(Please welcome Senator John Kerry, who joins us in the comments to discuss his new book — JH)
It’s a novel idea in our current political culture that leaders actually lead. They have a vision for the future, perhaps one that people might not yet be ready for, and they find ways to guide us there. (I know, it’s a novel idea in this climate of fear mongering, corruption and Three Stooges incompetence, but go with me on this.)
In their new book This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision For the Future, John and Teresa Heinz Kerry explore the environmental crisis facing us and their vision for transforming the zeitgeist surrounding it. I was only half way through the second chapter when, I have to say, the story of the women of Cape Cod who undertook to find out in 1994 why breast cancer rates were so high in their community had me rapidly turning pages:
It was a series of stunning discoveries. These women who had decided just three years earlier to talk over coffee about tackling a problem that had never been tackled — none of whom, remember, were trained scientists — were now helping to bring about some of the earliest evidence to suggest that the environment could, in fact, play a role in a woman getting breast cancer. Their research was also the first to document estrogenic activity in groundwater and to detect estrogenic pollutants in private wells on Cape Cod. Since then, researchers from the United States Geological Survey and elsewhere have found growing evidence of estrogen-mimicking chemicals in surface waters across the nation.
Their study did not stop there, and in 1998 they began to look into the household and personal care products that contain estrogen mimics, and how people were being exposed to these substances in their own homes. As someone currently undergoing chemotherapy for estrogen-sensitive breast cancer, the goal of which is to pound every last bit of estrogen out of my system, the omnipresence of industrial plasticizers called phthalates (which soften plastics and carry fragrance) which mimic estrogen in the system was truly alarming. They’re used in anything made of vinyl (including children’s toys) as well as to attach fragrance to products.
This story in particular underscored the truly sick nature of corporate irresponsibility that presents so many obstacles:
Two doctors, Ana M. Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein, had been working for nearly two decades to better understand how estrogen — a natural hormone produced by the human body — could induce cancer-cell growth. As part of their research, they had added various amounts of estrogen to cells and measured how they reacted. One day, cells that had not been exposed to estrogen started to multiply, just as if they had been exposed. There was no known reason why these cells should suddenly act like this The researchers began a careful process to study how this could have happened. They substituted all the components, and considered the possibility of human error. They found nothing. Finally, they called the company that supplied the plastic tubes for their laboratory and were told that the plastic had been reformulated. Calling the formulation was proprietary, the company refused to disclose the new ingredients and plastics. Sono and Sonnenchein began their own analysis. After painstaking research, they found the source of estrogen contamination right in front of their eyes: The plastics manufacturer had used a synthetic estrogenic chemical called nonylphenol in the plastic tubes. It was a frightening and stunning realization: that a chemical commonly used in plastics could cause cancer cells to grow.
I didn’t jump up out of the chair and start throwing all scented and plastic products out of the house — but almost. The Kerrys go on to point out how the EU and Japan are light years ahead of the US in requiring public toxicity date on all high-volume chemicals. Instead, we get industry sponsored research on the Phthalates Information Center web site, saying “Despite the strong body of evidence that indicates phthalates may be used safely in a wide variety of products and applications, some individuals and organizations have “cherry picked” the results showing impacts on test animals to create unwarranted concerns about these products.”
Color me reassured.
In the book, Senator Kerry’s vision is not simply a chicken little view of the environment. Like many, he sees opportunity in the worldwide need to address these problems:
Aside from failing to acknowledge the most important challenge of our times, the Bush administration is also failing to see that as with any kind of change, there is opportunity. As a result of this myopia, the United States is ceding its leadership, on the development of new technologies that undoubtedly will be a significant economic driver in the future. Other countries are happily filling the void. By abandoning the playing field, we are disadvantaging ourselves economically.
Rather than arguing against the imagined economic turmoil that will befall our nation, we should be embracing what these business leaders accepted long ago: There is huge economic potential in the response. The new technologies required to reduce emissions, and the means of remedying the harm we have done, should be viewed as our economic future.
This Moment on Earth is a taut, compelling, well written little book that inspires confidence in Kerry’s depth of understanding, and his ability to take the lead in finding solutions even if they prove outrageously at odds with the current “regulation by corporation” brand of lawmaking. Please welcome him to the Book Salon.