Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Fossil Fuels, Farmworkers and Environmental Justice
In the 1960s Nicholas C. Petris identified the plight of California’s
farm workers as a matter of injustice, and for much of his career regularly pursued
legislation surrounding the mistreatment of workers who were essential to
producing food for California and the nation. He fought for decades to eliminate
pesticides posing known health hazards to workplaces affecting hundreds of
thousands of farm workers became a decades-long battle. Like many of his
colleagues, my new found mentor felt that democratic practice meant to bring as
many different kinds of people to the table to participate in the making of laws as
possible, vesting them with broad latitude to guide the course of legislation. In
my own case, this involved “carrying bills” - meaning his staff would be
personally responsible, not simply following him around from committee to
committee, but actively participating in the legislative process.
As someone who had fought for farmworker rights for so long, the University’s
role of simply fostering agricultural production struck the Senator as wholly
inadequate. With so many pesticides with unknown effects being readily applied
to such vast acreage, what responsibility did the University leaders have for an
agricultural research system so apparently disinterested in the routine poisoning
of many thousands of farmworkers? While some university leaders suggested
that a solution would eventually emerge from the marketplace or agricultural
innovations, as many in the public demanded immediate legislative action to
address this social injustice, even if this meant venturing into the arenas of
private property or the proprietary claims of multinational corporations.
Returning to the arid Central Valley and the capitol from the misty, coastal
congestion of Berkeley, I was amazed by the temerity of university leaders who,
after receiving enormous public resources for so many years, now responded to a
legislative proposal to create a program on sustainable agricultural research with
a “fuck you very much” reply. If this was the response of a public university to
such a mild request from one of the most powerful legislative members: how in
the world did genuinely adversarial parties manage negotiations, especially
those lacking the manifest power, the hallowed-hall presence and public office?
In many important respects my academic training as a political scientist and my
tutelage in California’s capitol represented entirely different worlds of politics.
Whereas the former was conducted largely in isolation for many years, the
capitol environment demanded working in teams. Little did I know that,
venturing into the seemingly innocuous world of sustainable agriculture, I had
chosen to take on some of the largest forces in California politics. Agriculture
represented much more than simple production of food, if indeed that could be
regarded as simple. It rerouted water, with a byzantine politics much more
complex than even the film China Town could convey, with layers of competing
interests seeping into every facet.
Other corporate interests in agriculture included vast land holdings, machinery
and equipment manufacturers, as well as shipping, rail transport, and trucking.
Perhaps most important in all of this was an agrichemical complex, with
relationships ranging from petroleum refiners and specialty chemicals,
formulators of fertilizers, seed producers to the vast complex of finance. The
“simple” notion of asking the University of California to provide a program on
sustainable agriculture sparked the perfect opportunity to unite many of the
state’s most powerful forces against those least powerful.
Despite the asymmetry of power, public interest advocates pursued legislation to
restructure California’s agriculture for the simple reason that agribusiness no
longer appeared invincible. The sustainable agriculture bill followed from a 1984
victory of what seemed revolutionary at the time: a state law - the Birth Defects
Prevention Act - requiring the testing of pesticide ingredients to determine the
hazards to farmworkers and others. The Act represented the crowning achievement
by a group of physicians, consumer groups, environmentalists and labor unions who,
in one step, placed California in an equivalent role to federal government and its
agencies ostensibly responsible for regulating pesticides. The Birth Defects Prevention
Act would become celebrated for eliminating many thousands of pesticide products
posing long-term health hazards.
At the heart of the California campaign to aggressively identify and regulate
pesticides were multiple groups working as teams. While representatives of the
agribusiness lobby strolled the corridors of power self-assured in controlling the
production of law, its hegemony was crumbling. Public interest advocates, in
contrast, expanded their coalition of supporters on a seemingly daily basis. By the
mid-1980s, farmworker activists became part of a broadening coalition of groups
challenging the stateʻs toxic economy.
The confrontations were telling. In hearing after hearing, the visuals juxtaposed
very different constituencies. Growers and agribusinesses were typically
represented by a group of too-well- fed, older white men defending their right to
conduct farming however they saw fit, even if this resulted in exposing hundreds
of thousands of workers annually to hazardous chemicals. Supporters of
farmworkers’ right to safe workplaces included organizations representing a
broad sweep of faces every legislator recognized as a reflection of their district.
As one public interest advocate of the time commented to me while observing a
hearing, nodding in the direction of a well-known agribusiness lobbyist across
the room, “The Dinosaurs don’t get it, but their hold over the Legislature is
Behind the various bills paving the way for a changed treatment of farmworkers
was a young pediatrician, Dr. Richard Jackson, one of the central figures in the
launch environmental health policies over many decades. While Dr. Jackson
would later serve as California’s first Public Health Officer and direct environmental
health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the 1980s Dick
moved largely unrecognized among the world of political movers and shakers.
Dr. Jackson actively orchestrated the work of fellow advocates spanning a wide
scope of public health issues. In the arena of toxic substances, he readily briefed
newspaper reporters and journalists, foundation boards and officers, members of
congress, state legislators, attorneys and legal activists, not to mention numerous
community, state, and international groups. In addition to these extracurricular
activities, Dr. Jackson and his colleagues gradually transformed an obscure post
at the foot of the University of California’s Berkeley campus into a internationally
recognized office that assessed environmental health hazards.
Despite efforts to remain anonymous, Dr. Jackson soon earned unending wrath
from a variety of corporate entities. Beginning in the late 1980s the corporate
lobby regularly advanced proposals for curtailing the budget, personnel, and
work of Dr. Jackson and colleagues. Eventually Dickʻs work, along with many
others, prompted the creation of the California Environmental Protection Agency.
The price of his success resulted in a corporate demand: under no circumstances
would Dr. Jackson be allowed to assume any position of authority in the new agency.
In the meantime, Californiaʻs public interest advocates would expand their work
challenging the stateʻs reliance on fossil fuels and the growing number of studies
documenting an increasing array of hazards. Following a period of deregulation and
down-sized government, California would be presented with a new ʻsolutionʻ to the
most recognized dimension of fossil-fuel induced hazards: a disrupted global climate
posing catastrophic threats to the survival of civilization.