Our Planet, Our Selves

Carolyn Raffensperger’s quest to make an ounce of prevention an international cause

| May/June 2001


The Future of Healing
•Ecological Medicine
Kenny Ausubel •Healing Resources
Karen Olson •A Mother's Lament
Sandra Steingraber
•Our Planet Ourselves!
Karen Olson
•A Second Opinion on Harry Hoxsey
Kenny Ausubel
•What the Leaves Can Tell Us
Larry Dossey, M.D.

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Carolyn Raffensperger lives on the prairie of North Dakota. Her house is partially underground, protected from the constant wind by a rise in the earth. She and her husband, Fred Kirschenmann, grow their own food, heat their home with two woodstoves, and drink from a 400-foot-deep well. This might seem to be an unlikely place for an intellectual dynamo who aims to revolutionize the future of healing, but in fact it’s ideal. There’s room to think out here, she says. You can see what’s coming.

What Raffensperger hopes to see is nothing short of a new scientific era. Biology, chemistry, and other fields have made tremendous strides over the past half century, but they’ve also done their share of harm. As executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, or SEHN, Raffens-perger is part of a movement to democratize science and put it to work for the common good. If this burgeoning movement succeeds, the next great scientific advance won’t be another wonder drug or feat of genetic engineering. It will be putting a stop to our habits of technological recklessness and the damage that results from valuing efficiency and profit over a healthy world.

When I arrive at Raffensperger’s home near Windsor, North Dakota, at the end of February, we go to the front porch, her favorite room in this rambling and comfortable house filled with more than 15,000 books. A bank of windows overlooks softly undulating hills and the cattails of a 12-acre slough. Within minutes Raffensperger is talking urgently about her love of this land, her admiration for pioneers like Love Canal community activist Lois Gibbs and Rachel’s Environment & Health News editor Peter Montague, her husband’s cancer, and the parts that make up the whole of ecological medicine. "We have a lot of ground to cover," she tells me.

Using her hands when she talks, drawing pictures in the air, Raffensperger is someone who sees the interconnectedness of things. Part archaeologist, part attorney,

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part North Dakota farmwife, she is the kind of pragmatic, interdisciplinary thinker we need if we really want to reimagine a culture as highly specialized and short-thinking as modern science is.

The tragic flaw in most science these days, she believes, is its refusal to ponder the impact of its creations before they’re turned loose in the world. Instead, she says, scientists should have to prove that their work will do no harm either now or in the future. That’s the heart of the precautionary principle, which she and others have been advocating for several years. When I ask how all this relates to medicine, she puts it plainly.

"Prevention is ecological medicine," she says. "Do you want to cure your daughter’s breast cancer, or do you want to prevent it?"

If you’re looking for tomorrow’s medical paradigm simply stated, there it is.

Raffensperger’s home office is set in the hillside beneath the guest cottage, but it gets plenty of light through the glass ceiling of an interior patio. For the past six years this has been mission control for SEHN, a scientific think tank and information clearinghouse. Founded in 1993 by several environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, and the Environmental Law Institute, SEHN promotes the wise use of science, especially as it affects the environment and public health. Along with helping community groups find progressive scientists, it acts as a scientific translator for the public and the press.

As SEHN’s executive director, Raffensperger runs the organization virtually. Her four colleagues—physician and science director Ted Schettler, biologist Mary O’Brien, botanist Katherine Barrett, and communications director Nancy Myers—also work out of homes scatterered around the country. They meet by conference call every few weeks. Their electronic newsletter, The Networker, appears several times a year (www.sehn.org/thenet.html). As advocates of a new ethically grounded science, they’re in demand, writing and speaking about issues like biotechnology, grizzly bear recovery, ethnobotany, and dioxin’s effects on children’s health.

Raffensperger insists that she’s only one voice in a wider campaign, which is true. But she does have a uniquely panoramic view of this new terrain, including the rise of ecological medicine. She’s been thinking about these things all her life.

Raffensperger, 47, was raised in Chicago, where her father is a prominent surgeon. He himself became an ardent environmentalist after noticing patterns that linked cancers and birth defects in children to certain environmental factors, though no one could prove the connection. As a child, Raffensperger wanted to be a doctor, too. But while working as a potter in college, she discovered archaeology. After finishing a bachelor’s degree at Wheaton College and a master’s degree at Northwestern University, she did fieldwork near Durango, Colorado, studying the artifacts of the Anasazi people. It was her job to determine how those artifacts were used, whether for cultural rituals or food processing.

"It was the perfect training for what I do now," she says. The only question in archaeology—How do you know?—should be central to all science, she explains, but even that basic rigor is often lacking in the commodified re-search that passes for science today.

Raffensperger’s turn toward activism began at that time. It was the early 1980s and President Reagan’s controversial secretary of the interior, James Watt, had proposed dumping radioactive waste near a national monument in Utah. She wanted to protest, but as a young pacifist Mennonite, she didn’t know how. So she re-turned to Chicago and took a job at the Sierra Club "to help me figure out how to say no to bad ideas," she says. She became an outspoken opponent of radioactive waste. She also became an attorney, attending Chicago-Kent College of Law’s environmental law program.
At the Sierra Club, Raffensperger coordinated the lawyers doing volunteer work for the organization. Pro bono work is an important tradition among attorneys, but not among scientists, as she discovered after taking the job at SEHN and moving to Washington, D.C. One of her new goals was to convince more scientists to put their expertise to work in the public interest.

