Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | June 15, 2009

A Culture of Progress

I have a friend – and she’s a good friend – that works for a large corporation.  She tells me, in response to my post, “Just Keep Trying,” that corporations will not do anything  that will adversely affect their bottom line.  The only other entity they would respond to is government regulation.  And she tells me, too, that government regulation can be overly restrictive.

All of which may be true, whether we like it or not.  But, to my mind, all the pieces have not yet been playing at their optimum level.

Don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of progress has been made.  With institutions like the EPA and others, we have been able to clean up much of our environment.  But there is still plenty more to do.  And the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and our other laws may be maturing, but they are increasingly under attack from conservatives who think businesses are unduly burdened.

Ever since Reagan, we are fed and re-fed the platitude that government has to be smaller and get out of our way.  As with all platitudes, there is an element of truth.  But government still has to be big enough to take on big business.  And with banks and corporations getting bigger and bigger all the time, the question remains, Is government big enough to stand up to big business? You could already argue that government is too small and too dependent to fulfill its legitimate and responsible role.

A case in point is the flap over bisphenol A and endocrine disrupters in our food and packaging.  Under Clinton, a law was passed called the Food Quality Protection Act which promised that potentially harmful substances in our food or packaging would be tested.  The EPA promised to test 15,000 “suspected” endocrine disrupters in 1998.  From 1996, when the Food Quality Protection Act was passed, to 2007, not a single chemical was tested and approved or disapproved.  When asked about the delay the FDA, the department responsible for administering the Act, made the audacious reply, “science tends to move at its own pace.” (1)

You can point to several cases where the EPA or other regulatory agencies have made rulings about substances in the environment that have protected public health.  The EPA has been working hard to reduce particulates, for instance, and arsenic.  Lately, there is some movement to reduce black carbon.  These are examples of what government has been trying to do.  In these cases, the system seems to be working.  In other cases, like the Food Quality Protection Act, where no work was done, the system isn’t working at all.

In the case of bisphenol A, there has been a definite public awareness campaign by media and a huge public outcry.  This is good.  This is democracy at work.  But as far as  the review process is concerned – with the charge of reviewing thousands of substances – this is the system working at a very basic and inadequate level.  We just can’t count on such a “democratic” process for the approximately 14,999 other suspected endocrine disrupters still needing to be tested.  Frankly, the public isn’t trained to rule on 15,000 chemicals (present author included), even if we had the time.

The question then is, What should we be doing?  Of course, as consumers, we have to inform ourselves.  We have to buy the right products, and we have to petition government when we think it has to get moving. (2)

What should government do?  There are several things.  1) Government has to enforce the laws on the books.  2) Government should not rely too heavily upon industry supported research.  In some cases, at least in the beginning, this may be all the research that is available.  But that’s just all the more reason to obtain independent research as soon as possible.  This is why we have universities and government labs.  We’ve passed the legislation, we’ve appropriated the funds – now let’s do the research!  3) We might even encourage public research into areas that traditionally have been left to industry – for instance, original research into how to improve pesticides, or making better plastics without the toxic additives.  In this way, government can promote a culture of progress in areas that are bogged down in corporate stagnation.

Government does have a role to play.  It may not always be in the best interests of business, but progress can never be achieved without getting rid of the bad stuff to begin with.  It also can’t be done without  government  funding the appropriate independent research, either reviewing chemicals or seeding research into new areas.

To be fair to business, we have to keep our minds open and seek justice for them, as well, when it is appropriate.

Maybe if we do these things we will be able to create a new culture, a culture of progress, in which we are replacing old, harmful substances with newer and better ones.


(1)  Most of this post comes from the “Bill Moyer’s Journal” program on PBS which was aired several months ago.  A link from their site refers to this page of the Milwaukee Wisconsin Sentinel-Journal who broke the real story about bisphenol A.   NOTE: I have finally relocated the program from the Bill Moyers’ Journal program, which has been updated now.  It’s called, “Chemical War Zone, Updated.”  It’s at the Expose: America’s Investigative Reports site.

(2) The bills in Congress that may ban bisphenol A for use in food packaging may not be voted on until next year!

NOTE (1/15/11): Here is an article on Bayer CropScience’s decision to stop producing the chemical which led to the Bhopal tragedy in 1984.  This is the type of thing that must happen if we are to make progress on our toxic chemicals.  Better, smarter; get rid of the “outdated.”   The job losses are significant, but considering the costs of the chemical on society not at all regrettable.



  1. You have probably seen the recent report that the companies participating in voluntary programs actually did worse than companies that didn’t.

    McDonough and Braungart in “Cradle to Cradle” do make the argument that pure ecologism is as much an “ism” as the others and that the economy does need to be taken into account as well.

    I don’t trust big government any more than most people, but nowadays who has more information about you, big business or big government? And big business is about making money. As I’ve told my mother, the Bible says, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”

    The precautionary principle runs contrary to big business’s interests.

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