Become the Change We Seek!

Taking Action, Saving Livesby Kristin Shrader-Frechette

Oxford Univ. Press. 320p $29.95

With books and documentary films on environmental degradation appearing at a fast pace, what particular niche does Taking Action, Saving Lives, designed to reach a broad audience, fill? Shrader-Frechette, O’Neill Family Professor of Philosophy and professor of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame and member of the E.P.A. Science Advisory Board, has written extensively on public health and environmental ethics. As the title of her new book makes clear, Taking Action is a call for all citizens to take part in reducing the harms from pollution-related causes—harms that are far more dangerous and deadly than most citizens realize.

While not slipping in absolute terms, life expectancy in the U.S. relative to other countries—according to a recent study published in The Washington Post—has declined from 11th to 42nd in the past two decades. Shrader-Frechette insists that public health in the U.S. can improve if ordinary people recognize the serious and increasing risks that they and their children face from pollution. Any pollution-related deaths, she argues, are too many in our rich nation, “if they are easily preventable, deliberate or criminal, occurring because of violations of human rights to know and to consent, or imposed inequitably on vulnerable groups like children.”

The author is influenced by the late political theorist Iris Marion Young, who argued (in Justice and the Politics of Difference) that it was inappropriate to reduce social justice to issues of allocation and distribution of goods (or harms). To eliminate institutional domination and oppression, she wrote, justice must also include “action, decisions about action, and provision of the means to develop and exercise capacities.”

Each chapter begins with a story of an ordinary citizen without unusual resources who nevertheless manages to make a difference. As Shrader-Frechette intends, these stories draw readers into her project and serve as inspiring examples of responsible citizenship. She urges readers to become the change they seek.

Although trained as a political theorist, I was not certain that lay readers outside an academic setting would read patiently through the arguments and counter-arguments that follow as Shrader-Frechette tries to reason through her case: citizens participate in environmental injustice and receive benefits from government and corporate actions that cause harm, and they therefore have obligations to understand their complicity, inform themselves about the facts and try to end the harms. If an academic found some parts of these chapters, however important, tedious to read (e.g., “Human Rights and Duties Not to Harm”), will Shrader-Frechette’s intended audience stay with her?

Also, since the author herself has recourse to Plato’s Republic, I ask one of the central questions it poses: can most people be persuaded through reasoned argument that justice is in their self-interest?

Shrader-Frechette understands that reason alone will not inspire most people to action, though she relies heavily upon it. In addition to the inspiring stories of activists and action that mattered, she also repeatedly emphasizes small gains and incremental change, alongside many examples of actions that can contribute constructively. These certainly help readers grapple with ways in which they might fulfill their duties and obligations. Parts of the book, including proposals for reform, read like an apologia for the American Public Health Association. In the final chapter, “Where We Go From Here,” there are no fewer than 50 references to A.P.H.A. recommendations. A reader might be excused for thinking A.P.H.A. subsidized the project. But focusing on these concrete reform proposals already before the public does help create a sense of the possible.

John Stuart Mill believed that citizens in a democracy would increasingly come to associate their own happiness with the happiness of others. One way this would happen is through vigorous interplay of ideas and opinions in a liberal society. Shrader-Frechette is a believer, arguing that citizens must expose themselves continually to ideas and opinions contrary to their own and avoid ideological ruts (thus she champions activists who are sometimes pilloried for not being readily classifiable as left or right). But she also takes a page from Jane Addams and the pragmatists who argued that citizens come to identify with the problems and perspectives of others only through interaction with them. The responsibility argument, she contends, “requires empathy, education, interaction, and sustained, self-critical reflection.” Volunteer work and a proposed period of national service are means to such identification.

Despite the work by Robert Putnam and others exploring and analyzing causes of the decline in civic engagement in America, Shrader-Frechette is committed to the citizen activist who gathers information; who works to cut through corporate, media and government disinformation efforts; and who keeps an open mind even while acting. Since time, knowledge and other resources are not evenly distributed, citizens with more resources have a duty to try to persuade others in their communities to avoid harm (and it is easier, the author argues, to find agreement on reducing the harm we cause than it is on doing good). Shrader-Frechette seems to believe a little too readily that information-gathering provides clear answers about harm and risk.

It would have been interesting to have some engagement with Jason Corburn’s Street Science, a book that specifically looks at the roles community members can play in environmental health justice issues, and with Sheila Jasanoff’s work on the limited role that science can reasonably play in public policy decisions as Shrader-Frechette works to strengthen the case for citizens as vital players in public health and environmental decision-making and accountability.

Taking Action, Saving Lives also includes 70 pages of rich endnotes and an index. Shrader-Frechette’s work is both important and ambitious, and it deserves to be read and implemented.


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