Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- November, 2001

Just Do It!

A Call for Citizen Initiative


Ernest Partridge, Research Philosopher
University of California, Riverside


Conference on "Environment and Human Rights in the Russian Federation"
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC
November 6, 2001

Helovesevo qvlqetsq hast;[ biosfery,
a biosfera \to edinoe celoe.

Humanity is part of the biosphere, and
 the biosphere is a unified whole.

Mikhail Gorbachev

I -- Beware of Americans Bearing Advice

I am sure that many of you share my astonishment at finding a philosopher from California on a panel with distinguish Russian scholars, discussing "Environment, Human Rights and Civil Society in Russia." I should think that my appropriate role, like yours, is to listen and to learn – and I have learned a great this past hour. While I have visited Russia seven times in the past dozen years, and am in frequent contact with my many friends in Russia, perhaps I might best serve this panel by offering a few suggestions as to how Americans and Russians might work together to improve the prospects of the environment, human rights and civil society in both of our countries. 

Please notice that I did not say, "what we Americans can do for the Russians," and I hope that I never will. For that well-meaning pronouncement betrays the blend of naivetι and arrogance that has caused both sides no end of aggravation. I encountered a vivid example of this sort of attitude on a flight home from Moscow, in the Summer of 1993, as I sat next to the President of a conservative think-tank. He told me at length what he and his colleagues at their conference had "taught" the Russians about the free-market economy. I don't recall that he said a word about what he had learned from the Russians. He had a gospel to preach, and apparently perceived little need to acquaint himself with the culture, history, least of all the language, of his audience. Alas, he was not very different from "the best and the brightest" Harvard economists who flocked to Moscow to lend their advice, following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Are we to teach the Russians about the rule of law? Not when our own Supreme Court overturns the will of the voters and appoints the President. In contrast, the Russian judiciary overturned the will of the Federal prosecutor and acquitted Alexandr Nikitin. Perhaps we have some invaluable lessons to learn from Judge Sergei Golets.

Russians have wisely learned to beware of Americans bearing advice. Given the tumultuous events of this past year, beginning with our troubled Presidential election and on through the disasters of September 11, we on our side are in no position to pose as exemplars of environmental stewardship or political maturity. Our wisest course is to simultaneously offer our assistance as our Russian friends struggle with the environmental, political and economic issues before them, and at the same time to solicit their assistance as we cope with our own problems. Indeed, in this unified and interdependent world, these issues are not separate or separable. This is especially the case with regard to the environment: there is only one common atmosphere, one common ocean, one common ecosphere, one planet. 

Few can deny that this has been a dreadful two years for the environment and for human rights in Russia and in the United States – more so, perhaps, for the United States. In the Russian Federation, the Ministry of Environmental Protection was abolished, and a nationwide petition to restore the Ministry was set aside on a legal technicality. Other difficulties have just been elaborated by this distinguished panel, and so I need not repeat them. (See my "Notes from a Conference" and  the "Summary Report" of the Conference).

In the United States, the Presidential election was, in effect, decided, not by the voters but by the Supreme Court. Open and diverse political debate has been muted by a mass media that focuses on the antics of celebrities rather than public issues, which has severely curtailed foreign and scientific reporting, and which is increasingly controlled by fewer corporate conglomerates. A large portion of the public has resigned itself to the fact that politicians are beholden more to those who fund them than those who vote for them. For the past twenty years, American political opinion has been captivated by the notion that virtually every traditional function of government is best accomplished by private enterprise – that, as Ronald Reagan put it, "government is not the solution, government is the problem." Finally, the Bush Administration has chosen to opt out of international agreements on an International Criminal Court, on weapons sales, on land mines, on the Anti-Ballistic Missiles, and it boycotted an international conference on human rights. Worst all, it stands alone in its opposition to the Kyoto global warming treaty. Concerns about climate change, we are told, are based on "weak science."

