The Soup We’re In

During the Vietnam War era I learned a little piece of antiwar theatrics. I used it then and during later wars when people I knew, including family members, frothed about using the military might of the United States to save us from whoever the incarnation of evil happened to be at the time. Here’s what I’d do.

It’s done in person with an audience of at least one. More is better. Having a child or children present works best. I’d draw a big, fat dot on a piece of paper and I’d say, “This is a button that will cause every single one of the people fighting with the US to drop dead. No more war. No more lost American lives. On the American side, only one more person dies. And that person is this child. You’re saving lives. Press the button.”

Some people press the button with a steely gaze. For some people, a embarrassed light goes on. Most people simply reject the whole thing—which is to say, they refuse to take responsibility.

What this little bit of theatre illustrates is that innumerable actions we take cause harm or even death to someone, somewhere, sometime—we just don’t know who, where, or when. If we knew, if we had to look a specific person in the eye when we pressed the button, we might act differently.

Suppose the world worked in a way that, for example, the farmer or farmworker who is about to spray a field with a pesticide has to face the child, the specific child who will suffer illness from the endocrine disruption caused by the pesticide and press a button for the pesticide to work. Or imagine you’re about to take a trip in your sustainable biodiesel car. The child, the specific child who will have an asthma attack as a consequence of the fine particulates your trip puts into the air is waiting for you in your car door. Your sustainable biodiesel car won’t start until you press a button.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Actions. Consequences. Consequences that are not anonymous, consequences that affect a specific person who must be acknowledged before the button gets pushed.

But, of course, the world doesn’t work like that. Virtually all of the environmental health effects of our actions are anonymous and at a distance in place and time. Pesticides and auto exhaust and all of the other pollutants that plague us are produced from innumerable sources. They make a soup in which we simmer and, eventually, cook. It’s not just that it’s impractical to engineer a button to press. It’s impossible as a matter of science connect a specific action to a specific health outcome: we can’t trace a molecule from a spray nozzle or tailpipe to a specific person and identify it as the specific thing that caused a specific illness.

On the other hand, we have quite sophisticated methods for identifying metabolic pathways—how a dose of pesticide or fine particulate—affects health under controlled conditions. We also have quite sophisticated methods for identifying the association between exposures to these things and the health of actual people—but not specific people; only how many out of a group of people might be affected.

That’s what we have to work with: anonymity and uncertainty. No buttons. No eye contact.

As I’m sure you know, exploration for natural gas supplies is booming. The process used, hydraulic fracturing (which I’m sure you know is also called fracking), creates a rich soup of toxins in the air and groundwater—including endocrine disruptors. People living in communities miles from these sites are becoming sick with a wide range of acute symptoms. Long term, we can make some pretty good guesses about what illnesses these exposures will cause. There’s no doubt in the victims’ minds as to what’s causing them to pass out, vomit, suffer from diarrhea, pain, and burning rashes.

Do you think the executives for the fracking companies would stop if they had to face these victims, look them in the eye, and press a button? I can assure that if they didn’t press the button, they’d be replaced by someone who would.

And so the exploration continues because the hysteria over supplying an ever-expanding supply of allegedly clean energy is focused on natural gas. Faced with the health effects, the director of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says, “In some communities it has been a disaster. We do not have enough information on hand to be able to draw good solid conclusions about whether this is a public health risk as a whole.”

This poor man seems very confused. If it’s a disaster, why isn’t it a public health risk? Because it lacks the science?

That’s the soup we’re in. As I’m sure you know, we can cook up a different kind of soup. Many people are already do it. They’re doing it all over the US—all over the world, as a matter of fact—in tough places like the Bronx and Brixton, where you’d think “sustainable living” means getting from one day to the next.

Well-meaning functionaries at the EPA or US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry won’t cook a new soup. Well-meaning scientists won’t cook a new soup. Well-meaning non-profits won’t do it. Green entrepreneurs won’t do it.

We’re tribal creatures. It’s tribes that cook the soup. A lot of soup is cooked in huge vats by members of the fracking company tribe. Our many tribes are now cooking up many different soups in small pots with people we know, in a places we know, when we decide to do it, with the ingredients we choose. We don’t have buttons to press. We have something better: each other.