How One Doctor Fought a Giant Pesticide Company And Won
The following is an excerpt from the new book Who Rules the Earth: How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives by Paul Steinberg (Oxford University Press, 2015):
Faced with an endless stream of alarming news about the environment—rising temperatures and declining water supplies, population growth and species extinction, oil spills and cancer clusters— people increasingly want to know what can actually be done to address these problems. Concerned parents comb through websites late at night in search of safer products for their children. Students pack lecture halls in hundreds of environmental studies programs that have popped up on college campuses across the globe. Our grocery aisles and magazine stands are filled with advertisements promising that sustainability is just one more purchase around the corner.
The major current of environmental thinking today emphasizes the small changes we can make as individuals, which (we are told) will add up to something big. Michael Maniates, a political scientist at Allegheny College, observes that the responsibility for confronting these issues too often “falls to individuals, acting alone, usually as consumers.” Yet solutions that promote green consumerism and changes in personal lifestyles strike many of us as strangely out of proportion with enormous problems like climate change, urban air pollution, and the disappearance of tropical forests. We learn that glaciers are melting and sea levels are expected to rise due to global warming—and in response we are advised to ride a bicycle to work. Scientists tell us that one out of every five mammal species in the world is threatened with extinction, and we react by switching coffee brands. Is it any wonder that people despair that real solutions are not within their grasp?
You may suspect that tackling these gargantuan problems will require something more—but what? The answer, it turns out, can be found in a mountain of books and research articles published by thousands of social scientists over the past quarter century. But their discoveries have remained largely hidden from public view. ... So what more might we do to move the world onto a more sustainable path? The answer can be found in the story of a country doctor in the small Canadian town of Hudson, who decided it was time to do something extraordinary: She changed the rules.
A New Landscape
Dr. June Irwin tended to one of her patients while, a few miles away, the votes were counted. It was May 6, 1991, and the town council of Hudson, Quebec, was considering a proposal to ban all nonessential pesticide use from homes and public spaces throughout their municipality. The move was unprecedented, but local officials had been swayed by Dr. Irwin’s relentless research on the potential dangers to children. “If down the road, science shows that we are wrong,” declared a town councilor, “then all that’s happened because of our actions is a few more dandelions. But if in fact we’re right, how many people did we save?” Ultimately the council voted in favor of the ban—a decision that would have consequences far greater than local officials could possibly have imagined.
Hudson is a picturesque community of some five thousand residents, nestled along a stretch of the Ottawa River thirty-five miles to the west of Montreal. In 1985, Dr. Irwin began showing up regularly at town council meetings, where she pleaded with her elected officials to put a stop to the practice of spraying pesticides on lawns and gardens. With a red-lipsticked smile that complements her 70-something years, June Irwin cuts quite a character. Most days she can be found tending a flock of sheep on her farm, wearing her signature sun hat and long skirt—conjuring an image of a biblical shepherd more than that of a dermatologist with a bustling private practice. Throughout the 1980s, Dr. Irwin grew increasingly concerned as her patients complained of ailments ranging from skin rashes to immune system disorders. She suspected that the culprit might be chemicals like 2,4-D that were routinely applied in home gardens and public parks to control weeds. She began her investigation by asking patients to provide tissue samples to test for pesticide residues. The results revealed that pesticides were present in the blood, hair, semen, and breast milk of the good citizens of Hudson.
Dr. Irwin’s findings were consistent with data collected in large-scale “body burden” studies run by the US Centers for Disease Control, which show that our bodies contain a complex brew of pesticides and other industrial toxins. We are exposed to thousands of man-made chemicals on a daily basis, and few of these have undergone rigorous testing for health effects. Medical researchers do know, however, that many pesticides affect the brain, liver, and other organs. Children are most susceptible to these noxious effects because their growing bodies rely on internal chemical cues for the normal development of the nervous system and other vital functions.
