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The Planet Doctor : Helen Caldicott will receive the Norman Cousins Award from Physicians for Social Responsibility next week.

March 26, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I'm very optimistic," Dr. Helen Caldicott, the anti-nuclear activist turned environmentalist, said during an interview in connection with an awards event in Thousand Oaks on Tuesday. "We don't have to overcome the old conditioning about hating the Commies. People don't hate the environment. Everyone loves nature. So it's easier to say, 'Let's talk.' "

This let's-talk approach characterized the lobbying effort of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Boston-based organization that Caldicott formerly headed. The group won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

This year, the Ventura County chapter of PSR has set up an awards program named after the late Norman Cousins, the distinguished man of letters and UCLA Medical School professor. This awards event is an outgrowth of the group's annual Student Peace Ambassador essay contest, at which Cousins was the keynote speaker in 1988.

The new ceremony will be held at Cal Lutheran University next week, with Caldicott as its first laureate. The public is invited.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is a nonpartisan organization whose goal is to educate the medical community and the public about the health dangers posed by the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the nuclear arms race and global environmental deterioration.

When the 150-member local group selected Caldicott, the Australian pediatrician and author, they were hopeful but realistic about the prospect of her coming to accept the award. A former permanent resident of the United States, she now visits only a few times a year from her 80-acre farm.

But, by coincidence, the invitation reached her just as her publisher, W. W. Norton of New York, was looking for a suitable way to begin a book tour to promote her latest work, "If You Love This Planet: A Plan to Heal the Earth."

Caldicott's plan to heal the planet has to do with overcoming what she calls "denial" about such things as the ozone hole and global warming, and getting right to work fixing them.

"The money's there," she says, referring to the prospect of using funds formerly devoted to armaments. In her book, she suggests "as a matter of urgency" that the United States redirect its Department of Energy by splitting it into three parts. The division would be, she said, more reflective of today's needs.

In her scenario, there would be a nuclear weapons department, to dismantle the stockpile that has built up. A nuclear waste department would clean up the radioactive mess we have made in places like Ohio and Hanford, Wash. And an energy department would develop safe and clean ways to preserve our lifestyle. Currently, she pointed out, the Department of Energy's cash still goes into making weapons and almost nothing is allocated for clean fuel.

Such ideas now seem quite mainstream. But there was a time 10 years ago when Caldicott's anti-nuclear views, recorded in the Oscar-winning documentary film "If You Love This Planet," were irritating to Americans. The Justice Department designated her observations as "political propaganda" and put severe restrictions on distribution of the film in the United States. After all, the title of her 1984 best-selling anti-nuclear book is "Missile Envy."

Lest anyone think that Caldicott's environmentalism or feminism has dulled with the passage of time, a look at a few aspects of her new "Plan" might revive old fears about her, at least among the male political Establishment.

"If the composition of Congress were altered by a constitutional amendment mandating that half of the members of Congress be women," Caldicott writes, "the world would be a very different place."

Caldicott is willing to do her part in this respect. She ran for Parliament in her native country and lost by only a small margin.

She'll be running again, she said, in the next election.

* FYI

* Ventura County Physicians for Social Responsibility will present the 1992 Norman Cousins Award to Dr. Helen Caldicott at 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Samuelson Chapel at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. Admission is $12, $6 students. Tickets can be obtained by calling Marian Totheroh at 525-3792.

* "If You Love This Planet: A Plan to Heal the Earth" by Helen Caldicott M.D. (W. W. Norton, $10.95) is available at local bookstores.

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