One of America’s most influential environmentalists, Barry Commoner, died last week. Over 40 years ago, he promoted these Four Laws of Ecology:
Everything is connected to everything else.
Everything must go somewhere.
Nature knows best.
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
I saw evidence of all four laws in action at the UN-sponsored Strategic Approach to Integrated Chemicals Management (SAICM) meeting in Nairobi last month.
SAICM’s agreed-upon goal is that by 2020 chemicals will be “produced and used in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health.” While there, I had an up-close look at how government delegations, experts from the World Health Organization and other UN bodies, and non-governmental institutions ranging from PAN to the International Council of Chemicals Associations, come together — or not — for the common good.
I was also reminded again and again of the perils of ignoring any one of Commoner’s four laws; and of how much time, dedication and cooperation it takes to make progress in international arenas.
Sitting with PAN Inernational representatives from Malaysia, Germany and Senegal, and with pesticide activists from New Zealand, India, Mexico and other countries as our government representatives formally debated matters of vital importance, I was struck and at times embarassed by the role played by U.S. delegates.
Over 65 countries, from Antigua to Zambia, supported a resolution, offered by host country Kenya and several NGOs (including PAN), calling for a progressive ban on the use of highly hazardous pesticides. Although the resolution didn’t pass — the delegation from the U.S. was among those opposed — we’re delighted that now these pesticides are now on the record as being an issue of concern, and discussions will continue in the follow-up meetings. Such is the many-year process of international policy formation.
Perhaps most exciting of all was seeing the problem of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) rise to the level of an emerging policy issue in this global arena. EDCs are synthetic chemicals that interfere with the body’s hormones at very low levels of exposure, often causing cascading effects on everything from development to reproduction. Several pesticides are known or widely suspected to be EDCs, including the nearly ubiquitous herbicide atrzine.
As was the case with highly hazardous pesticides, it’s unlikely that the EDCs would have gained this much attention without the sustained engagement of the scientists, agricultural workers, health care professionals, and other activists who participate in these SAICM meetings.
Believing that “nature knows best,” PAN and other participants reiterated the need to invest in sustainable alternatives to the problems that fumigants and other pesticides were formulated to address. However, this work cannot go very far without financial resources, especially in cash-strapped countries. Because desperately needed aid frequently comes bundled with unsustainable technologies like pesticides and genetically engineered seeds, the dynamics of money, access and power are very present, even in the egalitarian forum of the UN’s Environmental Program.
As one of PAN International’s regional coordinators, I remain inspired by Barry Commoner’s vision. He was one of the first environmentalists to link the health of the natural world to the human systems that affect social and economic justice. If we’d been following his Four Laws of Ecology, we could meet SAICM’s 2020 chemicals management goals well ahead of schedule. As it stands, we have a lot of work to do.