The Intersection

I looked back at the woman next to me in disbelief; a mid-forties Greenpeace Director. It was June 2006 and we had been chatting a few minutes as the plane taxied on the runway. She began by telling me about her journey to activism. A literature major in college, she felt a longing to do more to save the environment. In the early 90’s she joined Greenpeace and rose to a Director over time. Finally she asked what I did. ‘I work in the Senate on ocean, energy, and environment…’ That’s where she cut me off.

‘Our planet is a mess because of you people!’

The thing is, up until then I imagined we were on the same team, but she stopped me before I could get to the part about being a marine biologist in conservation. I hadn’t had a chance to tell her of projects with The Nature Conservancy or work toward establishing Marine Protected Areas in Bonaire. She didn’t know about my time with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at AMNH or the industry folks I worked with in Maine to protect fisheries. Further, she hadn’t a notion why I came to DC; I was a John Knauss Sea Grant Fellow–a program that places ocean scientists in key offices to inform legislative decisions. The goal was to develop an understanding of the way policy is crafted and contribute where possible.

We sat beside each other, but I listened to The Police most of the trip. I was on my way to the 20th Annual Meeting for the Society for Conservation Biology in San Jose. She was too, but I hadn’t had the chance to tell her. And in the end, I didn’t care to. She may have been a compassionate individual with good intentions, but she never listened. Instead, she only judged.

The experience stays with me. Activism is important, but it must be informed and battles have to be chosen carefully. Otherwise, irrational idealism undermines progress. Small steps in conservation may not go as far as some would like, but by throwing sand in the gears, we go nowhere.


  1. #1 james
    December 2, 2008

    i completely agree. i like activism, but fear much of the message gets lost in the noise created by those who preach without an understanding what they’re talking about. probably also in part why lobbyists are so distrusted.

  2. #2 Stephen Downes
    December 2, 2008

    Well, she may have a point, though. The Senate has not exactly been helpful to the environment for the last decade. Small gestures – such as token conservation areas – hardly make up for the wide-scale measures harmful to the environment. Were you involved in them? I have no idea. But when you lead with “I was with the Senate…” you accept association with the Senate’s reputation.

  3. #3 Wes Rolley
    December 2, 2008

    All of these stunts, and this was just a stunt, grab media attention in direct correlation to how audacious they are. The problem is that once the stunt is performed you no longer control the message and it might be as trivial as “gee, that was a really clever stunt.”

    Bill Moyers told a group of students at Occidental College that “The only answer to organize money is organize people.” That has been quoted multiple times in almost every organization that purports to have grassroots support. When the key decisions are political, the only way to influence the decisions is to make sure that the politicians understand their career is in danger if the make the wrong (by your definition) decision.

    In the long run, stunts like these are only as effective as the organizational work that continues driving home the message.

  4. #4 fullerenedream
    December 2, 2008

    @ Wes Rolley:

    All of these stunts, and this was just a stunt, grab media attention in direct correlation to how audacious they are.

    I don’t understand, where was the stunt here? It sounds like the woman made a snap judgement of blame and closed mindedness – not great, but it happens to the best of us at times. I just don’t see what you mean by a stunt.

  5. #5 Randy P.
    December 2, 2008


    Wes was referring to Ms. Kirshenbaum’s links to the article about the ridiculous antics against Environmental Defense (a damn good org) by some outrageous advocacy group. Click on the phrase “irrational ideals” and you’ll see. It’s the story behind the photo.

    – Randy

  6. #6 Richard Graves
    December 3, 2008

    Look, you don’t have to think that this action or ‘stunt’ is strategic, but calling it irrational idealism is really dismissive of the legitimate concerns the activists have. For good or ill, EDF has been the leading proponent of carbon markets for controlling Global Warming.

    This is the activists’ critique:
    Leo Cerda, an indigenous activist with Rising Tide Ecuador said, “EDF [sic] wants to turn the atmosphere and forests into private property, and then give it away to the most polluting industries in the form of pollution allowances that can be bought and sold. Not only is this an ineffective way to control emissions, it is also a disaster for the poor and indigenous peoples who are not party to these markets and are most impacted by climate change.”

