On the Path of Service
Traci Hukill, Common Ground
Click here to download a pdf of this article.
On December 10, 1988, Michael Green
took his camera and slipped out of the Tibetan hotel that he and other tourists
had been warned not to leave. It was International Human Rights Day, and
Tibetan separatists in Lhasa were gathering in
the city square to demonstrate for independence from China. Chinese soldiers, trucked in
en masse the day before, ringed the square. Chinese police scanned the crowd
from balconies and second-floor windows. Green began surreptitiously photographing
"I had this very naive idea
they wouldn't be hurt," Green says. "And then, a group of nuns opens
the Tibetan flag. They're standing maybe 40 feet away from me, in a triangle
with the soldiers. And the soldiers shot them. Right in front of me. And then
they tear-gassed the square."
Green escaped unharmed but not
unaffected. He was 26 at the time, a student of dharma who had arrived in Tibet two
months earlier to experience the culture he had read about for years. What he
got instead was a lesson in earthly suffering and injustice. He never saw his
photographs printed — they were lost when he tried to smuggle the film out of China — but
what he had witnessed stayed with him. Within months, he was in Calcutta at Mother
Teresa's Home for Dying Destitutes, carrying terminally ill patients back and
forth to the restroom. And doing lots of thinking.
"I realized two things,"
he says. "One, I could do anything; and two, I became immensely grateful
for the affluence in this country."
He also realized the value of
service: "The sisters at the Missionaries of Charity [Mother Teresa's
order] dedicated their lives to service of the poor. And I had this very proud
idea: 'Oh, I'm the guy who documented the struggle of the Tibetans.' And I saw
that I didn't really do anything. And I still haven't."
From Tibet to Toxics
The service ethic began to
influence Green's path. After returning to the United
States, he got master's degrees in public policy and
natural resources from the University
of Michigan, building on
his UC Berkeley bachelor's degree in conservation. He spent his last school
year in Dharamsala in northern India,
home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, trying to solve the
impoverished refugee community's overwhelming garbage problem — "not sexy
After graduation came an
idealistically driven but disappointing three years with the federal government
doing environmental protection work. That led to Green's loading up his Honda
Accord and lighting out for his old stomping grounds: the San Francisco Bay
He had a plan. He wanted to start
an organization that would work to make the environment safer for everyone,
especially poor people, who tend to live in the most polluted areas. As he
drove, he mulled some advice he had gotten while on a summer internship in The Hague. It came from
Michael van Walt, longtime legal adviser to the Dalai Lama.
"Basically the message was:
Just do it," Green says. "Don't worry about the money. Just do it and
the money will show up."
That was 1996, the year the Center
for Environmental Health (CEH) was born on the strength of a credit card and
the sheer willpower of a guy from Cleveland
with a spiritual bent.
Today CEH is a small but audacious
nonprofit with an established record of David v. Goliath victories. In 1999, it
sued Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and other makers of medicated baby powder
over lead-contaminated zinc in their products. By 2003, the companies had
agreed to reformulate their powders. In 2000, CEH sued the makers of Children's
Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol and other anti-diarrheals over lead exposure; the
companies agreed to either reduce lead levels or place warning labels on their
products. In 2001, CEH sued 30 manufacturers of playground equipment made with
arsenic-treated wood. Two years later, the entire industry had stopped
distributing arsenic-contaminated structures.
and Lead Apples
Perhaps the most impressive victory
came in July 2004, weeks after CEH, along with California Attorney General Bill
Lockyer, filed suit against a slew of major retailers — among them Macy's,
Target and Claire's — for selling lead-contaminated jewelry. Shortly
thereafter, the Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered the recall of 150
million pieces of lead-tainted children's jewelry sold in vending machines. It
was the largest product recall in the commission's history.
Since then, CEH has sent warnings
to makers of lead-contaminated Mexican candy, filed suit against the Walt
Disney Co. over lead-contaminated children's jewelry and sued the makers of
soft vinyl lunchboxes over their high lead content.
Not bad for an organization with
eight full-time employees. Nine years on, a fit and energetic Green presides
over a youthful staff that still looks flushed with the discovery of its
political success. The group makes all decisions — including the recent hire
of an associate director — by consensus. It's a management model Green strove
to attain for years but only recently figured out. "It's really
simple," he says. "All it means is that you're honest about how you
feel and you're nice to everybody."
Litigation is just one part of
CEH's work. The group works on a variety of issues: GMOs, PCBs in farmed
salmon, medical waste incineration. One major project is the Computer Take Back
Campaign (CTBC), in which CEH, along with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition,
encourages computer manufacturers to offer recycling of their old computers —
and to do it without exposing workers to toxic chemicals (much computer
recycling is done by prison labor or sent overseas).
CTBC has had some success with Dell
and Hewlett-Packard, though Apple has been slow to come around. CEH has also
joined forces with Health Care Without Harm to convince major players in the
medical industry to purchase only electronics that are responsibly recycled.
Meets the Law
prevention" projects, as they're known in the cramped two-story Oakland house that serves
as CEH world headquarters, are important. The lawsuits, though, are discrete
projects with high impact and relatively quick turnaround time.
"Prop 65 is a really powerful
tool," says Green, referring to the indispensable law under which CEH
filed the suits. "It allows us to respond to urgent situations."
Passed by California voters in 1986, the Safe Drinking
Water and Toxics Enforcement Act requires the governor's office to maintain a
list of chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. It is
prohibited to expose anyone in California
to any of those chemicals without warning. In practice, this means
manufacturers must label their products as hazardous if they contain any of the
listed substances — an unappealing option — or better yet, reformulate their
Green says CEH takes care in
selecting its targets for litigation. Like all small organizations seeking to
make the most impact with limited resources, the group also must employ
"Who's affected? Is it
children? Is it communities that suffer a disproportionate amount of
contaminants?" Green asks. "Kids, because their metabolism is totally
different, are especially vulnerable.
"And what leverage do we have
with the relevant corporations? With computers, we can convince our friends in
the health care sector to make those deals. Or do we have leverage because [the
corporations are] breaking the law? There are two ways to look at [Apple CEO]
Steve Jobs: Get him to work with us, or kick him in the ass.
"And visibility. Will it have
impact on others? Taking on Disney will change Claire's, but taking on Claire's
won't change Disney."
Joe Guth, a senior policy analyst
at CEH says, "one thing that distinguishes CEH is they take on these Prop
65 cases. It's one niche, one tool."
Another niche is the "big-picture"
work that Guth does. Two years ago, Guth quit his job as vice-president at the
medical biotech firm Chiron to come to CEH. It was a return to environmental
work for Guth, who had been at the National Resources Defense Council for five
years. He now serves on an advisory committee for the Environmental Protection
Agency. He's also working on the Big One (not his words): a comprehensive new
chemical-safety policy that could be introduced at the national level or
perhaps in a progressive state like California.
One model is "an ambitious, gigantic regulatory regime" making its
arduous way through the European Union approval system. Guth has made up a
version that would apply in the U.S.
and is sending it around to other big thinkers as a starting point.
That's years out. The European statute, which is far
ahead of a U.S.
version, won't kick in for another 15 years or so — if it passes. Meanwhile,
Green and Co. will continue the work they've been doing, taking on toxics,
chemical-by-chemical and industry-by-industry.