Raffensperger met her husband eight years ago when both were speaking at a symposium in Arkansas. Kirsch-enmann, who has a Ph.D. in historical theology, spoke about the spiritual bonds between people and domesticated animals. She was impressed, she says, "So I married him." Six years ago she left Washington for the prairie.

Raffensperger does her share of barnstorming these days. She’s spoken at Harvard, the White House (in 1999), and a host of other places, hoping to spread the precautionary principle and its values. The idea is catching on across the country, but not as fast as in Europe. Precaution isn’t part of our public culture, Raffensperger notes. Many see it as antithetical to competitive enterprise and as a threat to the deeply held belief that technology can solve all our problems.

But Raffensperger doesn’t take this criticism very seriously, as she noted last year in a speech in California: "It seems unassailable if you’ve got a heart and mind," she said. "Who can oppose taking action to prevent harm when the science is uncertain?"

The Kirschenmann farm, dotted with sloughs, is in the white pelican nesting area along a wetland bird corridor. It also sits in the middle of the state’s largest concentration of organic farms. Still, there are plenty of conventional farmers nearby. If they spray chemicals when the wind is blowing, as it almost always does, the chemicals drift onto gardens, wetlands, organic fields. After pesticides were sprayed last summer, there was a massive die-off of salamanders. Tomatoes in Raffensperger’s garden were damaged by drifting herbicides. There seems to be no way to avoid the chemicals, even on one of the largest organic farms in the country.

"We are the land, the water, the grizzly bear, the soil microbes," she says. "This is not a New Age statement. It is a medical statement. We forget that we are porous, not only through our mouths and noses, but also through our skin."
The land around Windsor has begun to yield some unsettling remind-ers of how interconnected all these factors really are. Though no cause has been determined, some farmers in the re-gion have noted that heifers as young as 3 or 4 months are getting pregnant, she says; 12 to 18 months is more the norm. Another sign hits even closer to home. "While many men in Fred’s father’s generation died of heart problems," she says, "Fred’s generation seems to be experiencing an epidemic of cancer."

Kirschenmann, 66, was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer last year. Raffensperger mentions the pesticides he used as a teenage farmhand and the dioxin in their meat as possible causes. "I made the mistake of thinking we were safe from cancer because my husband is an organic farmer," she says. They were not.


Raffensperger has four deep freezers full of food she’s grown. For dinner she serves Indian woman bush bean and beef soup, ratatouille and kale pizza, raspberry cobbler, and chokecherry wine—nearly all our meal is a product of the farm. "I eat and drink as an act of defiant hope and as a medical statement that I am part of this land," she says. Still, accepting her husband’s illness has been hard. "No matter how much kale I feed him," she explains, "it’s not in my hands."

After weighing several treatment options, the couple chose surgery for Kirschenmann—the only choice that would not harm the environment. Along with chemical agriculture we also have chemical medicine, Raffensperger notes; and nature doesn’t know how to handle those chemicals once they leave our bodies. She mentions the prescription drug traces now flowing in our rivers. "I don’t know about you," she says. "But I don’t want to be drinking other people’s Viagra."

She mentions that she recently had her first physical exam in 13 years. It’s telling, she observes, that medical forms ask only about the health of one’s parents and siblings. We’re not asked about the people we live with, our neighbors, or our community. "We think we’re separate from the environment," she says. "This is laughable. With ecological medicine, the medical community now has an invitation and a charge to look at the whole system, the person within the context of her or his environment."

She says children’s health is the logical place to start applying the precautionary principle. "Environmental signals are easier to sort out the younger the subject," she explains. "And the damage is more catastrophic. If it’s preventable, then by God, we better prevent it." To do so, we need to shift our research away from genetics and new miracle drugs and focus on prevention.

Raffensperger advocates that medical practitioners should be trained to recognize relationships between our health and our environment. She proposes widening the concept of the "alert practitioner," which is now used to describe medical professionals who see patterns in prescription drug use (like the doctor in nearby Fargo who first recognized that the weight loss treatment fen-phen was causing heart problems). In the future, this vigilance would extend beyond pharmacology to the entire environment.


As night falls and fills the enormous prairie sky with stars, Raffensperger cranks up an Emmylou Harris song and says, "I want to do my work as well as she sings." Art, she says, is essential to the environmental movement: "I can write all the scientific and legal papers in the world, but they’re not going to change people’s hearts. Only art can do that."

She shows me an ancient stone buffalo butchering tool and a maul, both found near the farm. "I keep thinking about what we’re going to leave behind: Styrofoam, DDT, PCBs." She holds out the maul and looks at it intently. "I want to be known for leaving something as beautiful as Shakespeare—or this artifact."

Raffensperger says she is going to miss this place. She’s in the process of moving to Ames, Iowa, where Kirschen-mann has accepted the directorship of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Kirschenmann’s daughter will be moving into the house. But Raffensperger is comforted in the knowledge that her new home has elderberries in the yard. In true Raffensperger style, she weaves them into a web of meaning. "We need to value the wisdom of our elders. We need to go back to wise people who understand the world, the body, and the ecology that surrounds it." She explains how elderberries were an important plant in medical guides compiled by early settlers. She’s already found a recipe for elderberry flower fritters in Joy of Cooking. And most importantly, she sees the plants as an affirmation: It is indeed time that we start listening to the elders, and to the wisdom of the world around us. It’s time we remember that everything is related.

Karen Olson is associate editor of Utne Reader.