Common Ground

A World Without Bosses?

As pizza counter guys go, Willie Perez is unusually cheerful, especially for the middle of a lunch rush that, by all rights, should be tailing off. At half-past one on a spring Tuesday, a line of hungry customers is snaking out The Pizza Collective storefront on Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue, the ovens are gusting heat into the kitchen and flushed workers in aprons and tennis shoes are darting about in what appears to be barely organized bedlam. This is not the best time for an interview, I think, as I make my way to the front. But Perez's face breaks into a huge smile of welcome, he greets me like an honored guest and I am ushered to a table with a delicious slice of organic vegetarian pizza.

Thin and quick, with guileless blue eyes and Tiggerish enthusiasm, the 28-year-old father of two has good reason to be happy. He's making close to $30 an hour, gets medical benefits for his family, enjoys four to five weeks paid time off each year and believes passionately in his work. Not the work of making pizza, particularly, but the work of running, along with 38 other people, a thriving worker-owned cooperative built on the principles of democracy and economic fairness. "I have a personal mission," Perez confesses. "I want to see more cooperatives."

Worker's Paradise?

It's easy to see why Perez is a tireless proselytizer who has worked to establish three spin-off coops, the Arizmendi bakeries in Oakland, San Francisco and Emeryville. To anyone who has slogged through a wage-slave job or had a domineering boss, a collectively run cooperative sounds like a workers' paradise. It has no hierarchy and no supervisors because everyone is an owner. Everyone makes the same amount of money and everyone is responsible for making the business work. Everyone does all the jobs. No one gets summarily fired. Decisions are made by consensus. At the end of the year, some money goes to charity and some is invested back into the business. The rest of the profits, instead of enriching one or two individuals, are returned to all the worker-owners -- a rising tide lifting many boats.

This level of emotional and financial investment creates a radically different attitude toward work, Perez says, one emphasizing personal responsibility and flexibility. "If we don't have a boss and I tell you to turn out the lights when you leave, you're going to do it because it means more money for all of us," Perez says. "But if someone is breathing down your neck, you might not."

He says he used to work at a big-box retailer. "Corporate America, okay? They don't treat you like human beings. They treat you like robots. Your opinion is not appreciated."

Terry Baird, 59, a member of the Arizmendi Cooperative on Oakland's Lakeshore Drive since it opened in 1997, jokes (or not) about the effect of this. "If you work here and go somewhere else, you're kind of wrecked for the traditional work environment," he says. "The first time you say to your boss, 'Let's vote on this,' they're gonna look at you funny."

There's something else about cooperatives. In an economy with a lot of coops, the number of well-paid, self-directed workers would mean a larger, wealthier middle class, and therefore a healthier community. The goal is a society in which all people, not only the fittest, enjoy economic security.

The Pizza Collective and its parent coop, the Cheese Board, recently brought in a member in his sixties. "And it was, well, this is physical work. Do we want to bring in an older person?" Perez recalls. "But he helps us, we help him, we help his family -- and that's one less family left to the wolves of Corporate America."

The Miracle of Mondragon

In the United States, some 300 business concerns operate as worker-owned collectives, according to the National Cooperative Business Association. Some are relatively high-profile, like the Eugene, Ore.-based Burley Design Corporation, which manufactures distinctive yellow-and-blue bike trailers for children. Most, however, are local, and they are few and far between. Here, the worker-owned society is a dream, but in the Basque country of northern Spain it's become a reality. 

The Bay Area’s Arizmendi cooperative bakery/pizzerias take their name from a remarkable young Basque priest who ignited a movement from the rubble of Spain’s ruinous civil war. A defeated revolutionary who had entered the priesthood, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta arrived in the Basque town of Mondragon in 1941 and soon set up a technical school where he taught the skills necessary for Spain’s reconstruction. There he also taught Catholic Social Doctrine, with its emphasis on human dignity and better conditions for laborers.

In 1956, a handful of Arizmendi's students, determined to put those principles into action, opened a worker-owned stove factory. Three years later, they opened a credit union, and the seeds of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation were born. Today the 500-plus cooperatives that make up the MCC employ 72,000 people (about half are worker-owners, with more in the pipeline as membership catches up to rapid growth). The group posted 15 percent growth in profits last year to reach $612 million. It pours money into education, incubates new cooperatives, and provides worker benefits and collateral so members can buy houses.

When Perez visited Mondragon several years ago, he was stunned by the collective response to a fire that had leveled a refrigerator factory. The refrigerator factory workers were given jobs in other coops, even though that would almost surely mean lower profits for everyone at the other coops. "They're so unselfish in the way they run their business," Perez marvels.

The Cheese Board, which started in 1967, and the Pizza Collective, which opened in 1990, are attempting to replicate the MCC on a very small scale. They have helped establish the three Bay Area Arizmendis through training and recipe sharing, but each coop functions independently. They all, however, shovel four percent of gross profits back into the Arizmendi Association -- seed money to help start other coops and cushion economic blows.

A World Without Bosses

All the Arizmendis have needed help in learning to function as collectives. Not all cooperatives are collectives. Sunkist, for example, is a typical agricultural cooperative; it consists of a number of citrus growers who market their products as a group under the Sunkist label. A collective, on the other hand, is a flat organization with no hierarchy, no fatherly arbiter to say: "You're right, and you're wrong," which means people have to cooperate. Which is hard.

Lisa Bruzoni, who at 50 has been at the Cheese Board for 15 years, acknowledges that the $18 an hour the members make, plus the $9.99-per-hour profit-sharing bonus everyone got last year, is attractive. "Twenty-eight dollars an hour sounds like a great amount of pay, especially for what we're doing," she says. "But there are certain people who would want to work in a cooperative and certain people who wouldn't. It can be very frustrating."

