Me po-faced? It's hard not to be when you look around

"Lighten up!" I knew my friend was trying to be constructive, but I couldn't let it lie.

"What the hell does that

mean?"

"Less outrage, more humour. You're funny in life, po-faced on the page."

"So what's your suggestion?"

"Lighten up on the issues," he offered again, infuriatingly.

"What? Treat serious subjects lightly and take the fluff seriously?"

"Yeah, start with that."

"You mean, heavy on the children and light on Chernobyl?"

At that point he zipped his lip.

Maybe it's not clear from this exchange but I thrive on dialogue. I'm in a business where it's vital, so my experience as a columnist has been quite bizarre. Dialogue? It barely exists. I hungrily eyeball other people's columns, dazzled by the brilliance and brevity of Hugo Young, the fluidity and ease of Beatrix Campbell, but I'm reliably informed that the lack of feedback is par for the course, whoever the columnist. There is the odd flurry of mail from academics when I've touched on someone's pet passion or peeve. Otherwise, it's friends and family chipping in with their tuppence worth. Viz this incitement to lighten up. The fact is nothing in my life is very funny at the moment. There are problems with The Body Shop in France that need immediate attention. The malls of America are imposing an anonymity on our business that is the polar opposite of everything we stand for. And my daughter Sam keeps insisting I get involved in things I have no knowledge of, and less time for, which leaves me feeling guilty. Plus the fact that anyone who has a regular platform like a newspaper column has a responsibility, to themselves as well as to their readers. Otherwise, it's just more bloody masturbation. Like many women my age, I'm at a point in my life where I'm reinventing myself. The cosiness of the nest-building years is well behind me, and something new and not cosy is kicking in. I've been through something of a media blitz this week and it's impossible to ignore the fact that the journalists I've been talking to are interested not in cosmetics but in the voice of dissent. If it's true that you are what you eat, I feel like I read with my gut as well, and I know my own appetite for print is best satisfied by almost anything published by the alternative press. That is where I find the kinds of questions and answers that are most relevant to the state we're in, and that's where a lot of the information I'm using in this column is coming from. Inspiring stuff, but there isn't always a hell of a lot of light there.

HERE'S an example from Yes! magazine. It would take one Haitian worker producing Disney dolls and clothes 166 years to earn as much as Disney President Michael Eisner makes in one day. And Eisner isn't even one of the seven richest men in the world, whose wealth, if they all clubbed together, would apparently be sufficient to sort out global poverty. Numbers can play tricks with your head, but at the root of these particular juxtapositions, there is once again something to do with a sense of proportion and responsibility. And there is nothing more essential for functioning in the modern world, whether you're an individual or a corporation. That's why tales of corporate irresponsibility so often turn out to be horror stories. The one we're all bit-players in has to do with the impact of toxic exposure on ordinary lives. The cocktail of chemicals we're exposed to daily from sources as diverse as plastic water bottles, pesticides, meat and industrial incinerators has raised the prospect that boys may be born infertile in 70 years' time. Does anyone stop to make those vital cause-and-effect connections? Scientists seem particularly reluctant to make any definitive link between environmental toxins and human health. One bright spark who did make the connection was still quite chipper about it. He tried to convince me that the human organism is so resilient it will simply mutate around anything it has trouble dealing with.

THAT kind of blind faith coupled with a bottom-line business-as-usual attitude makes for a deadly combination. I guess it kept doctors prescribing diethylstilboestrol, a synthetic hormone designed to prevent miscarriages, for 19 years after it was discovered high doses of DES, used to fatten livestock, caused health problems in workers. It was banned in the US in 1971, though it is prescribed today elsewhere despite the tragic evidence of its long-term effects on the women who took it and the babies they bore: severe infertility in DES sons and daughters; high-risk pregnancies and miscarriages in DES daughters; increased rate of testicular cancer in DES sons and a rare form of cervical cancer in DES daughters; and possible immune system damage in everyone it touched. DES is a dioxin, one of many in our environment. They work as "endocrine disrupters", which means they interfere with the proper function of the body's hormones. They're resilient and they travel well, so the output of an incinerator burning nerve gas supplies in Utah will end up who knows where? They store well in fatty tissue - an animal eats contaminated plants, bigger animals eat them, and so on. And guess who is at the top of the food chain? They are synergistic, which means that when one toxic chemical meets another, the impact may be more than the sum of its parts. So we've made the world a better place for these poisons. What I find morbidly fascinating is that we seem to be creating an environment in which it is increasingly difficult to breed successfully. And if you don't think that kind of death wish in an entire species is a wake-up call to action, then maybe lightening up is a perfectly legitimate response to the way of the world. I prefer to think that we can insist on accountability from the corporations that pollute our lives and we can make responsibility, both corporate and individual, the tenet of the future. And that's serious business.

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