And then September 11 arrived. Those disasters gave the Bush administration a sudden appreciation of the value of international cooperation and of government activism – the latter, a mixed blessing bearing some troublesome implications for personal privacy and liberty.

These are truly "the times that try men's souls," as Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet, "The Crisis." But as the Chinese language suggests, a "crisis" combines both "danger" and "opportunity." We know of the dangers and the setbacks. I would like to focus my remaining time to a consideration of the opportunities.

First of all, as the American government seeks an international alliance in the "war against terrorism," the international community, both governmental and non-governmental, should use this eagerness to assemble a strategic alliance as leverage to encourage the Bush Administration to reconsider its recent dismissal of its global obligations regarding land mines, criminal justice, ABM, nuclear testing, and global climate change, etc.. 

In addition, as it addresses the threat of terrorism, the US government is turning to science and technology in its attempt to identify, locate and apprehend the culprits, and to disarm their attacks. This renewed reliance upon scientific expertise presents the scientific community with an opportunity to break down the artificial political wall between allegedly "good science" (e.g., communications technology and bio-medical science, applied against terrorists) and "weak science" (e.g., the overwhelming international consensus of atmospheric scientists as expressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 

II -- The Seismologists' Initiative

Can the coordinated efforts of non-governmental scientists, activists and organizations significantly affect governmental policy? Clearly, the evidence of recent history is that it can. Citizen action in the United States ended the Viet-Nam War and enacted reforms in civil rights. And in Russia, citizen resistance thwarted the communist counter-revolution of 1991. 

However, I would like to relate another case in which the initiative of scientists in both Russia and the United States, with the support of non-governmental organizations and foundations, significantly and favorably affected government policy. While I was not a participant in this initiative, I was a friend and colleague of some who were, and thus an interested spectator

It had to do with seismic verification of compliance with nuclear test ban treaties in the mid-eighties. Among the many heroes of this story are three American scientists, seismologists Charles Archambeau and Jack Evernden, and physicist Thomas Cochrane of the Natural Resources Defense Council (an NGO). In addition, there were four Russians, Roald Sagdeev, Evgeny Velikhov, and Boris Gokhberg, all of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and of course Mikhail Gorbachev.

Recall the US policy in 1986 – a year after Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the CPSU, and at the onset of glasnost. The official position of the Reagan Administration at that time was (a) that seismic verification of compliance with a non-testing agreement was impossible – "weak science" (sound familiar?), (b) even if verification were possible, the Soviets would never allow the required seismic stations to be set up on their territory. Accordingly, (c) the US was obliged to continue its underground testing.

Notwithstanding all this, in July, 1985, Gorbachev initiated a unilateral test ban which was to last for nineteen months, during which time the US would conduct 25 underground tests in Nevada.

From 1984-86, I was a research associate at the University of Colorado, studying earthquake prediction under a grant from the National Science Foundation. My office was close to that of Charles Archambeau. In a private conversation early in 1986, Archambeau told me of his recent trip to Moscow. During an informal conversation among Russian and American scientists, Archambeau and other Americans pointed out that with available scientific methods and technology, detection of nuclear tests was a virtual certainty.  The instruments were sufficiently sensitive to identify yields of one kiloton at the most, and with extensive monitoring, much smaller than that. (The difference in the seismographic profiles of earthquakes and explosions are immediately recognizable, as explained in the note below). However, this would require placement of seismometers near the test sites, and of course the Soviet government would never allow this.

"Don't be so sure of that," replied Dr. Velikhov. "Let me ask the Chief," meaning Gorbachev. A couple of days later, Velikhov told the Americans, "Gorbachev says OK. Now how soon could you get those instruments to the test site at Semipalitinsk?" 

What followed is a long and complicated story which I cannot relate with my limited time, but which in any case was extensively covered at the time by the press. The gist is this: the NRDC and the Soviet Academy launched a joint project to set up seismic stations at the test site in Kazakhstan, and reciprocally in Nevada.  (See the "References" at the foot of this paper).