Without exception, all the people interviewed for this story said the hardest thing about their jobs was learning to get along with others in an environment where no one -- or everyone, really -- is the boss.

For one thing, big decisions at these businesses must be made by consensus (that means everyone must agree that they can live with whatever is decided), and the only opportunity to do this is at monthly board meetings. Consequently, it takes a long time to get anything done. "It took us three years to write a book," says Bruzoni, who co-authored The Cheese Board Collective Works along with several other members. "Anywhere else, it would have taken a year and a half, but we kept having to check with the coop."

The gritty problem of personality conflicts is also wearing. Elizabeth Medina, 27, describes joining the Pizza Collective as "the most stressful thing I've ever done in my life." It was during her six-month probation period that some personality conflicts emerged. Knowing that any member could single-handedly block her bid to join, made the pressure that much worse. "It was so tough. I felt like I was totally under a microscope. I remember going home to my husband and crying and saying, 'Oh my God, this person doesn't like me.'"

Since most people join a collective for a long period of time -- the $1,000 buy-in at the Cheese Board and Pizza Collective is meant to foster commitment -- there's a sense that the relationships cannot be escaped. That seems to force people to figure out how to get along. "This place will humble you," says Perez, "because a lot of people aren't willing to say, 'Hey, can you cut pizza for me today?' to someone they had an argument with yesterday."

Then there is the more deeply personal issue of self-motivation. "Everybody thinks they don't want to have a boss," says Baird of the Oakland Arizmendi. "But what they haven't thought about is they don't want to be a boss, either. That is maybe the most revolutionary aspect to what we do here. People have to become in charge of themselves, and not everybody's equipped to do that."

Cooperatives, especially the collectively run variety, are a rarity. Even in the Bay Area, as progressive as it is, there is only a handful. This begs the question of whether they can make a difference.

Baird has given this some thought. "Sometimes I wonder, what is the meaning of all this?" he muses. "I enjoy the work, and I can live on the pay. But is it really gonna change things? And I think it does. When I read biographies about exceptional people, it never comes from nowhere. Rosa Parks wasn't just some lady; she was active in the civil rights movement. So yeah, I think we do good work. We do work we like and in a democratic fashion, and maybe it rubs off on people."

The Journey to Wild Divine

Warning: The Journey to Wild Divine is no shoot-'em up computer game for twitchy-fingered adrenaline junkies.

To play the game, I clip three purple biofeedback devices onto my fingertips. The devices will monitor perspiration and beat-to-beat changes in my heart rate. Using my mouse, I can take a leisurely virtual tour of the lush gardens and sacred mountain temples of Wild Divine's mystical Sun Realm while being serenaded by soothing, chirping birds and flute music.

But the mouse is useless for conquering the game's real challenges. To feed a white rabbit in the Temple of Compassion, to delicately balance one rock on top of another or to light a fire in a cozy cottage, my biofeedback sensors first have to conclude that I am relaxed. At the cold fireplace, nothing happens as I follow the instructions to coordinate my breathing with the slow opening and closing of a bellows.

I get impatient. I get nowhere. Finally, I give up trying to get anywhere and just inhale and exhale very slowly. The fire appears. I feel a sense of accomplishment and, yes, peace, even in the face of looming deadlines.

A Brave New World

Wild Divine and other user-friendly desktop technologies have revolutionized the once monochromatic world of biofeedback, intersecting with ancient mind-body techniques in new ways. Such technology can "accelerate the learning curve" for these ancient techniques, says Adam Crane, author of Mindfitness Training: Neurofeedback and the Process. When would-be meditators, despite their best efforts, have not been able to approach the mental states that are second nature for yogis, biofeedback can help: "You can take them right to it if the teacher and the equipment are right," says Crane.

One advantage of technologically aided mind-body exercises is that they provide quantifiable data. "It's objective," says Deborah Rozman, CEO of Quantum Intech, a technology licensing and manufacturing company, "you can't fool yourself." Unlike pharmaceuticals, these cyber-zazen sessions help you shift rather than mask negative emotions. "You can drug the emotions, but that's like disarming the fire alarm without putting out the fire," says Rozman. "You've got to give people tools to harness the power of their physiology."

Wild Divine's creators, animator Corwin Bell and biomedical engineer Kurt Smith, promise that "with patience and persistence," mastering the game's challenges will help you "discover a deeper understanding that can be applied to your life and your own personal journey." The game, which lists at $159.95, is only the first in a planned trilogy by the ambitious Colorado entrepreneurs, who met while rock climbing. The next installment, scheduled for release next spring, will feature the electronic avatar of author and teacher Deepak Chopra as a spiritual guide named Rama.

Another computerized biofeedback tool, Quantum Intech's Freeze-Framer, also uses a finger sensor to monitor heart rate variability. Developed by Santa Cruz-based Institute of HeartMath, the $295 (list price) Freeze-Framer features a five-step training exercise to teach players how to shift into a more relaxed state and three games that help you hone the technique. Those who prefer their de-stressing exercises devoid of mystic imagery will prefer these straightforward games to Wild Divine's elaborate Sun Realm. In the Freeze-Framer games, you can "heart power" a hot air balloon over obstacles or fill a pot with gold, but only when you shift into a relaxed state.

Freeze-Framer is being used in 200 schools to help students overcome test anxiety. Carmel High School teacher Diana Govan taught HeartMath's de-stressing technique before the computerized version was developed. She prefers the high-tech version because it provides accurate quality control: "It is so much more powerful to use the software because the students get immediate feedback." Preliminary results in the schools are so promising that the federal government has awarded HeartMath $1.7 million in grants to study the technique's impact on students and teachers.

Science or Witchcraft?

