Environmental Russian Roulette - 
Elizabeth May Speaks Out 
An Interview with Janice Acton
UPdate March 2000

JA: You’ve been an environmental activist for 30 years, starting with your campaign against spruce budworm spraying. Looking back, can you see that we’ve made any dent in improving our environment?

EM: We’re obviously making no progress because environmental conditions continue to deteriorate. I’m tempted to say that there has been “no change.” But we go through phases. There was a period in the late ’80s when it looked as though governments everywhere were going to turn a lovely shade of green. Then we went through a very “browning” phase. And given Chretien’s recent speech from the throne and putting David Anderson in as Environment Minister, I think they are trying to “green” their image. But whether they mean to do something substantively different, I don’t know.
      There’s no question that we won on the budworm effort back in the early to mid-’70s. We learned that if your public is organized, motivated and mobilized, you’ll win on individual issues. We’ve won a lot of very important local struggles. But on a global level we are losing ground. Overall, the scenario is not only not better than it was in 1976, we are in substantially more jeopardy of destroying life support systems for the planet.

 JA: With our increased knowledge and scientific advances why is this happening?

 EM: David Korten, a friend of mine who’s a very senior guy and has worked with the World Bank, wrote a book called When Corporations Rule the World. He says that what we really have going on globally is a contest between life and money! It’s not for lack of information that we are destroying the planet. It’s that the powers-that-be don’t want to believe the information they see.  The longer they are in denial the more profits can be made out of activities that are completely unsafe. So, just as the cigarette industry managed to defeat progress towards identifying cigarettes as a human health hazard for decades, so the fossil fuel industry is defeating efforts to act on climate change. The pharmaceutical and chemical industries are defeating efforts to reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals. 
 There’s this sort of unreal human-created construct that makes us think we can survive outside our ecosystem. Increased economic activity and return on investment and rising shareholder dividends are seen as the “meaningful” measures of success. The problem is that this “progress” is achieved through the destruction of our life support systems. The industrial revolution mindset says that: “There’s just no reason to worry about limits.” The problem is we live in a world with real limits and we’re right up against them.

 JA: You’re very involved in the tar ponds issue and are currently writing a book, Tar Ponds, with Maude Barlow. What needs to happen with the tar ponds?

 EM: It’s a priority to protect people’s health. Families have to be moved out of the area around the coke ovens and the tar ponds. They did move 11 families; that’s a start. But I think the whole community must be moved: from Whitney Pier, Ashby and a big chunk of Intercolonial Street up to the downtown area. Somewhere between 1000 and 10,000 homes have to be moved.
      The Sierra Club made a presentation to Paul Martin calling for a national program for the relocation of “communities at risk.” That would apply to situations of, for example, an emergency spill, or any community where people should be moved. But now because there is no national program, because there are no criteria to follow, there’s no way of knowing what you are doing.

 JA: How feasible is the cleanup?

 EM: We’re supporting the idea that Sydney itself should become an international centre for toxic chemical research and remediation. Once we move people away, while the cleanup is taking place, it can be an international centre for research where people come with technologies and ideas that they have and they take away their barrels of sludge from the tar ponds, or have it analyzed in terms of what their approach would be. They would develop and certify new technologies.
      This approach would support some economic benefits from the mess. The federal government is very concerned about shutting down the coal mines and what will happen to DEVCO workers. They’d love to find a sustainable industry that makes sense in Sydney. I think, frankly, that moving neighbourhoods and building an eco-efficient community as a demonstration project is a very valuable thing to do. It isn’t “make work.” It could become sustainable and it could be something where skills are exportable.

 JA: Where does environmental illness fit into this picture?

 EM: Environmental illness shouldn’t be seen only as an illness of those who get it. When you have this number of people who are debilitated just trying to live in this world, you realize that it should be viewed as a harbinger of very, very serious damage. These are people who, as far as we can see, given the same physiology and everything else the same about their lives, but in the environment the way it existed 40 years ago, probably wouldn’t have been sick. And that’s the astonishing thing, that society sort of accepts that and adapts and says: “so, now we have something else to work on—environmental illness,” as if it’s just another disease. Instead, we should be viewing this as an enormous wakeup call that we are poisoning the environment to such an extent that as a routine matter people are too sick to work!
      And yet, so often people with environmental illness are treated as though their concerns aren’t real ... It’s so classic. There’s this study that talks about women in the 1920s who painted radium watch dials. They would lick the tip of their brushes to make a nice point. And ended up dying of anemia. Today we’re horrified that their condition was belittled. Fifty years from now, won’t we be saying, “God, can you believe that the women who first suffered from environmental illness were told to go to psychiatrists?”