The Reagan Administration was not pleased by this initiative. Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle dismissed the project as "an absurd ... private excursion," and there were numerous official complications, mostly from the American side, involving visas and export permits for the scientific equipment. Federal funding of Archambeau's unrelated research projects was cut in half. 

Conversely, the scientists had little patience with the politicians.  A typical response was that of Jack Everndon (coincidentally, a US government employee): 

"The history of opposition to a treaty eliminating or severely limiting nuclear tests is a mosaic of obfuscation, half-truths, and unadulterated lies.  Although the voiced arguments have usually been technical, the driving issues have been political and emotional."  (Everndon, 1988).

Thomas Cochran concurred:

"The Reagan Administration seems to be afraid of scientific truth.  The Administration stands in fear of a research program designed to demonstrate verification of a comprehensive test ban: a program which in fact improves its own capabilities to verify the existing Threshold Test Ban Treaty." (Cochran, 1987).

Despite this mutual hostility, the project proceeded since the prima facie absurdity of governmental interference with this well-publicized cooperative scientific research raised insurmountable public relations problems. 

The important lesson here is that the Russian and American scientists did not complain, or sulk, or launch a public relations campaign – they simply acted. In response to the administration contention that "the science was not up to the task," they conducted experiments and published their findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Furthermore, the administration argument that "the Soviets would never allow it" was demolished by those standing seismic stations in Kazakhstan.

In this contest between political doctrine and scientific evidence and methodology, science prevailed. Thus the US opposition to seismic verification of test-ban compliance was swept away (though other official objections survived). And while as recently as October, 1999, the US Senate failed (by the narrowest of margins) to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the practical result is that both Russia and the United States have effectively ended nuclear testing.

All this was accomplished through the initiative of a few Russian and American scientists, combined with the sponsorship of the NGO Natural Resources Defense Council and the financial support of the Carnegie, Ford and MacArthur Foundations, in the political context of glasnost and perestroika. 

III -- Opportunities for Further Initiatives.

This inspiring success story prompts the question: what additional joint Russian and American initiatives in behalf of environmental protection, human rights and civil society might be possible in these difficult times?  I would like to suggest a few.

Recent history offers numerous examples of how political biases and economic interests have been overturned by scientific discovery. We were told that the abolition of DDT would cause crop failures, and that auto pollution controls were technologically unfeasible. Not so, as it turned out. Now we are hearing similar warnings about a unacceptable consequences of curtailing fossil fuel consumption and of the transition to a solar and hydrogen based economy. 

As with DDT and pollution control, it is time for the scientists to show otherwise. Like the seismologists at Semipalitinsk, the better course of action is not endless debate, but rather simple accomplishment. When the US auto industry said that low-pollution and energy efficient vehicles were "unfeasible," the Japanese proceeded to build such vehicles, and the US had no choice but to follow. So when the automobile-petroleum industrial complex tells us that hydrogen power is unfeasible and uneconomical, the appropriate response is to build a hydrogen vehicle. "Just do it!" 

What is one to do with an Administration which claims that warnings of global climate change are based on "weak science," in the face of almost unanimous scientific opinion to the contrary? Apparently, Bush-Cheney, Inc. will be unmoved by further argument. So political pressure and public opinion must alter their policies as scientific evidence apparently can not. The scientific case must be brought to the media and to the people. Scientists must leave the laboratories and classrooms and engage with the public, demanding access to the popular media, and reviving the "teach-ins" that were manifestly effective during the Viet Nam war. Furthermore, those 157 nations that signed on to Kyoto must insist that international cooperation entails reciprocity. If the US government expects support on the "war against terrorism," it must join the world-wide response to climate change. Finally, the world scientific community must enlist the support of that large segment of the American population that shares their concern about global warming.