New research also supports the rationale for another form of biofeedback that monitors brain activity. State-of-the-art brain imaging has found that the adult brain is "plastic" – i.e., capable of generating new cells and new connections among those cells. The new science is no surprise for proponents of brain biofeedback, which is commonly called neurofeedback. Its researchers have claimed that altering the brain's electrical patterns (categorized from slowest to fastest as delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma waves) can help treat conditions as varied as attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression, epilepsy, and migraine headaches.

There have been so many anecdotal reports of cures that San Jose psychologist Colin Wright once put neurofeedback in the same category as copper bracelets: "I thought it was witchcraft. It meets all of the criteria for quackery. It claims to work for everything and also claims that it does no harm." But Wright was won over by his success in using biofeedback to treat his ADD patients. He has also become convinced that neurofeedback produces minimal side effects: "The brain is pretty good at protecting itself. It just isn't going to allow you to blunder into a bad circumstance."

Jay Gunkelman, longtime neurofeedback entrepreneur and executive vice president of Burbank-based Q-Metrx, says there is solid research to support neurofeedback for the treatment of epilepsy and ADD, but there is not enough quality research to back up its use for most other disorders. "People are making claims well beyond the research," says Gunkelman, who believes that patients should be informed when the treatments are experimental.

In a typical neurofeedback session, the patient sits in a comfortable chair with electronic sensors attached to the scalp. The sensors, which read the electrical activity of the brain, are hooked up to a computer. The computer amplifies, analyzes and translates the electrical activity into displays such as multicolored graphs, video games or sounds. It's the therapist's job to program the games so that the desired brain waves are rewarded.

Therapists, for example, often determine that their ADD patients exhibit too many slower brain waves (alpha/theta) in the frontal lobe of the brain and not enough faster (beta) waves associated with concentration. Their treatment includes programming the games to reward the production of beta waves. These patients make progress with the computer game only when they shift to a mental state conducive to concentration and homework.

While it may look to the observer as if the patient is just sitting in a chair doing nothing, Cynthia Kerson of Marin Biofeedback explains: "It is a very tangible experience. You let the computer talk to you. You just need to be present." And Gunkelman observes that once the brain learns to master the shift, it doesn't forget: "It's like riding a bicycle. You may wiggle a little bit when you get back on after not riding for a while, but you still know how. It is a skill that you have learned, as opposed to something that's been done to you."

There is, however, no unanimity among practitioners about the best way to teach the brain these new skills. Says Kentfield-based neurofeedback practitioner Julian Isaacs: "It's a young field, and there are a whole bunch of people doing different things and they're all claiming that they're getting good results."

Isaacs suspects that one explanation for the fact that practitioners with "wildly different" protocols are reporting good results is found in the "exercise" theory of neurofeedback. That theory holds that any kind of neurofeedback improves brain function and thus may alleviate a variety of symptoms. "Maybe just learning how to control your brain waves is enough," says Isaacs. "It doesn't matter what [the] specific protocol is."

Many clinicians believe, however, that to be most effective, it is first necessary to use electroencephalographs (EEGs) and the more detailed quantitative electroencephalographs (qEEGs) to figure out which brain waves are deficient or excessive in different areas of the brain. Dallas-based naturopath and EEG-researcher Marvin Sams says such readings allow him to determine where the brain is operating inefficiently. When Sams trains patients to change their problematic brain waves, he finds that whatever symptoms they are suffering from abate.

At Mirasol, a residential treatment program in Arizona, psychologist Peter Smith is pioneering the use of neurofeedback for notoriously difficult-to-treat eating disorders. Smith has found the targeted use of EEGs and qEEGs to be essential. Unless you figure out what is going on in an individual's brain before you start, he says, "it is like trying to put a Band-Aid on without understanding the nature of the bleeding."

The Perfect Alpha Tan

For his part, James Hardt of the Mountain View-based Biocybernaut Institute, zeroes in on alpha waves to treat a variety of symptoms. Hardt says that after a week of learning how to suppress and increase alpha waves, many participants can create brain wave patterns comparable to those of advanced Zen meditators. Hardt claims that his clients can boost their creativity, resolve psychological problems and lower their anxiety so much that, after treatment, they look as if they have spent a week on a tropical island – a phenomenon he has dubbed the "alpha tan."

Participants spend six to eight hours a day for seven days doing neurofeedback and more hours processing their experiences with a therapist. This boot camp approach is more effective than two-or-three-day-a-week neurofeedback, according to Hardt. Hardt uses the analogy of a jet plane, which will move down the runway when you move it 100 feet a day, but will never fly.

Hardt's intensive program costs an eye-popping $14,000. Other therapists charge anywhere from $50 to $100 for 30-to-45-minute sessions. They are likely to recommend at least 20 sessions and often more. Because most consumers pay for these neurofeedback sessions out of their own pockets, proponents say that they should be wary. Dr. Daniel G. Amen, a Fairfield, Calif., psychiatrist and author of Healing ADD, notes that while neurofeedback can be effective for ADD, neither drugs nor neurofeedback are panaceas.

New neurofeedback research that will aid consumers in separating the hype from reality is underway. But there may be a limit to the public's willingness to embrace even the most user-friendly new technology. Biofeedback can be daunting for Americans who like instant results. "You need persistence," says Wright. "It's boring, and it's hard work."

Wild Divine fans think the game has gone a long way toward alleviating biofeedback boredom and making it easier to incorporate cyber-assisted meditation into their daily lives. Ace gamer and writer Robin D. Owens, for example, bookmarks her favorite Wild Divine spots. When her writing isn't going well or she just needs to relax, Owens revisits the fireplace for some deep breathing practices or patiently feeds the white rabbit. These game sites are not only pleasant places to revisit but, with her purple fingertip biofeedback sensors in place, "you can get immediate feedback, which is what most Americans prefer."

