here are some additional websites that may be of interest:

    (1) The Environmental Working Group ( - they also have a compelling piece about pollutants in bottled water published in 2008; and

    (2) Healthy Toys ( - a must for anyone who buys toys for children.

    Schapiro connected the dots between the EUs national health care system and their environmental policies (in other words, they don't want products coming into their countries that could make people sick)

    Schapiro reminded us that the United States used to be a leader in environmental policy. The U.S. had the first federal agency to address environmental concerns (the EPA) and policies like the Clean Air Act that were models for the world. We can return to a leadership role relative to environmental concerns with strong public education initiatives, consumer pressure on corporations, and government commitment.

  2. One more thing - the Environmental Working Group website has a resource on its home page called "Skin Deep." Check this out to learn more about the chemicals in everyday products from bar soap to shampoo, toothpaste, etc.

  3. This regulatory logic reminds me of David Orr's appropriation of Pascal's meditations on Christianity. In short, Pascal argued that if there is a God and you believe in Him, you gain from that belief with eternal life, etc. If there isn't a God and you believe in Him regardless, you still gain from having lived a moral and decent life. On the other hand, if you choose not to believe in God, then you only benefit if there isn't a God. Therefore, believe in God, and don't hedge your bets.

    David Orr applies this logic to global warming. Even though scientists are fairly certain (Orr is writing here in 1994) that global warming is occurring as a result of human activity, let's not gamble on the chance that it isn't, because in the efforts to combat global warming we will take measures that will certainly enrich life on earth, whether or not humans were or were not the problem in the first place.

    It seems that the EU has appropriated this logic, too. Assume that a product is potentially harmful from the start, and don't hedge your bets on using it only to have it turn out that the product is in fact dangerous.

    I like that.