The struggle to wean industrial civilization from fossil fuel addiction, and the associated dependence upon Middle-East oil, bears important implications for the Russian Federation. In the transitional short-term, the Western nations can break free of their accommodation with despotic petroleum dynasties by assisting in the development of petroleum resources in Russia – now the second largest producer of oil. The influx of foreign capital (if it is not hoarded by the elites) can greatly benefit the Russian economy. Meanwhile, with the long-term in mind, Russian and Western scientists and technologists should work cooperatively to ease the inevitable transition to the solar and hydrogen technologies of the post-petroleum era. 

Finally, Russians and Americans working together, either inside or outside of governmental institutions, can offer significant assistance in the endeavor to establish a sustainable global community. "EcoDom," a project of the Socio-Ecological Union, may be pointing the way.

The "Socio-Ecological Union," a federation of environmental NGOs in the former Soviet Union, believes, as the name implies, that environmental problems are best approached through an integration with social issues. This approach is in contrast with the "piecemeal" strategy of American environmentalists. I much prefer and recommend the Russian approach. This integration of social and economic concerns is vividly exemplified in the "EcoDom" project, now in its twelfth year of operation. As Igor Ogorodnikov, the SEU Coordinator of Ecosettlements, describes it: 

The project includes energy efficient heating systems, both engineering appliances and architectural construction solutions, biological household waste recycling, and land for subsidiary agriculture. It decreases energy waste and almost completely processes household waste... The program also includes a plan to develop a number of settlement communities as a model for a new type of society, integrating humans with the biosphere. (The SEU Times, Issue10, January, 2000)

EcoDom may have useful application in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, following the hopefully early end of this renewed war. After all, both Russia and the United States bear enormous moral debts to the unfortunate Afghan people. In addition, the "EcoDom" approach can be a powerful weapon in the urgent campaign to "drain the swamp" of poverty, oppression, and despair in the Islamic world – conditions which breed terrorism. Thus we might look forward to the establishment of Eco Villages, not only in Afghanistan, but also in Palestine, then Iraq and Iran.

I urge these Russian innovators to teach us, and the world, how to live sustainably and at peace with our natural estate.

Wiser and more experienced individuals than I can surely add many exciting and productive joint projects to this list. But if these cooperative enterprises are to be projected and implemented, lines of communication must be extended and both our publics must expand the horizons of concern and understanding beyond their national borders. 

Conferences such as this serve such a purpose supremely well.


Technical Note:  Nuclear tests yield a "seismographic signature" that is unequivocally distinct from that of an earthquake. (Seismologists call this the "focal mechanism"). Because of the different velocity of "P-waves" (pressure waves) and "S-waves" (shear waves), a seismograph can detect the distance, and thus the magnitude, of an earthquake. Accordingly, three seismological stations are required to locate the event (at the intersection of the distances separately calculated by the stations). The initial pulse of a natural earthquake will move the station either toward or away from the epicenter, depending upon the station's location relative to the ruptured fault. That movement is indicated by either an upward or downward initial movement of the recording stylus in the seismogram. In a natural earthquake, one or two to the three stations will record that downward pulse. With a nuclear test, all initial pulses will be positive -- there will be no initial downward movement of the stylus.


Archambeau, Charles B., Verifying a Test Ban: "A New Approach to Monitoring Underground Nuclear Tests," Issues in Science and Technology, Winter, 1986, p. 18.

Broad, William J., "Westerners Reach Soviet to Check Atom Site," The New York Times, July 6, 1986.

Cochran, Thomas B (187)., "The NRDC/Soviet Academy of Sciences Joint Nuclear Test Ban Verification Project," Physics and Society, 16:3, July, 1987. P. 5.

Evernden, Jack F. (1988), "Lies that Stopped a Test Ban," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October, 1988. p. 20.

Garelik, Glenn, "The Grounds for a Test Ban Treaty," Discover, June, 1987. p.50.

Morrison, David C., "Test Ban Compliance: Is Seismology Enough," Science, v. 236, April 24, 1987, p. 383.

Office of Technology Assessment, Seismic Verification of Nuclear Testing Treaties, Congress of the United States, Government Printing Office, May, 1988.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .