Peter Montague founded Rachel's "to give people the confidence to fight City Hall" and not get bamboozled by scientific charlatans.
Rachel Carson died in 1964, but the spirit of her work lives on in the weekly publication of the Environmental Research Foundation (ERF). Much like its namesake, Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly sounds the warning about hazardous substances and technologies that threaten human and environmental health.
Rachel's creator and executive director, Peter Montague, explains, “I started Rachel's to provide grassroots community activists with information that would help them accomplish their goals, to protect their neighborhoods and families from toxic exposures.”
As ERF points out, “The newsletter covers many technical issues, such as the toxicity of dioxin, incinerator emissions, rising cancer rates and the intricacies of risk assessment, but it is written in plain language that anyone can understand. Much of the information covered in Rachel's Weekly never appears in the mainstream media and can only be found in medical and scientific journals that most people never see.”
Consistent with its goal of “strengthening democracy by helping people find the information they need to fight for environmental justice in their own communities,” Rachel's is available free via e-mail, and the printed version comes on a single sheet of 100 percent tree-free kenaf paper. Because it accepts no advertisements, Rachel's is never subject to corporate influence.
While each edition makes an interesting read for the armchair environmental enthusiast, the meticulously documented Rachel's finds its niche as a resource for community activists. According to associate editor Maria Pellerano, the paper version of Rachel's is largely distributed to grassroots activists groups and organizations, which use the newsletter as a weapon in their fight for social change. “We believe that grassroots action is the effective lever for change in our neighborhoods and that informed citizens are the essential backbone of a strong democracy and a healthy environment,” Pellerano says.
Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) executive director Lois Gibbs says that she frequently forwards the newsletter when activists have questions that lie outside the range of her organization. “We love that publication,” she adds. “The scope is broad enough that we can turn to it for the information we need that is beyond the range of issues we normally cover. The research is solid and factually correct, but it is condensed and easy for a lay person to read and understand.”
Patty Lovera, a CHEJ employee agrees. “A lot of grassroots activists read it because it keeps them on top of the issues that affect their community,” she says. “It also gives people a feeling of comfort to know that someone is monitoring the things that impact on our health and the health of the environment.”
Lovera says that issues of Rachel's are often traded enthusiastically between environmentalists via e-mail. And the newletter certainly travels. Dan Ritzman, a Greenpeace employee studying climate change in Alaska, finds the newsletter useful to catch up on the wide range of environmental issues. “Rachel's makes dry science interesting, and it puts a human dimension on issues that often leads to a sense of moral outrage,” he says.
Many of the stories appearing in Rachel's concern critical environmental issues that are completely ignored by the mainstream media. In 1992, the Royal Society of London and the National Academy of Sciences issued an unprecedented joint statement under the title “Population Growth, Resource Consumption, and a Sustainable World.” The statement warned that science and technology might not be able to abate the “irreversible degradation of the environment” resulting from unchecked human population growth and consumption. The joint statement was obviously of great importance, but it received almost no media coverage. Rachel's was possibly the only publication to print the statement verbatim.
One of the reasons Rachel's is effective is its timeliness: It is one of the few environmental publications to be printed on a weekly basis. The stories inform readers about current grassroots battles attempting to bring about social change. Last October, a Rachel's story about the “Protest of the Century” was slated to coincide with a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle the next month.
Rather than simply addressing individual issues, Rachel's discusses the big picture, and puts environmental problems into the context of money and power. One feature shows how an 1886 Supreme Court decision to endow large corporations with the same constitutional rights as individuals is wreaking havoc on people and the environment today. Another might illuminate various attempts of large polluters to paint their public image green, or buy politicians with PAC money. “One reason Rachel's is so useful to activists is that it takes scientific issues and gives them a political spin,” says Gibbs.
Most activists will agree that Rachel's does more than just inform: It inspires and motivates. Says Montague, “By giving our readers reliable scientific and medical information in understandable language, I hoped the newsletter would give people the confidence to 'fight City Hall,' trust their own instincts and not allow themselves to be bamboozled and paralyzed by corporate consultants and 'experts'.”