The Godmother of Green Health Care

Nobody breastfed in Charlotte, North Carolina in the late 1970s. That was for women who were too backward or poor to take advantage of the modern miracle of infant formula. So when registered nurse and new mother Charlotte Brody decided to nurse her baby, eyebrows went up.

Brody was undeterred. As someone who had worked with striking coal miners and disabled textile workers, many of whom suffered lung ailments, she considered the wellbeing of her newborn son more important than prevailing local mores. So she steered past the formula aisle, learned how to breastfeed by reading books, and ignored the stares and whispers.

Fast forward to 1994. Brody, now a mother of two, had just resigned as the executive director of the local Planned Parenthood affiliate to join Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs' Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste when the Environmental Protection Agency released a report that would change the course of her life. The study found that medical waste incinerators – used to burn everything from soiled bandages to syringes – were the nation's number one source of dioxin, a deadly carcinogenic byproduct of burning materials containing chlorine.

The thought that Planned Parenthood had been poisoning the air sent Brody reeling.

"We thought the more waste we could incinerate, the safer we were making our patients, because incineration burned up all the hepatitis and HIV bugs," she explains in a clear, careful voice that is both sweetly melodic and utterly resolved. Brody was stunned to learn that the waste was coming back into the hospital clinic as dioxin lodged in the breasts of women "whom we were trying so hard to keep healthy until they were ready to become mothers.

"I was particularly floored because I was very attached and proud of my breastfeeding of my sons," Brody recalls. "And the idea that I downloaded 20 years of toxic chemicals into my firstborn was just shocking and outrageous and deeply depressing."

The irony that the health care industry was a major polluter was not lost on Brody. But as a lifelong activist – she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the tender age of 16 – she also spied an opening for change.

In the spring of 1996, Citizens Clearinghouse and similar groups began a series of meetings in Bolinas on the grounds of Commonweal, a nonprofit research institute recognized as a leading force in the environmental health movement. That fall, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) was born. The new coalition had a straightforward mission: make the environment safer for humans by making hospitals safer for humans.

The campaign's starting point? Medical waste.

"Since there were alternatives to incineration, there was a sense that this was a problem we could solve if we just educated people and created an effort to make social change," Brody says. "And we've done it."

By approaching hospitals with information on alternative waste disposal systems just as costly new Clinton-era emissions rules kicked in, HCWH was able to reduce the number of medical incinerators operating nationwide from an estimated 6,000 in 1994 to 100 today.

HCWH has since grown to include more than 400 member organizations in 52 countries. In keeping with an ambitious mission to green the global health care industry, HCWH has launched campaigns to rid hospitals of mercury thermometers and toxics-leaching IV bags. It encourages hospitals to buy ecologically sound medical supplies, cleaners, building materials and organic food – a greening campaign with huge potential impact when you consider that the health care industry accounts for 15 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Brody's work, too, has evolved. In addition to her role as HCWH's executive director, she is active in the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which strives to get harmful substances out of makeup, lotions, deodorants and toothpaste. Most recently, in January, she took over as executive director of Commonweal. The position puts her at the helm of an eclectic organization with focus areas in cancer, health care, environmental health and juvenile justice.

For Brody, it's about reaching ever further to make a difference and striving to find the greatest leverage point. As she puts it, "I just want to be part of a global community that keeps learning how to keep making bigger, smarter transformational change."

The Right to Be Chemical-Free

The insidious nature of environmental pollutants is a deeply disturbing fact of modern life. Dioxin, for example, spews from smokestacks, drifts through the atmosphere, settles on crop fields, contaminates the meat and milk of cows and eventually shows up in the body tissue of most Americans. It can cause cancer, immune system damage, birth defects and low IQ.

Phthalates are another evil genie. Used to make shower curtains, nail polish, IV bags and countless other items, they leach into the environment like humidity and are present in the tissue of virtually every human being. In July 2002, the Environmental Working Group, a partner in the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, released a study that found phthalates present in three-quarters of cosmetics tested. (A later project, Skin Deep, screened 7,500 beauty and body care products for the presence of phthalates and created a searchable online database.) These ubiquitous compounds have been linked to liver, kidney and lung damage and impaired development in fetuses.

This gets to the heart of Brody's philosophy on environmental health: it's about motherhood and the right of children to be born without chemical contamination. She likes to quote Katsi Cook, the Mohawk healer, midwife and environmental health researcher who says, "Women are the first environment."

"The old way was to think of the problem of industrial chemicals as: 'How much of one chemical will give a 50-year-old male worker cancer?' And as long as we all were exposed to less than that amount, we were supposed to be safe.

"I think that what we need to be aiming for is how do we create a society that encourages the birth of healthy children," Brody says. "Women of childbearing age – not just pregnant women – are the canaries in the mine. But the answer isn't to give our canaries a 10-page list of dos and don'ts. The answer is to remake the world so it's safe for them. A world that's safe for young women will also be safe for men and frogs and coral."

Healthy Patients, Healthy Planet

In her quest to remake the world, Brody has emerged as a savvy strategist with solid credentials among activists and CEOs alike. Several years ago, HCWH realized that going to individual hospitals and appealing to them to switch to safer IV bags and non-antibiotic meat was all well and good, but going to the five purchasing collectives that control 70 percent of the market was better. Today, two of the collectives have stopped offering mercury products altogether, and the rest are following suit. Some are also switching from IV bags made with PVC, which leaches phthalate, while the two biggest IV bag manufacturers have abandoned PVC.

"The health care sector is waking up to its purchasing power to drive sustainability and health care goals – healthy patients, healthy workers, healthy communities, healthy planet," says HCWH co-founder Gary Cohen. "The possibilities here are just enormous."

This kind of strategic vision has earned Brody the respect of powerful industry leaders, says Kathy Gerwig, former director of environmental stewardship for Kaiser Permanente and an HCWH board member. She started working with Brody in 1997.