As she pored through the medical journals, June Irwin soon reached the conclusion that it is madness to routinely expose children to poisons just to maintain the cosmetic appearance of lawns. Town council members listened patiently as she offered lengthy discourses on pesticides and health, comparing her data on local body burdens with the latest findings from the medical journals. She wrote a steady stream of letters to the local Hudson Gazette in an effort to rally the community. But four years into her one-woman campaign, there was little to show for her efforts. This all changed in November 1989, when one of the town council members who had endured Dr. Irwin’s lectures, a local carpenter by the name of Michael Elliot, was elected mayor. Six months after his election, Mayor Elliott pushed for approval of By-law 270, banning all nonessential pesticides from homes and public spaces in the quiet little town of Hudson. What happened next would change the North American landscape, both physically and politically. It began with an aggressive response from the pesticide companies, who moved quickly to quell Hudson’s small act of defiance. In the fall of 1993, as the town’s maples and aspens glowed bright in their full autumn color, ChemLawn and SprayTech, representing Canada’s billion-dollar lawn care industry, sued Hudson in the Quebec Superior Court, arguing that the town had no legal right to regulate pesticides. They worried that if local communities could take it upon themselves to enact environmental rules stronger than those of the Canadian provinces, things could quickly spin out of control. At a deeper level, there were cultural norms at stake. The pesticide industry relied on the idea that a proper home lawn consists of a uniform stretch of green with no weeds whatsoever—a feat that requires applying poison to the grass. If picturesque Hudson could make do without pesticides, this would challenge the golf course aesthetic that has generated handsome profits for the industry since World War II.
“Nobody thought that we could win this—never,” explained the town clerk to documentary filmmaker Paul Tukey, who followed the story in his film A Chemical Reaction. In the courtroom, a ChemLawn representative showed up with a bottle of pesticides that he intended to drink in front of the judge in a show of confidence. Before ChemLawn’s man had a chance to ingest the poison, the judge demanded that he remove it from the courtroom and then ruled that Hudson was well within its rights in regulating pesticide use.
The publicity generated by the court case caught the attention of other communities. “If they can do it, why can’t we?” asked Merryl Hammond, founder of Citizens for Alternatives to Pesticides. The movement soon spread across Quebec, as one town after the next banned nonessential pesticides (often making exceptions, as did Hudson, for agriculture and golf courses). On the defensive now, the pesticide industry took the case to the Canadian Supreme Court. This time they didn’t attempt to drink pesticides in the courtroom, but repeated the argument that local governments have no right to decide whether chemicals are sprayed in their communities. On June 28, 2001, in an austere gray court building surrounded by an expansive green lawn, the Canadian Supreme Court justices convened in their traditional red and white gowns and ruled 9-0 in favor of the town of Hudson. The ruling electrified reformers throughout the country. In 2009, the province of Ontario passed even stricter rules than those adopted in Quebec. “When it comes to our homes, playgrounds, schoolyards, and the like,” explained Dalton McGinty, the premier of Ontario, “we think that we have a special shared responsibility owed to the youngest generation.” A year after the implementation of Ontario’s new rules, concentrations of common pesticides in the province’s waterways dropped by half.5 By 2010, three-fourths of all Canadian citizens were covered by some form of protective legislation based on the Hudson model.
Meanwhile in America
In the United States, the story unfolded very differently. Stunned by the unprecedented turn of events in Canada, the pesticide industry moved quickly to shore up their interests south of the border. “The activists plain outworked us up there,” said Allen James, president of the lobbying group Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE). “We clearly have lost the battle in Canada for the most part. . . .We cannot allow this to happen in the U.S.” In June 1991, the US Supreme Court had affirmed that local communities have the right to implement pesticide regulations stronger than those of the federal government. The individual states, however, retained the right to preempt local authorities. Seizing the opportunity, a month after the decisions by the US and Canadian supreme courts, RISE joined a coalition of 180 industry organizations that reads like a who’s who of pesticide lobbyists, including the National Agricultural Chemical Association and the US Chamber of Commerce. The Coalition for Sensible Pesticide Policy, as they called themselves, traveled from one state capital to the next, pressing lawmakers to pass new state preemption rules to prevent cities and counties from attempting to regulate pesticides.
