Thinking and Tears

I have been making speeches to students and conference participants for several years. I usually speak about the Greek achievement or the natural world and environmental protection. These are things I love. Sometimes emotions run high; my voice trembles, but I manage to regain my composure, usually by drinking water.

On Friday, June 5, 2015, I lost control of my emotions while addressing some hundred or so people during a conference on ecological civilization at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

My brief presentation was about the deleterious effects of pesticides on humans and the natural world. Suddenly, the thought of young mothers discovering poisons in their breast milk froze me in place while tears filled my eyes. In what seemed like endless staring at nothingness, I finally said, "thank you" and sat down. The crowd gave me a warm applause. I felt dazed.

My emotional outburst happened so fast I don't think I could have prevented it. How does one deal with uncontrolled emotions? What was about that image in my mind that became tears?

But in real life, can we even imagine the magnitude of suffering and crime behind the poisons in the breast milk of millions of young mothers? Many of those mothers, unknowingly, feed their babies their tainted milk.

What about the rest of us? Do we think it's fine that babies should start life with a taste of neurotoxins? And what about our scientists and professors who should know and be outraged by this deleterious onslaught on health and human rights? Why are they so silent?

I heard about this scary story while working at the US Environmental Protection Agency. As early as 1977, Jack Griffith, an EPA scientist, testified in Congress of the contamination of mothers' milk by DDT and DDT-like farm poisons.

I have documented this fact in my book, "Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA" (Bloomsbury Press, 2014). I quote from page 185:

"Even by the mid-1970s, a study showed that DDT-like chemicals... were showing up in the milk of a majority of fourteen hundred nursing women in a hundred fifty American hospitals. The numbers were shocking: 80 percent of the mothers had, on average, 164 parts per billion of dieldrin in their milk. The mean level for BHB, and trans-nonachlor varied from 56 to 193 parts per billion. But the most startling (and frightening) discovery was the presence of DDE, the carcinogenic form of DDT, in the milk of 99 percent of the mothers. The average amount of DDE in the mothers' milk was 3,521 parts per billion."

Dieldrin, BHB and trans-nonachlor are DDT-like chemicals. A part per billion is like finding a bad apple in 2,000,000 barrels of apples. EPA banned DDT in 1972 and other DDT-like chemicals later. Other toxic sprays replaced the chlorine-like chemicals.

The young mothers are not alone. The entire world is worthy of tears.

There are countless reports of poisoning and destruction in the oceans, rivers, forests, and land. As I have shown in my book, people have been eating food laced with life-deforming chemicals for decades.

Nothing in this destruction and poisoning is normal or inevitable.

We have damaged our beautiful world. Which is why emotions are important in our understanding and evaluation of what we do. Deforming and killing birds and frogs and other wildlife should never be seeing in the abstract, especially when government-approved chemicals do the deforming and killing.

Another example: Government-approved animal factories have made the lives of millions of Americans (and citizens in different countries) as bad as mythical hell. Heather Williams, professor of politics at Pomona College, equates corporate animal farms to corporate swine.

Corporate livestock complexes house millions of pigs, cattle and chicken in spaces resembling concentration camps. Animals are squeezed next to each other like sardines in a can. To prevent disease and early death, owners of animal factories feed these animals feed mixed with a variety of antibiotics and other drugs, including fattening hormones.

Confined animals produce gigantic amounts of toxic wastes, global warming gases, and unbearable stench. Accidents and natural disasters spill wastes into rivers and ground water. And the suffocating smells make people in the neighborhood ill and miserable.

And, finally, there are large slaughterhouses near animal factories. They add more pollution and violence to the communities near them.

There's place for tears, rivers of tears. They are the result of complete immersion in the story or the protagonists of the drama unfolding in front of our eyes or behind our backs. The world has become a stage for global tragedies written not by the likes of Aeschylus and Sophocles but by businessmen, and, sometimes, criminals.

These environmental transgressors and criminals are not usually petty thieves or small crooks. They are primarily corporate executives or large farmers with the money and power of influencing scientists and governments to bless their poisons or factories and products. They have no knowledge or emotions for the inestimable value of human health and the priceless importance of the natural world. They operate in a private world without virtues save profits and money.

We need to construct a new fossil-fuel free international economic system where environmental and public health integrity would trump all business and trade decisions. We need a World Environment Organization to put into practice these life-saving and Earth-protecting virtues.

Time is also auspicious for recalculating our assessments of hazards. Ban existing substances with a history of dangerous effects. Don't approve chemicals and industries causing human and ecological harm. Make the connections between polluted environment and disease. Cancer, for instance, is caused by unhealthy environmental conditions. The degradation of the natural world also gives cancer to animals and decimates wildlife and biodiversity.

Personalize the suffering of the victims, who, in some cases, could be your own daughter and granddaughter, tomorrow's young moms.