"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
Certain household products contain chemicals that disrupt the function of the endocrine or immune systems and may cause disease. Photo Courtesy of Milosz1 under the Creative Commons license.
The U.S. Senate is debating the merits of a bill to address chemicals in consumer products. The Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), available here and summarized here, could increase the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate the safety risk of chemicals and remove them from store shelves if they pose a significant threat to human health.
Consumer products developers generate over 700 new chemicals each year. Under the current regulation scheme, these chemicals hit the market without EPA oversight. Some new chemicals may be kept confidential from the public, especially if companies think their use makes a product more competitive.
Although CSIA enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, not everyone thinks the bill goes far enough. In a recent editorial in the Guardian, Seventh Generation President and CEO John Replogle criticized CSIA for placing too much emphasis on a cost-benefit analysis of regulation. Replogle suggests that the bill prioritizes the good of companies over the health of people, adding that “the oft-suggested trade-off that asks us to accept a polluted environment and a mounting human health toll or live in caves without modern necessities is a false dichotomy.”
The case of chemical regulation in the U.S. is one example of the potentially self-correcting principles of Enlightenment values in the West. Unlike spiritual enlightenment philosophy from the East, the Age of Enlightenment in Europe rose up in response to stifling Catholic dogmatism in the 17th century and earlier. Enlightenment thinkers declared that human rationality and the scientific method formed the best possible basis for knowledge, and people should harness this knowledge to improve humanity.
Enlightenment thinking spurred on a wealth of intellectual and technological progress. Still, with human beings as the standard bearers in all respects, things like environmental health took a hard back seat in the wider cultural consciousness. Human beings, seen as separate and elevated in the existential plane, could not foresee the endless and intricate interconnections between the exploitation of Nature and the health and function of the body.
It seems that this same cultural emphasis on Knowledge, however, may yet bring humankind back to a greater appreciation of its essence as part of a system rather than the pinnacle of creation. With respect to chemicals regulation, this means taking to heart the work of scientists, environmental groups and legislators fighting to safeguard health, and reigning in the temptation to engineer our way toward cheap profits with a huge ecological price tag.