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

The Respectful Generation Standard

Carolyn Raffensperger

By Carolyn Raffensperger

It is these limits that are ignored when, in the case of possible pollution from ionizing radiation, or one of hundreds of thousands of manmade chemicals released into the environment every day no margin is made for the limits of human knowledge. If an effect cannot be measured by modern scientific and statistical means, it is presumed not to exist.

Susan Griffin

Years ago when I began working for the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) I sought advice from everyone willing to give it. One of the best things I heard came from Jerry Mander, a leading thinker on globalization and technology. I asked him what I should read. “Anything by Susan Griffin, she is one of the most important and interesting writers around.”

I knew Susan’s work through a coincidence. In the 1990s I served on a National Academy of Sciences committee that was charged with evaluating the horrendous costs of cleaning up the gaseous diffusion plants, the three national facilities that enriched uranium for bombs and nuclear power plants. I was a very young woman on a committee with almost all older men who had worked on the Manhattan Project, the project that had created Oak Ridge. Just before I visited Oak Ridge Tennessee, the site of the largest gaseous diffusion plant, I read an excerpt of Susan’s book A Chorus of Stones in Whole Earth Review.  The excerpt contained a story about radiation experiments done in the 1960s on terminally ill cancer patients, mostly children of military personnel. Susan said this:

“Neither the patients nor, in the case of children, their parents, were fully informed about the nature of the treatments offered. The study was funded by NASA. They wanted to know precisely what amount of radiation would produce nausea. Men were soon to be sent to the moon. If an astronaut, breathing through an oxygen mask, were to vomit, he would not survive.

I am thinking now of the mother of one of the irradiated children. When she looked on her son’s small body, struggling to live, she was thinking neither of astronauts nor of the moon. He weighed less than thirty pounds now. There was so much that he had endured in his six years of life. When was it that she grasped that something more than a simple process of dying was taking place? Was there a slow widening arc to her discomfort, a sense that would not be still, of wrongness? Or was the injustice of it revealed to her suddenly, even if unnamed and obscure in its reasons, in a stunning moment of clarity?”

SEHN was created to realign science with ethics. Oak Ridge represented all that was wrong with the scientific enterprise. It demonstrated a flagrant disregard for basic human decency. It had created a massive environmental disaster. It defined the word “squander”.

Oak Ridge was a pinnacle of reason, a manifestation of what the best minds in science could produce. If this was the best we could do using reason, perhaps we needed to use something else. Respect, perhaps.

Just before I was put on the NAS committee I had been grappling with a legal idea: what standard of law should we use for offenses against dignity? Sexual harassment law was in a state of flux at that time. The law had uneasily settled on the reasonable person standard, the prevailing standard for almost all of civil law. The argument raging in sexual harassment law was focused on the noun and asked whether the harasser or the harassed was supposed to be the reasonable one (Reasonable man? Reasonable woman? Reasonable person?). No one had looked at the adjective. I suggested reason didn’t parallel dignity. Respect was a far better legal rule to assess offenses against dignity. Had the alleged harasser been respectful? This proposal made its way into the Dec. 1997 Harvard Law Review.

My real interest at the time was looking for points of entry to change legal standards that would help us treat the Earth with more care. Polluters, destroyers of wetlands and prairies, are judged by whether they are reasonable just as are people charged with sexual harassment.  The paradox is that almost all of our environmental actions are characterized by scientific uncertainty.  How do we reason our way out of uncertainty?  The way most environmental law deals with the uncertainty problem is to give the benefit of the doubt to the polluter and ask if he or she was reasonable.  But there are so few cases where a polluter is deemed to be unreasonable.

Our work on the precautionary principle shifted the questions in the kaleidoscope by reversing the burden of proof and requiring the polluter to demonstrate safety or find a safer alternative before putting engaging in a potentially harmful activity. In effect, the precautionary principle requires respect.  What I didn’t know was the relationship of reason to respect.

In another one of Susan Griffin’s remarkable books, Wrestling with The Angel of Democracy: On Being an American Citizen, she says “[t]he process of reason…is not just a precursor for independent thought. It is essential for relationship too. If compassion is an immediate response to the suffering of others, present some would argue, in the structure of the human nervous system, still something more than compassion is required when your wishes conflict with those of someone else…Not simple empathy, as in I feel the same way you do. But a more delicate formula: If I have the right to want something you do not want, you too must have the right to want what I do not want. The logic belongs to the complex idea of equality lying at the heart of democracy.”

This means that reason is actually a predicate to respect. Respect as a legal standard is making way for what you want that I by right do not want. You may not fully understand why I either have the right or do not want it but you act respectfully, you act out of that nuanced empathy.  Imagine this as the standard by which we treat the Earth.  Have we been respectful even when we cannot understand the mysteries of nature?  Have we acted with respect in the face of scientific uncertainty?

Reason and respect are required too when we consider the rights of future generations. This generation’s responsibility to future generations is the fundamental ethic underlying the precautionary principle. How do we treat future generations equally with the present generation?  It is our sacred duty to behave in such a way that we do not foreclose their options. It is our responsibility to provide a seat at the table of democracy for their representatives. It is our duty to use the best reasoning and act out of the deepest respect for those generations to come.


  1. Rebecca Gasior Altman says:

    Hi Carolyn, just getting caught up on this blog. I’ve missed the recent entries. Your opening sentiments resonated with me. I feel like my interaction with SEHN to date has been like a mind-blowing, eye-opening reading list. I would be interested, and perhaps other readers here, too, might love to read your list of essential readings, a post, perhaps to build on your Letter to a Young Person (re: hope). I haven’t read Susan Griffin’s work, but tonight feel so grateful for the introduction. After visiting her website, I am so eager to get to reading: I like that she merges explorations of the body and the body politic, a dual project I am stumbling through, too, as I plot out –terribly slowly, I fear– my own work on being pregnant, studying biomonitoring science and human body burdens of persistent chemicals, and following the hypothetical path these molecules travel from factory to the Circumpolar north. I think Susan’s examples might be both an inspiring and productive read. Thank you, as always.

  2. molly arthur says:

    It is reasonable to cut into a woman’s womb to rescue a baby, but is it respectful to cut its leg when doing it? A mistake, but then it makes me think was that a reasonable action?

  3. It is remarkable how our work has dovetailed.

  4. Thank you dear Carolyn. It is deeply satisfying to be so well understood by such a brilliant woman as you.