    This is real issue that people aren’t talking about and so they resorted to these tactics. I have it from contacts at EDF that it was “very polite” – see for yourself”:

    Anyways, at we host a wide range of youth groups coming from different places on the political spectrum and we find that at least addressing the original critique helps build trust.

  7. #7 Philip H.
    December 3, 2008

    I think Sheril’s original point, however, was that the Greenpeace Director in question missed an opportunity for informed debate because she assumed Sheril was “the enemy.” Simple because you work for the Senate doesn’t mean you have any less passion for the environment, any less caring for the things that matter to Greenpeace. it does mean you have chosen a particular path to accomplishing those passions, and that path differs from activism. Neither should be viewed as bad, and a person shouldn’t be judged just because she is on one or the other.

    And as to Senate action (or lack therof) on the environment – last I looked, the Senators still work for us. If you don;t like what they are doing, you as a citizen have an avenue to address their job performance. Several avenues in fact.

  8. #8 Dark Tent
    December 3, 2008

    “by throwing sand in the gears, we go nowhere.”

    Who says that is necessarily bad?

    Visit a wilderness area some time.

  9. #9 Brian X
    December 4, 2008

    There is in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA a mural that I think sums up everything I think is wrong with much of liberal activism these days, especially the sort of woman you ran into, Sheril.

    It’s on the side of a movie theatre and is largely a breast cancer memorial. Good enough so far, a very reasonable cause… but the tag line is “Indication of harm, not proof of harm, is our call to action.” It sounds like a good sentiment until you realize that it implies that there’s nothing at all wrong with going off half-cocked on a serious problem as long as it’s a good cause.

  10. #10 Dark Tent
    December 4, 2008


    While I certainly agree with the need for “evidence before action”, I would just note that science can never provide “proof” of anything. It simply does not work that way. Science can only “disprove” a hypothesis, never prove it “true.”

    As more tests are done, the evidence can mount in support of a particular scientific idea but that is quite different from “proof” (at least in the scientific sense).

    So the statement “Indication of harm, not proof of harm, is our call to action” is really entirely consistent with the actual way that science works.

    The real question is “how much ‘indication (evidence) of harm’ is required before action is warranted”? That question is really not a scientific one, but a moral one. In other words, the latter question can not even be answered with science.

  11. #11 Lindsay
    December 4, 2008

    Dark Tent –

    I guess I don’t understand your comment about visiting a wilderness area. Do you mean, visit them soon because if we don’t all move forward to solve these environmental problems in a constructive way there won’t be any wilderness left to enjoy?

    And as for proof, that is certainly a term used more by the layman than the scientist. A lot of words have different meanings to scientists than they do to laymen. To me “indication” colloquially indicates *far less* supporting evidence than “proof.” If you translate that to sciencese, the phrase would read more like:

    “Hypotheses of harm, based on circumstantial, anecdotal, or correlation-based evidence, not theories of harm, supported by rigorous investigation and strong direct evidence that are accepted by the scientific community as true, is our call to action.”

    The point is that evaluating the evidence should be left up to the scientific community (in the form of reaching a consensus) and the public/government should decide on how to act based on that consensus.

    Jumping to conclusions, to action immediately, tends to make your thinking and attitudes more inflexible, which is bad. And certainly mixing emotions like passion cloud rational judgment.

    It reminds me of Bush: “The Decider.” Same pattern of thinking, other side of the political spectrum. *sigh*

  12. #12 Dark Tent
    December 5, 2008

    Lindsay says The point is that evaluating the evidence should be left up to the scientific community (in the form of reaching a consensus) and the public/government should decide on how to act based on that consensus.”

    Actually, the statement “Indication of harm, not proof of harm, is our call to action” is a version of the “precautionary principle” which is meant to deal with those cases in which there may be no scientific consensus.

