Carolyn Raffensperger, an environmental lawyer and public health advocate, is one of the America’s leading proponents of the Precautionary Principle. This common sense idea states that when an action is suspected of causing harm to people or the environment, the burden of proof is to demonstrate the action is not harmful before moving forward. The European Union has adopted the Precautionary Principle as a statutory requirement in some areas of law.
Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN), coined the phrase “ecological medicine” to describe the large role that the natural world plays in health and healing. The focus of her work now is developing new models for governance based on the principles of precaution, the commons and ecological integrity.
These goals spurred her to initiate The Women’s Congress for Future Generations in 2012, which was followed the 2014 Women’s Congress theld in Minneapolis November 6-9. It was sponsored by Future First, which invites both men and women to stand together to ensure a clean and healthy world for future generations.
On the Commons: What is the purpose of the 2014 Women’s Congress, and why are you holding it at this particular time?
Carolyn Raffensperger: Women’s voices are relatively absent in the political arena, especially in the realms of climate change, sustainability and agriculture. Many women are doing wonderful work yet they have not been the major spokespeople. But today women are rising up to take leadership. Women bring life into the world, and we have a responsibility to make sure the environment is healthy and whole.
The Congress is a place for women to talk about that responsibility and to articulate new places for women’s voices in politics. We invite men to participate too, and we invite them to share the unique responsibilities of this work. This is not meant to leave men out-- but to shift the traditional roles.
In thinking about the kind of world we want to live in, we are summoning our wild and woolly imaginations about governance in our society. Crowdsourcing social innovation is part of what the Congress is about. And one of our examples here is a man-- Benjamin Franklin. He introduced the first public library and created the first fire department. No one had ever heard of such things at that time. Somebody had to have the idea and know how to do it.
We are asking people to bring their full selves to the Congress, not to hide away their hearts and act only out of their brains. This is a place to be happy, full of grief and pissed off as we choose wise ways forward.
One of the unique characteristics of our age is that we are suffering Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome-- we know what’s coming. We are witnessing the destruction of the environment for our grandchildren. Some of us wake up at 3 in the morning and wonder what will become of this world. If we are all alone in our fear and our anxiety, we are in deep trouble.
There’s a real need for people to come together and choose the future we want for ourselves and future generations. There are solutions we can reach toward: social shifts, cultural shifts, working together. But the message we hear most places is that it’s all up to us individually-- go change the lightbulbs you are using.
On the Commons: How does the Congress fit in with work of the climate justice movement, the feminist movement and the commons movement?
Carolyn Raffensperger: The political realm is often so different from how people live their lives. I live in Iowa, and grew up in the Midwest, where people often help out their neighbors by shoveling each other’s walks. On a practical level, social capital is built out of that kind of sharing. That’s one basis to think about a different future.
This can lead to a rising up of women, who often are in charge of the everyday matters in the household, to challenge the structural injustice in society-- including the absence of women’s voices in political decisionmaking, which means we have fewer solutions available.
Look at what people are dealing with in their personal lives. The increase of autism and breast cancer, as just two examples. Women do the majority of the caregiving on these and other diseases caused by a declining environment, but they have no seat at the table where solutions are being decided. And that’s one reason why for so long the focus the economy and jobs are seen as what matters. Conversation about everything else is pushed away.
On the Commons: What are your hopes for what comes out of the Women’s Congress
Carolyn Raffensperger: Women around the world are saying enough is enough. We need to discuss the health of our children. We care about clean water, and what’s in the air our kid’s breath. We’ve lost sight of what the economy is really about. We’re told money is security. But the commons is the real foundation of our economy and our security.
This is really about a new set of essential rights--including the idea that future generations have rights. Today the rights of private property largely define our laws and our culture. The commons changes this picture from the rights of individuals to the rights of a group of people-- the rights of a community. A new goal would be to develop basic rights around sharing. This would mean the purpose of government is to protect commonwealth and common health for present and future generations.
The Women’s Congress is predicated on women’s recognition of the dangers to future generations. And we are withdrawing our consent from this situation. We are serious about that--consent is the basis of governance.
So what do we do? We’d like to see all 50 states to enact constitutional amendments to their constitutions that recognize the rights of future generations. That’s the kind of ideas that will come out of the Women’s Congress. I think we’ll all be surprised by the great ideas that have not been thought of until now.