Ponderings On Earth Day, Ethics And The Precautionary Principle

May we more intentionally strive to encounter and experience the wisdom of nature, deepen our connections to the natural world, and better care for this precious water planet and the gifts we’ve been granted, on Earth Day, and every day. Photo by James Colby, GreenUp Jamestown Coalition

As I write this, it’s Earth Day, a time of reflection and celebration of our precious planet and its many gifts. Over the past two months, many of us have participated in GreenUp Jamestown Coalition’s series of collaborative, educational, and inspirational events, the brainchild of James Colby and the Reverend Luke Fodor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The programs have sought to enhance environmental awareness, appreciation, and action as well as a love of nature and local-to-global sustainability. This year’s programming concludes on Tuesday, May 1st with “Saving Chautauqua Lake, Our Greatest Natural Asset, Tourist Attraction, and Economic Engine,” at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at 7 p.m. CWC Executive Director John Jablonski III will discuss the economic importance of Chautauqua Lake and its fishery, the state of the lake and its watershed, threats to the health of the lake and watershed, and actions needed to conserve and enhance water quality and the aquatic plant and algae conditions in the lake. Please join us or visit greenupjamestown.com for more information.

In February, I was honored to present GreenUp’s kick-off program entitled “Creation Care and Earth Stewardship.” As a biologist, conservationist, and person of faith, I continue to study and soul-search over the many environmental and ethical challenges we confront today. The tapestry of life is so exquisitely wondrous, weaving its ancient story of beauty, mystery, and miracle in the fabric of time and space … and here we are, in the midst of it all, problems and promises alike.

In the book “The Prophet,” Kahlil Gibran says, “And forget not that the years which turn seeds to forests and worms to angels belong to this Now, all of the years, this very Now.” What we do, or don’t do, in our Now will impact the planet for generations to come. Will the children of tomorrow ask, “If you knew what you knew, why didn’t you care more? Why didn’t you do things differently?” There are so many issues to contemplate as we consider our intensifying human pressures on the world – climate change, the plague of plastic, pesticides and pollution, loss of biodiversity, habitat degradation, invasive species, poverty, environmental justice, and more.

Over recent months, much discussion, debate, and public comment have ensued over the proposed use of herbicides in Chautauqua Lake, and concerns have been voiced about potential impacts on native species, human health, water quality, and the stability of the lake ecosystem. Navigate® (2,4-D), for example, is considered a potential groundwater contaminant, possible carcinogen and probable endocrine disruptor/estrogen mimic in certain amphibians and people (Wisconsin DNR 2,4-D Chemical Fact Sheet www.dnr.wi.gov and www.pesticideinfo.org). It has been shown to reduce the rate of survival in ducks and waterfowl, is toxic to some fish, and causes mortality in crayfish, many mussel species, and certain insects and zooplankton. Soil mobility of Renovate 3® (triclopyr) is high and may result in groundwater contamination where water tables are high and soils are permeable. Aquathol K (endothall) is lethal not only to the targeted curlyleaf pondweed but also to our many desirable native pondweed species critical for fish spawning, rearing, and shelter. In spite of these impacts, these chemicals have been approved by the DEC for application in other lakes, and many lakeside residents favor their local use. All interested parties now await the permitting decision soon to come from the NYS Department of Conservation. The lake’s future is a concern for all, but finding sustainable, wise solutions remains challenging.

In seeking answers, one might consider the “Precautionary Principle,” a concept based on “fore-caring.” Specifically, “when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” One of the original authors of the precautionary principle, Ted Schettler, asks key questions we continue to struggle with today: What do we know? What are the uncertainties? What is at risk of harm if we act or fail to act? What should we do to protect health and the environment? Who gets to decide? Schettler states, “Established ways of making decisions with broad impacts on human health and the environment have not kept pace with current scientific understanding of systems problems, uncertainties and the undeniable reality of a rapidly-changing world of degraded ecosystems and growing population. In the second decade of the 21st Century, the precautionary principle forces us to confront vital questions and directs us to come to more health- and planetary-protective solutions with greater urgency than ever before.”

Restoration, kinship, compassion, and relationships of mutual respect are essential for an enduring environmental consciousness as we seek sustainability for the body, mind, and spirit, and for all of the natural world. May we more intentionally strive to encounter and experience the wisdom of nature, deepen our connections to the natural world and better care for this precious water planet and the gifts we’ve been granted, on Earth Day, and every day.

Becky Nystrom is a Professor of Biology at Jamestown Community College, a founding trustee and current board director of the CWC, and a longtime CWC supporter and volunteer. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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