    The precautionary principle is a moral and political principle which states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.[1] The principle implies that there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk in the course of having screened for other suspected causes. The protections that mitigate suspected risks can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that more robustly support an alternative explanation…. One of the primary foundations of the precautionary principle, and globally accepted definitions, results from the work of the Rio Conference, or “Earth Summit” in 1992. Principle #15 of the Rio Declaration notes:

    “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”[3]

    — wikipedia

    //end wikipedia quote

    The precautionary principle does not imply (as Brian claimed) “that there’s nothing at all wrong with going off half-cocked on a serious problem as long as it’s a good cause.”

    Nor is it an example of “Jumping to conclusions, to action immediately…”

    It is a logical and practical way of dealing with unknown risk particularly when consequences of getting it wrong could have serious (or even catastrophic) repercussions for public health or welfare.

    It has its origins in English common law and, again according to wikipedia, “In some legal systems, as in the law of the European Union, the precautionary principle is also a general and compulsory principle of law”.

    So it is really not as outlandish or “half-cocked” as some seem to believe. Indeed, some of the suggestions of the IPCC regarding how we might deal with possible climate change are rooted in the precautionary principle.

    Incidentally, I see similarities between the statement that “Our planet is a mess because of you people” and the statement that “irrational idealism undermines progress”. In both cases, there is pigeonholing going on and an “Us vs Them” mentality (in the second case “We rational, reasonable people vs those irrational, emotional folks”.

    Neither characterization is necessarily accurate. Sometimes, what appear (to one person) to be irrational and/or emotional fears are actually based in knowledge and experience.

    And both characterizations are alienating and counterproductive, in my opinion.

  13. #13 Lindsay
    December 5, 2008

    The precautionary principle, explained in this way, sounds perfectly reasonable. It sounds conservative, but better to be safe than sorry, right?

    However, what is practiced and what’s preached *can* be worlds apart; and there is more than one example of a movement that perhaps started with these types of good intentions, but ultimately lead to more harm than good. The specific example I’m thinking of is the vaccine-autism debacle, where a group of very vocal autism activists are campaigning against vaccination programs believing that they harm children by causing autism. It started off with a study that came to very strong conclusions based on very crappy data. This was later made very clear by several independent studies that came to the conclusion that there is no link between childhood vaccines and autism. But, autism activists continue to actively promote anti-vaccination rhetoric, leading to outbreaks of previously under-control diseases.

    What started legitimately with the precautionary principle devolved into irrational fear-mongering against one of the most important health innovations in history. This happened because when the burden of proof was MET by science with a clear consensus, activists would not accept that proof (for whatever reasons).

    That kind of irrationality is the kind that activists need to avoid, and the kind I see too often. I live in Berkeley, CA, and I see a lot of this kind of thing. Passionate people against various issues, but can’t explain the basic concepts underlying their positions (be them political, economic, or scientific).

    So while I think conceptually the phrase is sound, in practice it is difficult to fall into a blind hole of ignoring science when it doesn’t agree with your position.

    Calling people names rarely helps any cause, but it’s awful hard to have an intelligent conversation about anything when the other party’s not listening.

  14. #14 Steven Earl Salmony
    December 6, 2008

    Dear Friends,

    The global, human-induced predicament visible in our time to the family of humanity makes one thing clear: people with eyes to see, ears to hear and no speech impediments have got to speak out loudly, clearly and often now. Silence, the greatest power the rich and powerful possess, cannot be allowed to prevail. The reckless way a few people with wealth and power maintain a “golden” silence, one that protects their greed, gluttony and hoarding, is dangerous and cannot longer be endured because a good enough future for our children and coming generations is being mortgaged and threatened by these leading elders in my not-so-great generation.

    Regardless of whether or not other human beings choose to accept the “answers” to one question, I believe we must ask ourselves, “Can we teach one another to live within limits?”

    It is necessary, I suppose, for human beings to recognize and affirm human limits

    and Earth’s limitations

    To do otherwise and, by so doing, choose willfully and foolishly to ignore the practical requirements of biophysical reality runs the risk of putting life as we know it and our planetary home as a fit place for human habitation in peril, even in these early years of Century XXI.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  15. #15 Dark Tent
    December 6, 2008


    RE: autism/vaccine case

    There is no doubt that what starts out as a reasonable and legitimate use of the precautionary principle by some can devolve into “irrational fear-mongering” by others.

