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.

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