 JA: So you think we’re all at risk?

 EM: I think environmental illness is symptomatic that the environment is poisoned in a way that is ubiquitous, insidious and, in orders of magnitude, less healthy than in the past. You can say, “Okay, maybe we’ve traded infectious diseases and preventable illnesses for toxic chemical reactions and cancer and environmental illness.” But you need not make a trade-off. We should have a world both free from preventable, infectious illness through basic hygiene and measures like sewage control, and at the same time not have diminished well-being from exposure to toxic chemicals and loss of life due to the further health effects that will be felt from climate change—unless we do something radical in terms of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

 JA: Why aren’t we “getting it”? Why aren’t we seeing this problem?

 EM: We make a mistake, given all the chemicals and the toxified world we live in, and try to link up one particular exposure with a particular disease. We make that mistake, waiting for the end-point to be reached, cancer or even worse, death—instead of looking earlier in the picture at the broad base of the population for early effects, which might be attention deficit disorder, increased aggression, reduced state of well-being, things that might even be sub-clinical. They’re not symptoms of a “disease,” but they begin to give you a warning sign that you are toxifying the environment to such an extent that your society as a whole, and the health of your population, is affected.
      Donna Mergler, a neuro-toxicologist from the University of Quebec, is looking at the potential problems with manganese, such as the manganese-based gasoline additive MMT. She feels that it is a mistake, given all the chemicals in the toxified world we live in, to try to link up one particular exposure with one particular disease, that we need to be looking at a broader population analysis.
      Lead is one of the best examples. Lead was banned, not because you could say “gee, lead is killing X numbers of people a year”; you can’t produce figures that say “a” particular child has been affected by lead.  Rather, it was banned because the population as a whole in areas with high blood lead levels have reduced IQ points, lower than in children who have lower blood lead levels. So, it was the population analysis, really, that got lead banned, not a “we’ll prove this child is sick from this thing.”

 JA: What are the barriers to us changing our approach?

 EM: What scares me, and I guess by extension, also makes me the most angry are things like the intransigence on climate change from governments and industry. Imperial Oil, as one example, is aggressively denying, belittling, running media campaigns worth millions of dollars to stop action on climate change. That threatens my daughter’s future, and certainly her kids, and the survival of life on this planet. These are not technological barriers. These are political barriers. They are probably even more strongly attitudinal barriers. So, in making a major shift in society we do have to talk about values and changing mindsets.

 JA: How did the “Elizabeth May Chair in Women’s Health and the Environment” at Dalhousie come into being?

 EM: The Chair was the result of an anonymous donation to the university. The donor stipulated several things: one, that the benefactors remain anonymous; two, that the Chair be created in my name; and three, that the Chair be in the area of women’s health and the environment. 
 It was a huge honour. Later, the university asked if I’d be willing to be the first Chair holder. I felt that whoever this donor is, is committed to a sense of urgency and an activist role within the university. I felt that if that’s what the donor wished, then perhaps I should take the position for a year and set it in that direction.

 JA: What do you hope to accomplish in this position?

 EM: I see there being a public face to the Chair and another side that’s trying to have an impact within the university community. While the Chair is part of the Faculty of Health Professions, my office is physically located in the Maritime Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, which offers the potential for a lot of community engagement and public outreach. I’m committed to teaching courses on women’s health and the environment. I hope the students will be influenced by the course and it might affect the career they choose. 
      I also want to produce a book on women’s health and the environment which I hope will act as a template for future courses. I think that the next person who takes over the Chair would benefit, as would the general public, from having a good solid analysis of the connection between environmental contamination and human health.

 JA: You continually stress the “urgency” of our situation. What do you think should be our greatest concern?

 EM: For some people, it’s a personal thing: if you can’t conceive, then you are in a fertility crisis and you might be particularly interested in how endocrine disruptors affect sperm count. Or, if you’re dealing with a serious illness like cancer you might be looking at the environmental connections. Things in your own life will overtake any sense of the global, especially if you are struggling with a particular illness.
      For me, it’s “survival.” Certainly I worry about health and the cancer epidemic. But, I can’t put that as a larger concern than “will we have an atmosphere that will support life 100 years from now, or will we have completely screwed it up in this generation?” In searching for solutions, reorienting that mindset, we go back to where this conversation started: life versus money. If we got that orientation right. If we reversed it. If we stopped playing Russian roulette with the planet’s atmosphere. If, between life and money, we chose life. If that was how we organized society, if that were the way governments functioned, if the precautionary principle was considered more important than the profit motive, then we might get all these things right.

Janice Acton is an adult educator and freelance writer.