"The CEO then and our CEO now, George Halvorson, have both interacted with Charlotte and Health Care Without Harm and view the organization as extremely credible partners," Gerwig says. "She can sit in a meeting and talk to Housekeeping about chemical cleaners and talk to the CEO of a $22 billion medical organization about how to be a leader in environmentally sustainable health care."

Brody is also a born collaborator, Gerwig says. "In other settings, [with] somebody like Charlotte, an activist, and someone like me on the corporate side, the natural order of things is to be adversaries," she says, "and her natural order of things is to find the nexus. There is no 'across the table' with Charlotte. You're on the same side."

Janet Nudelman, program director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund and a longtime collaborator of Brody's, most recently on the Safe Cosmetics Campaign, says Brody is the same way with fellow activists.

"Anyone that's done social change work has often come out of that work feeling really bruised," she says. "People sometimes give themselves the excuse that the work is so important that relationships don't matter. Charlotte is really the antithesis of that. She really is the personification of the belief that relationships matter."

Asked what discovery has aided her most in her work, Brody takes a minute to consider. "It's that I don't know everything," she says at last. "And that some of the cultural trappings of the left are less than useful. The people who have been the champions of moving Health Care Without Harm issues in their hospitals can't all quote Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg, and I think really creating an organization where you didn't have to fit one cultural mold .... Well, you don't have to be a hiker or a biker or a Billy Bragg fan."

A Holistic View of Change

Commonweal sits on 60 windblown acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, two miles up the road from the hamlet of Bolinas and a remote hour from San Francisco along vertiginous coastal corkscrews. A few buildings huddle among clumps of trees, but otherwise the place seems deserted, a plain of blowing grasses framed against indigo foothills. Rising abruptly from the middle of this scene are dozens of ghostly radio antennas, now-silent transmitters placed there by radio's inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, in 1913. It was here that Commonweal founder Michael Lerner was struck by inspiration one day in 1975.

"I had an image, a strong image that it might be possible to create a center there that we could use for work on both personal and planetary healing," he says. The next year, he and a group of friends started Commonweal with the goal of creating "a safer world for people and all life."

Lerner guided Commonweal for 27 years, fashioning it into a multi-dimensional institute with four areas of focus: helping people with cancer live better lives, reacquainting physicians with the spiritual aspect of healing, reforming the juvenile justice system, and fostering better health for people and the environment. When he suffered a heart attack last year, he began looking for the next generation of leadership to take over Commonweal. In January, he handed his baby to Charlotte Brody.

"Here was a person who had a lifelong commitment to poor people, workers and peace and the environment and justice," Lerner says of his successor. "So it was just a deeply natural fit for the Commonweal community. But on top of that, Charlotte is someone who is more than a good organizer. She is a really capacious thinker and a broad-gauge human being."

Nudelman concurs and observes that Commonweal, with its holistic view of creating change, is a natural home for Brody. "Commonweal is really an organization that understands the interconnectedness of things – public health, women's health, environmental justice," she says, "and it makes sense that Charlotte has arrived there because it's such a clear intellectual practice for her to see how these things relate."

Brody herself pondered the interconnectedness recently. "It's a dangerous myth to believe that you can make yourself into a healthy person on a sick planet," she said. "You can eat wild salmon instead of tuna to reduce your exposure to PCBs and mercury. You can exercise and reduce your risk of heart disease and hypertension. But we can't shop our way or lifestyle our way out of being connected to everything else on our planet."

The Visionary Walker

Ever since he was a child, accompanying his mother to her small plot of farmland under the hot Indian sun, Satish Kumar has spent his life walking. At 9, he joined an order of wandering Jain monks and, for a decade, wore no shoes so that his footfall would be "softer and gentler" on ants and insects. Both his mother and his guru helped imprint in his heart Jain ideas of reverence for all forms of life. Kumar was taught to handle even the lowly mosquito with care – gently removing rather than swatting it away. Over the years, Kumar's pacifism coalesced around the discipline of walking as both a form of meditation and a means to change the world.

"Walking in the wild or in nature is my meditation and my spiritual practice," he said recently. "Meditation and spirituality are not separate activities, divorced from everyday life. Whatever I do, I try to do with mindfulness and with a sense of the sacred, then everything – whether it is cleaning, cooking, gardening, walking, editing, or even sleeping – becomes a sacred activity."

Walking, he adds, is also a great, noble tradition, one "that is part of both political and spiritual life. The Buddha walked away from his palace and walked for 12 years before he became enlightened. Martin Luther King walked from Alabama to Washington, D.C. Mahatma Gandhi's independence movement was based on walking. And on February 15th, 2003 millions of people in 27 different cities walked for peace."

Satish Kumar is a seasoned leader in the environmental and social change movement. A spiritual activist shaped by Gandhian principles of nonviolence, Kumar, at 68, remains a larger-than-life figure for his decades-long work championing peace, the rights of the oppressed and the natural world.

For many in the environmental movement, this former monk is both bold hero and wise sage, renowned for a life lived according to deeply held ecological principles and for a political activism that draws attention to some of the world's most intractable problems. He is best known for the 8,000-mile peace pilgrimage he undertook to persuade the nuclear powers to forego war and for his 30-year tenure as editor of Resurgence, an environmental publication that Kumar oversees from his farmhouse in rural England.

The destiny that compelled Kumar down such an unorthodox path revealed itself at an early age. Born in India in 1936, he was raised in a village in Rajasthan whose inhabitants adhered to the Jain tradition. Following ahimsa, the principle of not harming any living creature, Jains are strict vegetarians. The youngest of eight children, Kumar was 4 when his father died and his close bond to his mother grew even stronger. Though she was illiterate, Kumar regards her as his first teacher.

