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Crime and Punishment in an Age of the Jungle

During my 25-year service with the US Environmental Protection Agency, I had the nagging suspicion there must have been a deleterious legacy, somewhere, that guided EPA.

Metaphysical assumptions

I tried, but could not reconcile, the mission of the agency – protect human health and the environment – with its timid actions. Yes, agribusiness was powerful and exercised considerable influence on Capitol Hill, the White House and the EPA.

I simply could not explain the callous mindset of willfully approving the poisoning of the food and drinking water of the entire country. How could such a monstrous crime take place, I kept asking myself and others. It could not simply be a result of EPA irresponsibility under both Republican and Democratic administrations. And it could not happen because science certified farmers’ sprays innocent of all harm. On the contrary, studies funded by EPA and others have been connecting farmers’ sprays to ecocide, disease and death.

I traced the catastrophic decline of honeybees to the neurotoxic pesticides of the farmers.

Corporate crimes

This brought me in touch with a caring beekeeper from Colorado named Tom Theobald. He was telling me his days as a beekeeper were coming to an end. In December 2018, he summarized 44 years of living with honeybees and the poisoners of honeybees.

“Almost every problem we face,” he said, “can be  traced to a Criminal Corporatism and an out of control Capitalism. If there is a profit to be made, there is little regard paid to  the consequences. If challenged, we get denial, diversion, excuses and junk science. It simply doesn’t matter how many people are sickened or die, how many species are pushed to extinction or how seriously the planet is compromised.”

He has no doubt that corporations “have taken over our governments, have written the laws which legitimize their crimes and have infiltrated the regulatory system that we depend on  to protect us, but which instead has become a marketing agent for their products.”

Any solution? He wants to put guilty corporate executives behind bars. He explained the death of his honeybees and the end of his 44-year small family business to the relentless spraying of the environment with nerve poisons.

“What we need,” he said, “is a revolt, a peaceful one hopefully, but a revolt that will put the fear of the people in these [corporate] criminals’ minds.”

I sympathize with the plight of Theobald. Indeed, he is right. Imposing fines on polluters is not enough. Punishment must fit the crime. Fines can’t bring back dead honeybees, crippled and dead children or bring down anthropogenic temperatures warming the planet.

So, why do Americans put up with these life-threatening and uncivilized practices?

Lessons of history

For answers we need to look back, late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The complaint of Theobald fits perfectly in that era and our times. Simply replace honeybees with food and you have the deleterious “gilded” age at its greatest shame.

We are fortunate we have a reliable history of that irresponsible age by Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. A prolific and outstanding writer, Blum is telling a story that illuminates both early twentieth century, but, perversely, our own times. Her timely book,

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Penguin Press, 2018) paints an unforgettable picture of an American table full of “adulterated” food.

Milk and meat were routinely treated with formaldehyde, a carcinogen used for embalming of corpses.

Wine drinkers drank a liquid that had nothing to do with grapes. Wine was made from “tannin and coal tar.”

The poisonous copper sulphate dressed canned vegetables. The cleaning chemical borax coated butter. Honey had nothing to do with real honey. It was rather a version of “thickened, colored corn syrup.” Coffee was usually “sawdust, or wheat, beans, peas and dandelion seeds, scorched black and ground to resemble the genuine article.” Bread was baked with alum or chalk, or “sawdust chopped up very fine or gypsum in powder… Terra alba just out of the mine.”

There was no law against the poisonous adulteration of food and drink. However, the adulteration of food, Blum says, gave sickness and death, potentially to huge number of Americans. Tainted milk alone killed thousands of children in New York City every year.

This mass crime was by no means accidental. Then as now the government and industry were in bed with each other. They easily neutralized the outcries of the many victims and reformers: journalists, physicians and citizens.

The 1883 hiring of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley by  the US Department of Agriculture was a sign for change. Wiley started investigating fraud in the food and drink industries. His shocking findings and thirty-year campaigns for food safety made a difference.

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book, The Jungle, revealed what Wiley knew: abominable conditions of the food industry, especially in Chicago. These horrific news certainly helped the passage of “Dr. Wiley’s Law” or the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

Read Blum’s book. It promises to shock and enlighten you. It’s like a magic mirror of an age of chemical witchcraft and ruthless corporate power that still has a hold on our era. Knowledge of history is power. Blum helps us to clean up the superstition of the past embedded into the present.

Blum is right about consumer protection. It’s like the “country is playing defense.” The story, she says, is about “government regulators waking up, time and time again, to yet another public health crisis.”

“Yes, we are still fighting for pure food,” she says. But she also wants us realize “we’ve come a long way from the unregulated and unsafe food and drink that imperiled American citizens in the past.”

She rightly praises Wiley for his pioneering consumer protection efforts. Wiley, above all, changed our way of thinking “about food, health and consumer protection.”

This is essential now that the Trump administration is dragging the country back to the jungle of the nineteenth century.