The first time I encountered the story of Hudson, and the spread of preemption rules in the United States, was at the annual convention of the International Studies Association, where thousands of social scientists converge on a different city each year, sharing early research results with peers before submitting these for publication in the professional journals. I had agreed to serve in the role of discussant, offering feedback on draft papers written by a panel of graduate students and professors. One of these was Sarah Pralle of Syracuse University, who was investigating the astonishing divergence in outcomes between Canada and the United States. As I read her paper on the flight from Los Angeles, I was struck by Pralle’s observation that in the United States, “the pesticide industry was far better organized than anti-pesticide activists.” This hit home because, as it happens, I was one of those activists. In early 1992, when the state-by-state lobbying effort was in full swing, I was a young researcher at the San Francisco offices of Pesticide Action Network International. In the course of a given day, dozens of news items, campaign materials, and research reports from the pesticide reform community came across my desk; I don’t recall seeing anything about an industry lobbying campaign to prevent local communities from regulating pesticides. American environmental groups were simply caught unaware.
For the pesticide industry, the stealth lobbying strategy worked like a charm. They scored their first successes in 1992 when preemption laws were adopted by state legislatures in Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Florida. The following year these states were joined by Alabama, Arkansas, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Texas, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Massachusetts, Iowa, Michigan, and Idaho were the next to go, and soon would be joined by many others (Figure 1.1). Today all but a handful of American states have preemption rules in place. While Canadian children play at parks and homes that are largely pesticide free, American kids roll around on lawns that are drenched with 127 million pounds of pesticides every year. The strategy was so successful, it was later copied by the tobacco industry, which lobbied for preemption rules in a number of states to prevent municipalities from banning cigarette smoking in public spaces.
Changing the Rules
The fate of pesticide reform efforts in the United States and Canada carries a larger lesson for anyone who wants to get serious about promoting sustainability. Although they worked on opposite sides of the issue, June Irwin and pesticide industry leaders recognized something very profound: To bring about lasting change requires modifying the very rules that societies live by. For Dr. Irwin and her adversaries, the relevant rules were city by-laws as well as higher-order rules that decide how power is shared among local, regional, and national governments. But social rules are not limited to government laws and policies. In some cases they are encoded in private contracts, like when a business instructs its lawncare service to spray for weeds on the first of each month. Corporations rely on reams of written agreements to run their day-to-day operations, and these rules have a direct impact on the earth. Take Walmart, for example. In 2006, in response to pressure from marine conservation experts, the corporate giant put in place a new rule specifying that its fish products must come from sustainably harvested sources. This rule soon reverberated throughout the global economy, ricocheting along chains of buyers, distributors, and wholesalers, until it ultimately changed the harvesting practices of fishing fleets plowing through the high seas of the Bering Strait. In other cases, these rules take the form of widely understood social norms, like the golf course aesthetic that leads homeowners to spray their lawns to the nodding approval of their neighbors. Whether they take the form of national regulations or the most minute technical design standards, social rules are like thousands of invisible threads tugging at us as we go about our daily routines, shaping our decisions and determining how we relate to one another and to the planet we share.
Although they go by many names, these rules—which social scientists call institutions—are the machinery that makes coordinated social activity possible. Douglass North, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on social rules, shows that the historical expansion of capitalism, from its humble origins as small-scale personal exchanges to today’s complex global markets, was made possible by ever-expanding sets of rules governing everything from cargo insurance to banking practices. Social rules enable societies to function. They are also the source of our most recalcitrant dysfunctions, driving us blithely down paths that no rational society would choose to follow. These rules are the big levers that will ultimately decide whether we can reconcile the pursuit of prosperity with thoughtful environmental stewardship. Drawing on insights from the latest social science research, my goal is to explain what social rules are and why they matter for your personal well-being and for that of future generations. By exploring the enduring foundations of the environmental crisis, my hope is to provide you with a deeper and ultimately more satisfying understanding of what it will take to put society on a more sustainable path. To accomplish this, we will take a series of journeys, from a familiar stroll on the beach to a 3,000-mile odyssey following an endangered bird on its annual flight from the Peruvian rainforests to the mountains of West Virginia. Along the way we will see how communities, corporations, and countries are reinventing the rules they live by to achieve such seemingly simple yet elusive goals as clean air and water, vibrant urban spaces, and healthy food.