"My mother was very devout," recalls Kumar, and "taught me that all life is sacred – and that we cannot take life out of greed or carelessness."

His father's death deeply affected him. He felt so compelled to decode death's mystery that at age 9, he decided to leave his family and become a monk. "I became so despondent, that I wondered what could be done to stop people from dying," he said. "So my quest to become a Jain monk was a search for a solution to the problem of death."

Even within his tightly knit Jain family, Kumar's decision caused turmoil. But he persisted, and after an elaborate ceremony, Kumar renounced his ties to the world. With a cloth over his mouth to prevent his breath from inhaling any airborne creature, he spent the following nine years as a wandering, barefoot mendicant. In seeking a solution to death, says Kumar, his training also taught him "about life and philosophy and reincarnation, as well as principles of dharma, karma and non-violence."

A fellow monk loaned him a book by Gandhi, and Kumar's worldview shifted yet again. From Gandhi, he learned that "you cannot divide the world in two: a spiritual life in one compartment, and the everyday world of politics and family in another." Gandhi's message to integrate spirituality into everyday life was so powerful, says Kumar, that he realized "living apart from the world and practicing for my own personal salvation was an illusion – because there is no such thing as personal salvation. We are all connected. No person can be liberated without others. That idea brought me back into the world."

Inspired by Gandhi's vision of "social spirituality," Kumar next joined a campaign led by Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi's successor as leader of India's village movement. Marching alongside Bhave from village to village, Kumar witnessed thousands of people donating over four million acres of land for distribution among the poor. A noted Upanishads scholar, Bhave became an important teacher to Kumar, one who taught him more about the concept of Sarvodaya (the well being of all) and Jai Jagat (the unity of the universe). Around that time, Kumar entered into an arranged marriage and his wife became pregnant. As was the custom, she returned home to live with her family.

Kumar's most notable act of political protest took shape while sitting at a café. Browsing through the newspaper with his friend Prabhakar Menon, he was gripped by an article detailing British philosopher Bertrand Russell's imprisonment at a ban-the-bomb protest in London. The year was 1962, when the nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union had dangerously escalated. Inspired by the 90-year-old Russell's courage, Kumar and Menon decided then and there to make a Peace Pilgrimage on foot to the leaders of the world's (then) four nuclear nations. By doing this, they reasoned, they would physically demonstrate their opposition to nuclear weapons.

After receiving his wife's and Vinoba Bhave's blessings, Kumar and Menon set out on their 8,000-mile journey. In Delhi, Lahore, Tashkent, Moscow, Paris, London, Washington and many other places, the two men, with no money in their pockets, were greeted by hundreds of ordinary people who opened their hearts and homes, offering food and shelter. In Armenia, they received four packets of "peace tea" from a woman whose advice to world leaders was to "brew a pot of tea" before making a decision to fire missiles. Among the many dignitaries they met were Martin Luther King and, in England, the man who had initially inspired them – Bertrand Russell.

Two and a half years later, Kumar rejoined his wife and daughter in India. They embarked on a tour around the country, as he addressed audiences about his peace pilgrimage. But Kumar's marriage was floundering. Pregnant with their second child, his wife's family pressured him to give up his social activism and start a drapery business. When he resisted, his wife and daughter returned home to live with her family. Understandably devastated, Kumar says now that the influences of the Jain tradition, coupled with Gandhi's example, had made such an impact on him that he was simply unable to pursue a conventional life.

"My life is not my life – it is connected with everybody else's life," he said. "So when my wife's family wanted me to buy a house and become rich – all those things [were] leading me toward a personal life. Although I was seen as irresponsible, I simply could not be comfortable with myself if I followed that path – it was a terrible dilemma."

Over the next several years, Kumar shuttled between Europe and India, joining forces with activists on both continents. An unexpected twist of fate would change the course of his life. Invited to London to speak about the plight of refugees in Bangladesh, he met June Mitchell, also a relief worker, who would become his life partner. Soon after, while taking his daily walk, Kumar encountered John Papworth, an English activist who had accompanied him on a segment of his peace march through the United States, and the founder of Resurgence magazine. Recently posted to Zambia, Papworth prevailed upon his old friend to take over as magazine editor.

Kumar accepted the offer. "I didn't like to...refuse something which was coming to me by fate," he wrote in his autobiography, "No Destination."

Kumar, Mitchell and their growing family settled in a centuries-old stone cottage in Hartland, a rural village on England's Devon coast. And there, for the past 30 years, he has combined the intellectual work of editing Resurgence with the manual work of growing food, milking cows, and walking in the countryside. With the mortgage on their house held by a trust of benefactors, he and his wife supported themselves on modest salaries from the magazine and occasional lectures. It remains a way of life, he wrote in "No Destination," where "there was no division between living and earning a livelihood...and no division between home and office."

There has also been little division between Kumar's nature-based lifestyle and marching forward with the revolution that had always been his life's labor. As a pacifist, Kumar was used to drawing on the power of ideas and the energy of intellectual exchange as a way to foment social change. Under his guidance, Resurgence became a focal point for articulating the ongoing dialogue within the burgeoning world ecology movement.

Kumar has always been a teacher, and in 1991, drawing on the nexus of thinkers and activists who had contributed to Resurgence over the years, Kumar founded Schumacher College. Grounded in the principles espoused by Kumar's friend, environmental pioneer, E.F. Shumacher, the residential center offers courses in James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphogenetic fields (among others), ideas largely overlooked in mainstream universities.

Philosopher Jacob Needleman has written that the root of materialism is a poverty of ideas about the inner and outer worlds. In this sense, Kumar's life, while not rich by conventional standards, has been wealthy in spiritual depth, philosophical knowledge, and relational intimacy with loved ones and nature. The Sanskrit phrase So hum, or "You are, therefore I am," is the mantra that he credits with weaving the thread of his life into the greater tapestry of history.

