Actuality Is. . .

by Milo Clark

January 6, 2003


The milk over which we are not to cry has been spilt.

The horses after which we lock the barn door are loose.

Whoever heard of Carolyn Raffensperger, you know, the lady architect who went to law school to learn how to deal with spilt milk and loose horses. A Mennonite, pacifist, large scale organic farmer now on a roll out of Ames, Iowa.

Looking around for folks with great ideas, Carolyn Raffensperger came into my mailbox courtesy of Sy Safransky's great work "The Sun." Derrick Jensen, pretty good with compelling ideas himself, does the interview. (1)

She is executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, (sehn.org) a consortium promoting safe scientific practices. She is co-editor of Protecting the Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the Precautionary Principle (2)

Carolyn Raffensperger's main idea is simplicity itself: Put Safety First aka The Precautionary Principle. When a substance or activity raises threats, take preventative actions, institute precautionary measures. However, this principle is the exact opposite of what currently drives science, business, government, education, etc.

As it stands, to stop the juggernauts crashing down all around us, it is necessary to prove harm in process beyond doubt before attempting to institute corrective actions. Something like trying to push the barn door closed against an avalanche. Or sweep up the spilt milk from acres of sawdust.

Statistics of death and destruction are burying us like gale-driven snow in a Montana blizzard. Cancer incidence is increasing at exponential rates. Stuff to kill cancer is killing those who may not yet have it.

Daniel Quinn in his Ishmael books says locking up the food is a major problem. When folks lock up the food, those without keys are slaves. They have little or no choice but to go to work for the key holders, do their bidding, suffer their whippings. The collections and layers of wage slaves doing what they are told for generations end up believing in what they are doing to promote mutual destruction of all life left on the planet is the right thing to do.

Carolyn Raffensperger takes Quinn a few steps further while holding up a great big STOP sign.

Science is where much that is directly harmful comes forth. Carolyn Raffensperger says we need to ask different questions. Look for false negatives rather than false positives, see the patterns which connect, notice the differences making differences. Make protection of public health and ecosystems the objective rather than the scapegoat. Serve people more than money. Orient technology to non-pollution rather than pollution. Radical!

Knowledgeable folks insist that had Tesla's ideas been adopted rather than Edison's and Westinghouse, we would have energy systems which were based on and in the diversity of locations where energy is to be used rather than centralized in power plants with vast networks of transmission arrays.

The fight over global warming is an illustration. It also shows how tightly politics, business and science are interlinked. Government and corporations can always hire or employ legions of lawyers and scientists to assert most emphatically before courts and legislatures that global warming doesn't exist. Tobacco companies managed to stave off liability for decades. Drug companies, chemical manufacturers do they same. Prove it or lose it. Proving "it" is far, far beyond the capacities of those who are suffering.

"The Precautionary Principle's fundamental idea is that we prevent problems rather than clean them up or fix them afterward." [p. 7] While we don't hear much about what is going on with clean-up efforts, the actuality is that most are failing to clean up whatever they are supposed to clean up. Closed military bases, closed atomic facilities, closed factories, closed dumps may be scrubbed, buried, cemented over, declared safe and so on and so forth but still deal death to those nearby.

A great danger being foisted off all over the planet is privatization. Corporations are moving strongly to privatize air and water, plants and trees, to make private property of earth's and public resources. Privatization is a direct violation of public trust and theft of public resources. Raffensperger holds forth The Public Trust Principle as a corollary to Safety First.

In terms of locking up the food, she offers the essential idea that food is like public education, something that needs to be available to all.

Effective democracy, that which is under direct assault right here in the USA at the moment, is essential, basic, fundamental. People who will take charge rather than bow down may make the differences needed. Those who don't vote, those who refuse to be informed, those who veg out, lose out.

Get to know Carolyn Raffensperger of Ames, Iowa USA.

We do need people taking leadership!

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1.  "The Sun," issue 323, November, 2002, p.5 ff. thesunmagazine.org.  (back)

2.  Protecting Public Health and the Environment, Implementing the Precautionary Principle, Carolyn Raffensperger et al., editors, Island Press, Covelo CA, 1999 ISBN 1-55963-688-2  (back)


Milo Clark, a founding member of Swans, comes from a classic Eastern Establishment background culminated by a Harvard MBA. Perversely, however, he learned to think. Applying thought, he sees beyond and tries to write about what he sees. He now lives in the rainforest of non-tourist Hawaii near the lava flows.

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Published January 6, 2003
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