Explaining the Puzzle
To change the rules, we must first become aware of them. Yet there is a reason why society’s rules so often escape our attention—they’re supposed to! When rules are routinely followed (as they must be, if they are to have an effect) we internalize them as habits, routines, and standard operating procedures. We take them for granted as part of the natural order of things. (Of course I have the right to speak my mind without fear of imprisonment. Obviously your neighbor cannot pick your apples without permission. Naturally women are allowed to attend college.) Social rules also escape notice because, unlike the usual subjects of environmental science, you cannot place a rule in a child’s hand for inspection, point it out to a group of tourists on safari, or mix it in a test tube. The rules we live by are invisible to our most powerful satellites and microscopes alike. Yet once we know what to look for, we are in a position to critically examine the powerful social structures shaping our planet and our lives.
Armed with this perspective, we can make sense of otherwise beguiling puzzles: If solar energy imposes fewer costs on society than fossil fuels, why then is solar expensive and oil cheap? The rules in place do not require the oil industry to pay for the environmental costs of its products, instead passing those costs to others in the form of global warming. Why are there dangerous amounts of toxic lead in older homes throughout the United States but not in Europe? A century ago, American officials chose to ignore a League of Nations resolution to ban lead from interior paints. Why is Costa Rica doing an outstanding job of protecting its forests while other tropical countries are collectively wiping out 22 million acres of forest habitat every year? Costa Ricans have put in place innovative rules that pay farmers to leave trees standing on their property.
What makes this perspective so empowering is that rule changes are well within the reach of ordinary citizens. I will not promise you that change is easy. But when people join together, as did the citizens of Hudson, significant change is possible—often with less individual time and effort than is required to tackle a challenging college course. Frankly, we can’t afford to wait. The environmental problems we face today, from dwindling water supplies to disappearing coral reefs, from urban squalor to toxic waste dumps, are so large, and the social processes driving them are so powerful, that we need to think big—and soon. We need solutions whose power and scope match the severity and pace of the problems unfolding before us. We need new rules. To ride a bicycle to work is terrific; to lobby for a city ordinance putting in more bike lanes is even better. Constructing a “green” campus building is laudable. Creating new standards for campus construction, or catalyzing a change in the entire building industry, is transformational. Placing a solar panel on your home is a positive step; placing a requirement for renewable energy in government legislation is an outright sprint.
Windows Into Politics
Political scientists are accustomed to thinking about the big forces that move society—the origins of revolutions, how new ideas spread, what determines who participates in politics (and who doesn’t), and other engines of largescale social change. As an active researcher in this field, I have spent the past 20 years trying to answer one question: What does it take to bring about social change to protect the environment? When my colleagues in disciplines like conservation biology do their field research, they are likely to be found in lovely outdoor settings taking water samples, tracking grizzly bears, or observing the behavior of pollinators to open a window into the workings of the natural world. I am more likely to be found in a room with an influential policymaker somewhere in the developing world, straining to pick up the nuances of a foreign-language conversation above the sound of a tropical downpour on a tin roof, waiting for that golden moment when my interview subject opens up and reveals something stunning about how social change works in that part of the world. On one particular occasion in December 1997, in the town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, I was interviewing Francisco Kempff, a forestry official who is the son of one of South America’s most important conservationists, Noel Kempff Mercado. The elder Kempff pushed for the creation of national parks in the 1950s and ’60s, at a time when few North Americans or Europeans had ever heard of rainforests, and when Bolivia was still in the grip of a dictatorship. Tragically, Francisco’s father was murdered in a remote jungle in 1986 when his research team stumbled upon a landing strip used by Brazilian drug runners. Although I was eager to learn about his father’s early efforts at reform, which had never been studied in detail, I decided that out of respect, I would not ask Francisco about his father’s life unless he brought up the subject. The interview lasted an hour or so, and as we were finishing up I briefly mentioned his father’s name when paying a compliment to the family. “A funny thing,” he said, “Papa kept a copy of every letter he ever sent or received in his life. No one has ever asked to see them.”