The spiritual perspective that has sustained him throughout his work as an activist, he said, could likewise serve to inspire the environmental movement. Concerned that there is too much materialism in the environmental movement, Kumar says that it is "using the same formula as the rest of society, but trying to achieve something different – and that can't happen. The argument that we should protect the environment because it is good for our economy is still a utilitarian, scientific attitude." What is needed instead, says Kumar, "is a reverential ecology where we value nature for its own intrinsic quality," a view that honors and celebrates nature out of love.

Kumar also takes the environmental movement to task for relying too heavily on fear to promote change.

"Forty years of environmentalism has not brought about a true transformation," he insists, "because it has been mostly fear-based and [that] is hindering the movement. In order to release the power of the movement, we have to come to a more holistic and intuitive environmentalism."

Even phrases like "body, mind and spirit," he says, reflect "separational values" that impede genuine ecological awareness. "My body, my mind, and my spirit leave out the surrounding Earth community. How can my body be healthy if the water and air are polluted and the rainforests are destroyed?" he asks. "In the Age of Ecology we need to evolve and take the Earth and social community into account."

A phrase more suitable, says Kumar, would be "soil, soul, and society" – a trinity that joins nature, humanity, and spirituality.

Whether America will ever embrace the principles of the Age of Ecology remains uncertain. Borrowing a theme from vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, Kumar said that today there are "two Americas. One America is gripped by desire to control the markets and natural resources of the world and to become the most dominant and wealthy nation."

The other America, he said, is rooted in the values of its indigenous American Indian tradition, the wilderness movement sparked by naturalists like Aldo Leopold and John Muir, and by social visionaries like Amory Lovins and Hazel Henderson, who embody a holistic perspective.

It is this second America, Kumar said, that contains the seed of hope for the planet.

"If America could take the lead in protecting the human spirit and the earth spirit, then it could become a touchstone for the rest of the world. Then India, China, Africa and all the other countries would follow the Sierra Club and wilderness culture – instead of the Disney World and Hollywood culture."

Mad About Mercury

Last April, at the first federally sponsored symposium on mercury and public health, Dr Jane Hightower of San Francisco's California Pacific Medical Center presented some alarming findings: nine out of 10 Bay Area residents who ate fish regularly had elevated blood-mercury levels and associated health complaints.

"People are having symptoms just like the hatters," says Hightower alluding to the 19th and early 20th century "mad hatters" who were exposed to mercury nitrate used to process fur pelts. "They have weakness, headache, stomach upsets, hair loss, allergy symptoms, and there's a question of autoimmune disease."

Hightower is not the only medical professional who is worried about mercury. Recently, many Bay Area physicians have begun questioning their patients about fish intake and measuring blood-mercury levels. Dr. Laurie Green of the Pacific Women's Obstetrics and Gynecology Medical Group now asks her patients to record not only what fish they eat but how much: "I've been astounded at how many patients have high mercury levels and underestimate their fish intake," she writes. Green was amazed to discover "how much better they feel once they cut out the contaminated food."

Public Health Crisis?

Concern over toxic mercury levels in the general population is growing. The dangerous poison is showing up everywhere: not just in smokestacks, lakes and oceans, fish, dental amalgams and vaccines, but also in Arctic sunrises, wildfire smoke, landfill emissions and homes. Coal-burning power plants – the largest source of industrial mercury pollution – spew out mercury that ends up in lakes and oceans, where bacteria convert it to methylmercury.

This potent neurotoxin bioaccumulates in freshwater fish and seafood and is especially dangerous to the developing fetus. The Environmental Protection Agency warned in January that one in six children born annually may be at risk from high exposure to methylmercury in the womb.

"We have some exposures occurring now in the United States that have produced blood mercury a lot higher than anything we would have expected to see," says Kate Mahaffey of the EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. "And this appears to be related to consumption of larger amounts of fish that are higher in mercury than we had anticipated."

How Much Fish is Safe?

Everyone agrees that mercury is toxic. The question is how much mercury poses a risk? Scientific uncertainty has spawned heated debate over whether the EPA's March 19 advisory to pregnant and nursing women is adequate. The advisory cautions against eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish because of their high mercury content but allows up to 12 ounces a week of shrimp, canned light tuna and salmon.

While no one doubts the benefits of eating fish, evidence is mounting that methylmercury not only harms the developing fetal brain but could also play a role in common adult complaints like insomnia, fatigue, and serious heart and autoimmune diseases.

Dr. Paul Dantzig of Columbia University's School of Medicine has linked a distinctive skin rash to mercury exposures at levels well below the EPA "safe" limit. Dantzig (who encounters two or three patients a week with mercury poisoning) reports that the rash disappears when people stop eating fish or undergo chelation therapy to reduce mercury levels. "When it comes to mercury," Dantzig says, "there is no safe level."

The EPA had set the "safe" exposure level at 5.8 micrograms of mercury per liter of blood, which is thought to be protective of fetal development. Some scientists think the level should be higher although a recent analysis of umbilical cord blood suggests it should be lower. And so far no one knows exactly what blood mercury level triggers problems in adults.

Mercury's toxicity was vividly illustrated in the 1950s by the deaths and deformities resulting from the release of methylmercury into Minamata Bay in Japan. Hundreds more died in Iraq in 1972 after eating bread made from seeds treated with methylmercury.

Conflicting Messages

How dangerous is methylmercury harbored by seafood today? How much fish is it safe to eat? Guidelines for pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children, based on a long-term study, are outlined in a March joint-advisory by the EPA and Food and Drug Administration. The study, conducted in the North Atlantic Faroe Islands, shows that the more mercury children were exposed to in the womb, the worse they score on neuropsychological tests, with measurable damage still showing up in 14-year-olds.

