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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"Life Will Find A Way to Survive": An Interview With Ecofeminist Rosalie Bertell

Rosalie Bertell, born in 1929, is a dual Canadian/US citizen, Roman Catholic nun, and endorser of the Consistent Life mission statement. A controversial but persevering ecofeminist, she works on healing and preventing global environmental disasters with a focus on “making the victims visible.” In 1986 she received the Right Livelihood Award, also called the “alternative Nobel Prize.” She is founder and past longtime director of the Toronto, Canada-based International Institute of Concern for Public Health. This nonprofit collaborates with impoverished people and communites of color devastated by radiation or chemical pollution.

Disclaimer: The views that Rosalie expresses are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the IICPH, nor those of her religious order, the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.

MARYSIA: Please tell us a bit about yourself.

ROSALIE: My training and experience includes a Ph.d. in environmental epidemiology, and about 40 years of experience in international community health issues. I am retired, but still writing about the toxic exposures of the Gulf War veterans, the people living in Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and the community disasters in the Pacific Islands, Bhopal, and Chernobyl.

MARYSIA: I've heard the nuclear threat--still a threat-- described as "planetary abortion." And global environmental destruction as "eco-abortion." In what ways do these forms of violence relate to the despair and suffering of a woman who feels she has no choice but to end her pregnancy? And to the fact that every year, millions of women and unborn children worldwide--even in such a materially wealthy nation as the US--end up in such a dire place?

ROSALIE: It has always touched my heart that women in the Nazi death camps and starving women in war-torn Africa give birth to babies and retain their hope in the future. While in affluent countries, giving birth is no longer a sacred trust with the future, but an intolerable burden for many! I do not think that women and natural mothering impulses have changed. Rather, it is our cultural and environmental surroundings which have changed.

MARYSIA: What are some of these changes?

ROSALIE: Since the early 1940s, the load of toxins and radiochemicals in the environment has increased steadily, and more and more children are born with congenital malformations and diseases. Asthma, autism, attention deficit, and other disabilities have become commonplace, making parenting more difficult.

Our culture scorns children who are “different,” for example, those who are hormonally disadvantaged. Although I have seen feminized fish, birds, and wild animals around the Great Lakes…homosexuality is considered by many fundamentalists to be “sinful.” Homosexual or bisexual children have a difficult time in our culture and even in their own birth family.

MARYSIA: Yes, the mistreatment of Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgendered people is a huge injustice. But are you saying that LGBT people are somehow "hormonally disadvantaged" from, for example, endocrine disruptor compounds? There were plenty of LGBT people long, long before any chemist dreamed up those compounds and unleashed them on the global environment.

We do not yet really know why one child is born heterosexual and the next person is born LGB or T. If it appears that LGBT people are more numerous now, it's probably because, despite continued discrimination, it's safer to be out and visible, now more than ever, at least in Canada, the US, and a few other nations.

Maybe this kind of human variability is something natural, inborn, and socially valuable in its own right. Edward Carpenter, a late 19th century/early 20th century ecofeminist and a gay man himself, predicted a time when LGBT people would take honored roles in the overall societal responsibility to care for children. Maybe this is the transformation that is struggling to be born right now?

ROSALIE: I think that there must be a "normal curve" of sexual behaviour – with people finding themselves somewhere along this curve either at one extreme or the other, with most people near to the middle of the curve. I think that endocrine disruptors are causing the curve to change from normal to an abnormal shape, perhaps at both extremes of this curve. No individual can be judged as having normally occurring sexual preferences or chemically/radio-chemically caused preferences.

The Bible does not condemn gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transsexuals. If you read the texts carefully, you will see that it only condemns "abnormal" sexual behaviour. If it is normal for one to be the way he or she is, then I believe it is permissible - barring of course violence to another person.

This seems to me to be a great problem of the churches which needs to be understood from God's point of view. If God indeed produces a whole range of sexual characteristics, they are "good" and "useful" in God's plan for the earth community of life. For humans to assume the right to change people's sexual orientation either by chemical or radioactive exposures is then very wrong to do. However, the wrong is on the polluter not the victim.

Irish families always had aunts and uncles who did not marry, but they were very involved with helping their siblings with the children, caring for parents, serving in the Church or social ministry, etc. They always led socially fruitful lives. I do not believe in selfish choices of lifestyle because it diminishes the person to choose to be selfish.

MARYSIA: Please say more about the environmentally related rise in children with disabilities.