With only three days remaining in my six-month stay in Bolivia, I wiped my schedule clear and visited the Kempff family home, where his mother and her maid brought out box after dusty box of yellowed letters, portfolios, and notebooks in which Noel Kempff described his efforts to change the rules governing the Bolivian forests. The results were spectacular. We know very little about how rulemaking works under dictatorships; official records are scarce and researchers are often denied access to decision makers. Digging through the family archives, I discovered correspondence from the early 1970s between Noel Kempff and his brother Rolando, who had somehow managed to secure a position in the Agriculture Ministry and advised him on strategies for convincing the generals to create protected areas for bird conservation. Many years later, a similar sort of rulemaking savvy was deployed when news spread of Noel Kempff ’s death and Bolivians took to the streets demanding justice and accusing the government of complicity in the drug trade. Taking advantage of the opportunity, local activists convinced the city government of Santa Cruz de la Sierra to provide funding for what is today Noel Kempff National Park—an area so rich in natural variety that it provides habitat for more than five percent of the planet’s bird species.
My field research has given me the opportunity to study how social change works in diverse political settings around the globe, and I will share findings from these investigations in the chapters to follow. But the essence of research—and the reason why political scientists and other research communities gather by the thousands in convention halls each year like salmon returning to the stream—is a recognition that none of us are smart enough to figure out the answers on our own. Fortunately, many other researchers have been asking the same questions I have about social change and sustainability from the perspective of fields including economics, sociology, anthropology, public policy, and law. Hundreds of researchers have fanned out across the globe to learn from communities that have crafted rules to sustainably manage their forests, water resources, and fisheries over long time horizons. Other researchers roam the halls of government, exploring what it takes to bring about changes in public policies and why some countries are leaders, and others laggards, on issues like climate change and species conservation. Economists have shown how rules governing property rights shape decisions about how much to pollute and whether to conserve agricultural topsoil. Still others explore the conditions under which citizens’ movements flourish and whether they have an impact on government policy.
This sort of work requires a devotion to the craft that can assume comical proportions. In her work on the politics of nature protection in Siberia, Melinda Herrold-Menzies recounts how Russian tradition requires repeated rounds of drinks with interview subjects—the trick being to gain valuable research insights before losing consciousness.17 Ronie Garcia-Johnson, whose book Exporting Environmentalism upended the conventional wisdom by showing that multinational corporations were actually raising environmental standards in Mexico, once told me that she used to stuff a pillow in her dress for the morning subway commute in Mexico City, feigning pregnancy to deter male hecklers on her way to interviews. My own research has had me navigating around logging trucks on windy mountain roads of Northern California in the middle of the night, haggling with bureaucrats in Costa Rica to access rare archival materials, and shamelessly sprinting across the floor of the UN General Assembly to share an elevator ride with a particularly knowledgeable diplomat. The results of this research lead to the same overarching conclusion: The transition to sustainability requires transforming the rules we live by. Unfortunately, these findings have not been shared widely beyond insular groups of research specialists and our students. Those of us working in the trenches of environmental social science have simply not done as good a job as our counterparts in the natural sciences at communicating our discoveries to audiences outside of our fields—pulling insights out of the arcane language and inscrutable equations of research journals and sharing them in ways that discerning readers can appreciate. While the African savannahs and Amazonian rainforests blaze in full color on our television screens, the social forces that will determine whether these splendors survive into the next century remain invisible.
To address this problem, I have collaborated with over 100 students at six universities on an educational initiative called the Social Rules Project. At www.rulechangers.org, you will find free multimedia materials including a short animated film, an educational videogame, and Facebook group links exploring the themes raised in this book. The goal of the Social Rules Project is to foster public understanding and action on the institutional dimensions of sustainability. As part of that effort, this book is written for a diverse audience of concerned readers—students, scientists, parents, business entrepreneurs, community leaders, environmental professionals, and others from all walks of life—who wish to move beyond the headlines covering the latest ecological disaster and take a closer look at how the rules we make shape the course we take.