    But I would simply advise against painting everyone who invokes it with the same broad stroke.

    Each case has to be considered on its own merits.

    I agree that the bulk of the scientific evidence now shows no link between autism and vaccines, but it is important to consider the context of the vaccine controversy and understand clearly what the FDA, US Public Health Service (USPHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), CDC and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) , American Academy of Pediatrics said — and did not — conclude at the time that the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics decided to invoke the precautionary principle and ask the vaccine producers to stop using thimerosal (a mercury compound) as a preservative ASAP.
    from wikipedia:

    After the FDA Modernization Act of 1997 mandated a review and risk assessment of all mercury-containing food and drugs, vaccine manufacturers responded to FDA requests to provide detailed information about the thimerosal content of their preparations in December 1998 and April 1999.[19] Upon conclusion of this review, the FDA, in conjunction with the other members of the US Public Health Service (USPHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), CDC and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in a joint statement with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), concluded:

    “Our review revealed no evidence of harm caused by doses of thimerosal found in vaccines, except for local hypersensitivity reactions. At the time of our review, vaccines containing thimerosal as a preservative could expose infants to cumulative mercury at levels that exceed EPA recommendations during the first 6 months of life. The clinical significance of this conclusion is not currently known; EPA guidelines contain as much as a 10-fold safety factor and such guidelines are meant to be starting points for the evaluation of mercury exposure. However, reducing exposure to thimerosal from vaccines is merited given the goal of reducing human exposure to mercury from all sources, the feasibility of removing thimerosal as a vaccine preservative, and the desirability of ensuring public confidence in the safety of vaccines.”[20]

    The FDA noted that while the vaccination schedule at that time might have exceeded EPA standards for mercury exposure during the first 6 months of life, it did not exceed those of the FDA, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), or WHO. The FDA also noted some difficulty interpreting toxicity of the ethylmercury in thiomersal because guidelines for mercury toxicity were based primarily on studies of methylmercury. Despite the lack of convincing evidence of toxicity of thiomersal, the USPHS and AAP determined that thiomersal should be removed from vaccines as a purely preventative measure and to increase public confidence in vaccines.[4]

    Due to continued public concern, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) asked the National Academy of Science’s (NAS) Institute of Medicine (IOM) to establish an independent expert committee to review hypotheses about existing and emerging immunization safety concerns. In 2001 the committee reported:

    “The committee concludes that although the hypothesis that exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines could be associated with neurodevelopmental disorders is not established and rests on indirect and incomplete information, primarily from analogies with methylmercury and levels of maximum mercury exposure from vaccines given in children, the hypothesis is biologically plausible. The committee also concludes that the evidence is inadequate to accept or reject a causal relationship between thimerosal exposures from childhood vaccines and the neurodevelopmental disorders of autism, ADHD, and speech or language delay.”[21]

    More evidence against any link between autism and thimerosal has come out since the National Academy report and a strong scientific consensus has gelled:

    again from wikipedia:

    The scientific consensus–including scientific and medical bodies such as the Institute of Medicine and World Health Organization[8] as well as governmental agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration[4] and the CDC[9]–rejects any role for thiomersal in autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders. Multiple lines of scientific evidence have been cited to support this conclusion: for example, the clinical symptoms of mercury poisoning differ signficantly from those of autism.[10] Most conclusively, eight major studies (as of 2008) examined the effect of reductions or removal of thiomersal from vaccines. All eight demonstrated that autism rates failed to decline despite removal of thiomersal, arguing strongly against a causative role.[11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18]

    But that does not negate the value of the precautionary principle and it certainly does not imply that those who invoke it are “half-cocked” or irrational. Given that vaccines are administered at a time when the brain is rapidly developing and may be most susceptible to toxins (and mercury is a known neurotoxin), it just makes good sense to err on the side of caution.

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