ROSALIE: There are increasing problems on this, which is not yet openly faced, but running under the mental radar. I also think that the prolife groups have missed the issue of the right to bear healthy children. There are many barren couples who have been affected by radiation (nuclear fallout, local nuclear facilities, or even medical x-ray) and they are either unable to bear children or to bear healthy children. This is a violation of a very fundamental human right.

Surviving children of radiation- and toxic chemically- polluted parents are less able to cope with ordinary life on this planet, our home. We are also polluting the planet with more and more toxic chemical and radioactive waste dumps. Since they will have more to cope than my generation had to cope with, this is a fatally deteriorating problem which could eventually end in species extinction and maybe omnicide for all life.

MARYSIA: You've said, in the context of effective nonviolent actions for peace: "Life is stronger than death." What are some of the things that "ordinary" global citizens might possibly do to help afflicted pregnant women tap into that power of life, for themselves as well as their children?

ROSALIE: “Life” is communal, and strong communities can help us to have hope in the future and to free ourselves from the addiction to violent solutions of all of our problems in life. Abortion is a violent solution to such a problem.

Since the 1960s, we have been able to remove an embryo from one mammal and place it in the womb of another mammal. For example, a herd of cow embryos could be sent to Africa from the US in the wombs of a few rabbits, and then reimplanted in African cows.

This would also work for people, but the social implications of this seem insurmountable. We could together work out ways to preserve the life of the embryo/fetus and the reputation/economic viability of the mother.

On the Pacific Islands, babies belong to a family and not essentially to the birthparents (although they know their birthparents). There is no such thing as an illegitimate birth. Even young married couples give their first baby to the bride’s parents and their second to the groom’s parents. “Every home should have a child” is their social philosophy.

A friend of mine lost a teenage daughter to leukemia in French Polynesia, and at the wake, two local Polynesian families gave her and her husband two healthy babies, a boy and a girl. She was overwhelmed with both the grief and the joy of those babies. They brought the children up, knowing that these children were a special bond with the Polynesian people and especially the families who gave them the children. The girl is now a local medical doctor, having studied in California, while the boy is a successful technician at a local automobile shop.

Children are a right and a privilege; they belong to the community and have the potential of drawing families closer together. Yet the Pacific Islanders also realize that their islands have a “carrying capacity,” food in an amount which will sustain just so much life, and they stay within that capacity. This too is a community sense of what is ethical and helpful for survival.

We, as a North American community, seem to have lost these skills. I believe that they are dormant and could be revived as we change our social philosophy! We need to understand ourselves as part of our bioregion, and not as separate from nature and somehow licensed to exploit it!

MARYSIA: Anything else you feel is vital to say here?

ROSALIE: I think it is important to see ourselves as recipients of a beautiful and health giving planet. We need to use seeds with gratitude and humility, as a precious and valuable gift. We are currently in North America consuming about four times our share of the global commons, while Europe is consuming twice their share and many nations are living well below their fair share. We need to think more globally and understand that we can find ways to share and still maintain a livable lifestyle.

One such way is to stop wars altogether. Women have a special power to break this “patriotic” mindset. Wars destroy the planet with its wealth of resources, and the human infrastructure necessary for life. Wars do remove people from the planet in large enough numbers to make sharing easier, but they rarely result in anything other than gluttony and hoarding—which, of course, leads to more wars over scarce resources. This is stupid and not in any way “patriotic”!

MARYSIA: Yes..women can call on the power it takes to bear and nurse life to resist violence against their own children--starting in the womb, but not stopping there. And women need and deserve our collective help in resisting violence before and after birth...Now there's a positive reframing of "patriotic duty"! The whole mentality of "Don't have an abortion; we need your cannon fodder” is really one of disrespect for life at all stages.

ROSALIE: I agree, and believe that women must stop glorifying war and giving their sons and daughters to this war machine!

MARYSIA: And there is much anyone, anywhere can do…for instance…

ROSALIE: One can give time to learning about conflict resolution, conscientious objection to war, nonviolent protests, and what is called active nonviolence. It is difficult and countercultural but necessary to save our human race, our living environment, and our planet home.

People can put their own skills, knowledge, and opportunities together to make a difference for life. In this way, life will find a way to survive. She has always done this in surprising ways!

MARYSIA: We can only hope your prayer will be answered. Thank you very much.

If you want to learn more, there are many books by or about Rosalie Bertell. They include Dr. Mary-Louise Engel’s print biography Rosalie Bertell: Scientist, Eco-Feminist, Visionary from the Women’s Press “Women Who Rock” series.

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