Pairing Research and Action
A few years ago I was discussing the concept for this book with a colleague at Harvey Mudd College when she asked me pointedly, “What kind of book are you writing—is it about research or activism?” My response, then and now, is yes. My colleague’s question reflects a collective angst that runs throughout academia. Many scholars fear that their research reputations will be tarnished if they associate themselves too closely with efforts to change the world. This may strike many readers as odd, but it is a tension that university professors know well. I confess that the distinction between research and action has never made much sense to me. When I was an undergraduate studying biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the 1980s, I joined with other students to launch a group called Scientists and Engineers for Responsible Technology. My time was divided between studying the mind-blowing elegance of the natural world, and speaking out in public forums on issues like nuclear weapons proliferation and offshore oil drilling. Moving between the science of nature and the politics that threaten to undermine it, I came to understand that rigorous research can serve as a powerful weapon against poorly construed public policies.
Some prominent researchers have bucked the anti-activism trend. Particularly within the natural sciences, the roster of scientists pairing knowledge and public advocacy is a distinguished one. It includes no less than Rachel Carson, the federal wildlife biologist whose book Silent Spring helped launch the modern environmental movement. It also includes Carl Sagan, who not only popularized physics and astronomy for a generation of stargazers, but also spoke out against the environmental consequences of nuclear weapons. These intellectual giants and others like them—the ecologist Norman Myers (on extinction), atmospheric scientist Stephen Schneider (on climate change), zoologist Theo Colburn (on endocrine disruptors), and the physicist John Holdren (on alternative energy)—have never been content to stay put in their offices and laboratories.
Unfortunately, these outspoken figures are outliers. Their activities are at odds with the expectations guiding professional practice in most university departments. Within the social sciences in particular, there is widespread unease with research that is tagged as “normative,” meaning it not only describes the world as it is, but ventures to say something about how it should be. To my mind, the normative epithet and its scarlet letter connotations rest on a sloppy conceptual distinction. Normative concerns lie just below the surface of most scientific research. Behind the most dispassionate effort by researchers to discover how flu viruses infect human cells, we find the normative position that human health should indeed be protected. Engineering is taught in universities because of an underlying normative belief that we should not live downstream from poorly designed dams.
A more useful distinction, I believe, is whether a researcher is committed to a cause (in the sense of caring about the world and acting on that concern) or so bound to a particular organizational or ideological agenda that the person relinquishes the practice of open inquiry. The litmus test is whether the researcher not only tolerates but actively solicits alternative points of view, and remains open to findings sharply at odds with expectations. Commitment to a social cause, and associated efforts at public advocacy, represent no threat to intellectual integrity. Botanists studying the fate of an endangered tree species may be motivated by a deep concern for its survival, but this does not prevent them from reaching objective conclusions about its future prospects. To surrender the right to critical inquiry, however, is something altogether different. A researcher working for a conservative think tank is not free to argue for more stringent environmental regulation, no matter what the evidence suggests. A journalist at an avowedly leftist magazine does not have the liberty to write a series of reports on the role of markets in alleviating poverty. The academic’s greatest asset as a participant in public debate is not mere expertise, but freedom of inquiry. To squander that freedom by erecting barriers between the worlds of research and action strikes me as counterproductive and, frankly, a disservice to the cause of well-informed democratic dialogue.
The social leaders whom I have had the privilege of knowing over the course of my career—businesspeople, nonprofit managers, community activists, policymakers, and philanthropists—are hungry for new knowledge to inform their efforts. They simply need it translated into a form that makes sense. For students, many enjoy the intellectual ride of their coursework, but wonder How does this matter? Is it really wrong for students to demand that their education relates to the world of action? Likewise, people with a predilection for action have the right to know where their information is coming from; to that end, throughout the book I provide notes where readers will find references and expansions on specific points raised in the body of the text. After reading the following chapters, my hope is that you will not only come away with a fresh perspective on the world, but that it will be impossible to view it the same way again. By exploring the deeper foundations of the environmental crisis, a rule-based perspective marks a radical departure from the solutions we encounter in the popular media. But then, you always knew it would take something more than driving a hybrid, carrying around a reusable coffee cup, and hoping for the best.
© Paul F. Steinberg 2015