Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

Rules of Thumb

By Carolyn Raffensperger

If it’s good for the land it’s good for the body.
If it’s good for future generations it’s good for this generation.
If it’s good for the Earth it’s good for the economy.
If it’s good for other species it’s good for humans.

Since my dad is a doctor he is often stopped by people on the street and asked for medical advice. Lawyers like me have amusing stories of advice on the fly – how to overturn grandmother’s will or whether they can sue an obnoxious neighbor. There’s only one question I’m regularly asked as an environmentalist and that is whether something is safe or not. Last week, at my local fitness center, my treadmill neighbor asked me whether the pesticides they sprayed in her house were safe for her two little girls.

This question of safety threads through most environmental health issues. We have some information about the health problems associated with pesticides. But what about factory hog farming? Or bisphenol A in baby cups? Or mercury in dental fillings?  And what about a specific combination of pesticides?

I wonder if the question of whether this is safe is the right question? I find it troublesome for two reasons. First, it is very hard to prove safety. Our current regulatory system allows products on the market that haven’t been proven to cause demonstrable, unacceptable harm. And guess who has to prove the harm? We the people are responsible for showing that something is harmful even if the manufacturer or purveyor of the product hasn’t tested it. So we get caught in a legal trap. It’s really hard to know whether something is safe given the regulatory approach of “don’t ask don’t tell.”

But the main problem with the question of whether any single product is safe is that it is too narrow. It isn’t a systems question. Systems thinking stands in contrast to the reductionist approach that looks at one thing in isolation. Putting a product or a chemical within the larger context helps us understand its relationship to other parts of the system and how it might function within that framework.

The question, “Is this safe?” usually means, “Is this product safe for me and my family?” That misses the spiral of concerns that arise from the scale of a product. For instance, one car doesn’t cause much pollution but millions of cars are a health hazard for the planet. We also miss the life cycle of the item. Sure, that plastic bag from the grocery store is safe unless your baby puts it over her head, but the plastic debris floating in the ocean, the result of shipping plastics all over the world, is wreaking havoc on the seas and their creatures.

So here are four rules of thumb that are systemic and get us closer to a clear-eyed look at the environmental and public health consequences of the things we use in our daily lives.

If it’s good for the land it’s good for the body.
If it’s good for future generations it’s good for this generation.
If it’s good for the Earth it’s good for the economy.
If it’s good for other species it’s good for humans.

These statements cannot be reversed. That is, what is good for this generation might not be good for future generations. Nor can we say that what is good for the economy is good for the Earth. But I suspect that if we can say this product is good for the land, it’s good for future generations, it’s good for the earth and it’s good for other species, you can bet it’s safe.


  1. Elaine Charkowski says:

    The title of the article was an unfortunate choice. The term “rule of thumb” comes from old English common law. A man could beat his wife as long as the stick he used to beat her with was no thicker than his thumb. This term is as outdated, as is “kill two birds with one stone”.

  2. John Torjesen says:

    Good rules of thumb. I never considered whether such rules would work in reverse. Good point. John T.

  3. Tony Maine says:

    When things are simple, it’s usually easy to see that improving one thing will improve another – or not. This can be extended to the generality that maximising the utility of one thing in a simple system improves the utility for all. This is a restatement of the basic tenets of capitalism as expounded by Smith and Mill over two hundred years ago. But there’s a catch. As the system gets more complicated, it’s less easy to see what doing anything does to the system, until finally you are drawn to the conclusion that the simplistic ‘maximise to death’ principle means just that – if you ‘maximise’ all the individual components of a super-complex system, all you do is kill it by throwing it wildly out of balance. So we see the same with the economy. While individual attempts to maximise profits, whatever, on a small scale are totally in accord with the basic two century old tenets, they don’t work any more. The introduction of an over-arching governmental regulatory system, in an attempt to address this issue, was an equal disaster in the ‘communist’ countries. That didn’t work either, yet we nevertheless need to come up with something that performs the same process without the risk of tyranny. I think your statements are an excellent step in that direction, Carolyn. Keep up the good work.

  4. Michelle says:

    The rules listed are great rules, simple yet very powerful – I look forward to following your blog.

  5. Clark Bullard says:

    If it’s good for the nation, it’s probably good for General Motors??? Demonstrably irreversible.

  6. Jim Travers says:

    Congratulations, Carolyn. A good idea to have a blog SEHN.

    Mimick nature, is my motto. Nature wastes nothing.

  7. Brenda Afzal says:

    Carolyn, An increasing awareness of the effects that environmental pollution has on illness and disease has raised the level of concern and involvement of many nurses in “class advocacy” or a systems approach to affecting the “upstream” decisions that impact the health of individuals and communities. Nurses, as trusted professionals must challenge the systems and policies that have a negatively impacted the public’s health. Thank you for this thoughtful and eloquent message.

  8. greg gerritt says:

    Great to have this follow up to Rachels. I never use rules of thumb as a term, too violent a history for the saying, but a saying I do use is ” you can not heal ecosystems without ending poverty, you can not end poverty without healing ecosystems.”

  9. Richard levins says:

    Yes! And if it is good for the poor, the excluded, the discriminated against then it is good for the species.

  10. Janelle Sorensen says:

    What simple rules to live by, but so expansive in what decisions they could be applied to. Well done!