But critics say the advisory – aimed at keeping mercury intake below the "safe" level – is ambiguous; acan of albacore tuna, three times as high in mercury as "light" tuna, consumed once a week could put some women's mercury over the limit.

David Acheson of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition says the "safe" limit is not a "bright line" but contains a tenfold uncertainty factor. It's also true that the EPA's exposure limit is among the lowest (and therefore most restrictive) worldwide, set at less than half the World Health Organization guideline. "We know that people are going to get a little bit above the limit sometimes," says Acheson "But we've got to be thinking of the risk-benefit message."

Fish, a healthful high-protein, low-fat, low-cholesterol alternative to meat, is recommended for pregnant women because it contains omega-3-fatty acids that are beneficial for fetal brain development. Given the current debate over the harmful effects of mercury, Dr. Hightower recommends that everyone choose low-mercury, high-omega-3 fatty acid fish such as salmon.

But blood-mercury concentrations that should set off alarm bells for obstetricians just plummeted from 5.8 to 3.5 micrograms/liter, after a recent Japanese study discovered that mercury in umbilical cord blood was 1.6 times as high as in maternal blood. This prompted the EPA in January to revise the estimate of newborns annually at risk from mercury from 300,000 to 650,000.

A Fishy Study

To further muddy the waters, a long-term study of youngsters in the Seychelles Islands found no damage to children whose mothers ate an average of 12 fish meals a week when pregnant. The fish had about the same concentration of methylmercury found in US fish.

"We do not really understand why the Seychelles population has not shown effects that tend to be consistent with most of the rest of the literature," says Mahaffey. "But we hope that, over time, it will become clearer why this study is unusual."

Others, like Hightower, are troubled that the Seychelles study received close to half-a-million dollars in funding from the Electric Power Research Institute, the National Tuna Foundation and the National Fisheries Institute – a fact that lead author Gary Myers failed to disclose in his testimony to Congress when he vouched for the safety of unrestricted fish consumption.

More worrisome still is that those doctors who rely upon the profession's "Bible," the New England Journal of Medicine, are getting only one-sided and deceptively authoritative guidelines. In an October 2003 NEJM article "Review of the Toxicology of Mercury," the same Seychelles study authors write: "Fish consumption has clear health benefits, and the risk posed by exposure to mercury is currently speculative."

Informing the Public

Many women remain in the dark over mercury's potential dangers. Surveys show that over one-third of women of childbearing age don't know that eating mercury-tainted fish could harm their offspring. "Clearly the message is still not getting out," says Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project.

Several consumer and environmental groups suggest that mercury concentrations should appear on fish packaging, especially canned tuna.

California supermarkets now post cautionary statements: "Warning! Nearly all fish and seafood contain some amount of mercury and related compounds, chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Certain fish contain higher levels than others. Pregnant and nursing women, women who may become pregnant, and young children should not eat the following fish: swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tile fish. They should also limit their consumption of other fish, including fresh or frozen tuna."

It's a warning that many consumer and environmental groups believe should appear nationwide.

EPA limits are calculated to protect developing fetal and newborn brains but what about dangers to adults? Pregnant women who gave birth to deformed offspring in Japan appeared normal, but follow-up studies show that Minamata residents experienced more fatigue, stomach problems, muscle stiffness, insomnia and memory loss than those living elsewhere.

Jane Hightower sees similar symptoms in her practice. Eighty-nine percent of the patients she tested, who ate fish regularly, had mercury levels above the EPA limit. Her subjects ate 30 different kinds of fish, and most patients' symptoms disappeared when they stopped eating high-mercury fish such as swordfish (their mercury levels also declined). All but two patients reduced their mercury levels to below the EPA limit by 41 weeks.

Both Hightower and Dantzig think mercury exacerbates autoimmune diseases. Animal studies confirm that, depending on genetic predisposition, mercury can trigger such disorders. People accidentally exposed to mercury in the workplace also show up with immune disturbances. "It definitely affects the immune system," says Dantzig. Hightower speculates that some people could be more sensitive to higher levels of mercury. Others agree the hypothesis warrants testing.

Mercury In the Environment

Health officials are worried not just about supermarket shoppers who eat fish frequently, but other groups too – sport, commercial and subsistence fishermen, as well as the elderly. Fish consumption advisories warn of high mercury levels and other contaminants in one-third of all lake water in the US. "The higher exposures we're seeing are often in males and sports fishermen," says Henry Anderson MD, Chief Medical Officer of the Wisconsin Division of Public Health.

Older people are vulnerable because their bodies have more difficulty eliminating toxins. They are also more susceptible to heart disease. The American Heart Association credits omega-3-fatty acids in fish with lowering heart disease risk, but European studies suggest mercury may counter that benefit.

The Healthy Californians Bio-monitoring Program, a bill introduced by Senator Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) and sponsored by the Breast Cancer Fund and Commonweal called for the nation's first-ever statewide program to measure the concentration of chemical pollutants in breast milk, blood and urine. It failed to pass the Assembly Health Committee in late June by just one vote. Such a law "would help to understand how our communities in California are exposed to toxic chemicals," says Erin Malec of the Breast Cancer Fund. "And how effective the chemical regulatory process is."

While it's true that limiting fish consumption can reduce mercury levels in human blood, the environment poses a graver long-time threat. Mercury doesn't vanish. If it's not captured and isolated, it will continue to accumulate in the environment. And it may be an even bigger health problem than most people anticipate.

"The trouble is doctors don't know anything about it. Mercury is a major, major problem. This stuff keeps building up and building up and it's becoming a real nightmare," says Paul Dantzig. "This is one of the most important things in medicine right now and nobody cares. That's the whole problem."

@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by