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Can a Few People Save the World?

Monarch butterfly. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

Occupy Health

In May 2018, I met Susan Downs at an international conference at the University of Patras, Greece. She is a physician and a fearless documentary producer. Her motto is “Occupy Health.”

The moment Downs realized I was the author of Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA, she invited me for a brief taped interview. She also phoned her colleagues at the Silicon Valley Health Institute in Palo Alto, California, and the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, California, and convinced them to invite me for talks. They did.

On Thursday, November 15, 2018, I spoke at the Silicon Valley Health Instituteand on Friday, November 16, 2018, I spoke at the Commonwealth Club.

Stories from the past

In both presentations I summarized my knowledge and experience. I worked on Capitol Hill for two years and for the US Environmental Protection Agency for twenty-five years. I supplemented my remarks with images from the industrialization of agriculture and the destructive administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s: the model for the harmful environmental deregulation of the Trump administration.

Of course, twenty-five years cannot be brought back, much less captured in a story. But I did my best in telling the truth with fragments of memories, some of which I documented in Poison Spring.

The overarching idea that explains the tragedy of today is this: America lost its soul with the winning of WWII. The country became an empire and, slowly, began discarding its democratic traditions.

From democratic family farms to imperial plantations

In agriculture, this metamorphosis was monstrous. Family farmers, most of whom had farms rarely exceeding 160 acres in size, became a target of government indifference. Most government subsidies and scientific knowledge generated by government-funded research at the land grant universities has been building up agricultural giants now controlling rural America.

These giant farms and agribusiness depopulated rural America. Their factory farms have been producing huge amounts of food — all but burying the family farmers under debt and loss of land.

Agribusiness farms, armed with large machines and chemical and biological sprays resembling agents of warfare, have been damaging human health and the natural world. This necessitated the founding of the EPA – in 1970 – to wrap the excesses of agribusiness with legal and scientific protection and, if need be, take away from large farmers some of their hazardous weapons.

Against the natural world

The politics of each administration may differ in detail, but Democrats and Republicans agree that environmental and public health protection is second to the priorities of agribusiness. Law, journalism, economics, medical and agricultural schools train lawyers, journalists, economists, scientists and physicians to respect and not question agribusiness.

The result of this ignorant and unethical policy is increasingly becoming catastrophic. Agribusiness food is not healthy food. Toxic sprays like glyphosate wreck the nutrition of seeds and crops and enter the very food people eat. Deleterious farm sprays, even in minute amounts, harm people and wildlife.

Organic food provides some way out of the toxic effects of conventional food, but organic farming continues to be under political attack and the threat of extinction – despite its profits.

Agribusiness is an enemy of the natural world. Large fields growing one crop are death to honeybees, monarch butterflies, birds and other wildlife. Toxic sprays and the genetic engineering of crops are the foundations of large farms. These agribusiness fields and animal farms are responsible for unprecedented disease, death and extinction of species. They also feed climate change. Merely keeping global warming at 1.5Centigrade, says the October 2018 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

Silent and poison spring

So, Rachel Carson was right. In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, she charged agrochemicals and their corporate owners with the crime of killing birds. The banning of DDT in 1972 by the Richard Nixon administration delayed but did not put an end to the poisoning and extermination of birds.

Honeybees have been dying in droves from neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides. These are chemicals that are siblings to chemical warfare agents. Now, in 2018, honeybees are being poisoned by neonicotinoid insecticides manufactured in Germany.

Human health at risk

Agribusiness has been behind the contamination of science and laboratories necessary for the evaluation of the juggernaut of deleterious effects of sprays.

As early as in the 1970s, the EPA had documented evidence that Iowa farmers were dying from cancer at twice the rate of non-farming population. EPA also knew that sprays contaminated mothers’ breast milk.

In its early life, in the 1970s, EPA did try to contain the danger radiating from industrialized farms. But with the coming of Reagan to power in the 1980s, the country regressed to the pre-EPA days. Every administration after Reagan has kept the lid on environmental and public health protection. Trump is an exemplar of that bad, self-destructive tradition and policy.

It’s this legacy that convinced me to write Poison Spring – 52 years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Merge politics and ecology

Can we afford another 50 years of poisoning — and the unlikely event that some other person will issue another warning after 50 years?

I don’t think so.

I made that clear in my presentations at the Silicon Valley Health Institute and the Commonwealth Club. I said to the audience: eat organic food and elect honest politicians to refashion EPA into a Supreme Court-like agency immune to White House, Capitol Hill and industry corruption.

Is that possible? I like to believe it is, though I know Plato and Aristotle made their proposals for a better society 2,500 years ago. It took a thousand years for science invented by Aristotle to become the science we have now.

This tells me our lives are perpetual struggles. The few lovers of a healthy natural world must go beyond organic food. They need to invent politics for a livable and just America and world.

More articles by:

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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