ENVIRONMENT / Peter Montague:
How they lie
For the past 25 years, bad news has been reported again and again by the
scientific community worldwide. Ozone depletion. Global warming. Certain
cancers increasing. Dioxin and PCBs from industrial sources now found everywhere,
including remote Pacific islands. Tuberculosis and other diseases re-emerging.
Birth defects rising. Loss of species accelerating. Youthful suicides increasing.
Common pesticides now thought to interfere with our sex hormones. A large
number of countries growing poorer instead of richer. And on and on. You
know the litany. It's depressing.
Now however, as you might expect from the most creative economy the world
has ever known, a new industry has emerged to turn a profit from all this
bad news. You could call it the Good News industry. Young writers are pumping
out magazine articles and fat books claiming that these problems have all
been dreamed up by hungry environmentalists who can't see beyond their next
direct-mail funding appeal.
Indeed, the main message of the Good News industry is that none of these
problems are very serious, if they exist at all. According to this industry's
pundits, all these problems have been exaggerated, or even manufactured
out of whole cloth, by out-of-work environmentalists desperate for a handout.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute,
the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Reason Foundation,
The American Freedom Coalition, and the Pacific Research Institute for Public
Policy (among others) now have scholar-in-residence programs staffed mainly
by former government officials. These former bureaucrats spend their days
arguing that all is well with the world and that things could get even better
- indeed, a shining path of infinite progress would unfold before our very
eyes - if we would only come to our senses and get government off the backs
The unspoken belief that all government is harmful and that corporations
are a boundless good - a kind of corporate libertarianism - is the thread
that weaves all these groups and writers together. Naturally, this Good
News industry is generously supported by donations from the likes of DuPont,
Chevron, Mobil, Monsanto, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, General
Electric, General Dynamics, Philip Morris, Chemical Bank, Texaco, Westinghouse,
the Western Coal Council, and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, among many others,
because it serves their interests perfectly, creating just enough doubt
to deflect discussion of the need for real reforms.
The Good News industry wasn't created by the New York Times. The Times merely
made it respectable and lent it a certain cachet. The industry (at least
its current surge) has its roots in the books of Dixie Lee Ray, former head
of the Atomic Energy Commission, who wrote Trashing the Planet in 1990 and
Environmental Overkill in 1993, the same year Elizabeth Whelan published
Toxic Terror: The Truth Behind the Cancer Scare and Michael Fumento published
Science Under Siege. In those early days the industry had a definite crackpot
tinge to it. The dust jackets of Dixie Lee Ray's books carried glowing endorsements
from Rush Limbaugh, Edward Teller (inventor of the hoaxey "star wars"
missile defense system), and Margaret Maxey, who seems to have coined the
phrase, "environmental terrorism."
Parts of the industry have been unable to shake their crackpot roots entirely.
Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute in 1995 published Saving the Planet
with Pesticides and Plastic. Despite such lapses, the Good News industry
has matured considerably in recent years, chiefly because a stable of writers
at the Times (and more recently the Washington Post and Newsweek) have worked
hard to legitimize it and gave it a tony air.
So far as we can tell, at the Times the intellectual roots of the Good News
industry go no deeper than Keith Schneider's 1991 attempt to rehabilitate
dioxin. At that time, dioxin was known to be one of the 2 or 3 most toxic
chemicals ever discovered, but Schneider wrote in 1991 that "some experts"
(unnamed) "now consider exposure to dioxin no more dangerous than spending
a week in the sun." This declaration made Schneider famous within the
environmental community, but, more importantly, within the anti-environmental
community as well.
In 1993, in the Times' news columns, Schneider boldly attacked many of the
nation's environmental programs as an unnecessary and shameful waste. Shortly
after that, Schneider began appearing as a speaker at industry-organized
panels and symposia around the country, lecturing on the need for journalists
to give credence to arguments that a damaged ozone layer and global warming
weren't real problems. Suddenly it was apparent that Good News anti-environment
writing was a rewarding business. Now that Schneider has retired to a more
honest, earthy life in Michigan, Times writers Jane Brody, Gina Kolata and
John Tierney are working overtime to fill his tiny shoes.
In 1995, Newsweek writer Gregg Easterbrook published A Moment on the Earth,
a 900-page book that contains nearly as many factual and conceptual errors
as it has pages, but which appears convincing to naive readers because it
is jammed with statistics. Easterbrook's star has now fully risen in the
firmament of the petrochemical and nuclear industries, which quote him regularly.
The grandfather of the modern Good News industry is economist Julian Simon.
Simon is best known for his creative arguments that material resources such
as copper and oil are infinite, and that running out of them is nothing
to worry about. In his 1981 book, The Ultimate Resource, Simon wrote, "The
length of a one-inch line is finite in the sense that it is bounded at both
ends. But the line within the endpoints contains an infinite number of points;
these points cannot be counted because they have no defined size. Therefore,
the number of points in that one-inch segment is not finite. Similarly,
the quantity of copper that will ever be available to us is not finite,
because there is no method (even in principle) of making an appropriate
count of it." (pg. 47)
In an interview with William F. Buckley Jr. in 1982 Simon said, "You
see, in the end copper and oil come out of our minds. That's really where
they are," he said. In 1995, Simon expanded his vision to include all
of the world's problems, which he declared essentially solved when he edited
the encylopedic State of Humanity.
By now, a pattern has become apparent in the work of the Good News industry.
Consistent themes and techniques have emerged. Simon's State of Humanity
demonstrates them all.
Technique 1. Argue in great detail about three or four points where data
and reasoning allow you to make a good case, meanwhile don't mention the
really big point that undermines your entire thesis.
Example: In Simon's State of Humanity (pgs. 576-587), Bernard Cohen argues
that nuclear power is an ideal way to generate electricity. He insists that
routine radiation releases are nothing to worry about, nuclear power plant
accidents are a trivial concern, and radioactive waste is a non-problem.
Even if one conceded all these points, Cohen's argument for nuclear power
would still not be persuasive because he fails to discuss the Achilles heel
of nuclear technology: weapons proliferation. Spreading nuclear power plants
around the globe puts nuclear weaponry within reach of countries and groups
(and, conceivably, even individuals) who will certainly be tempted to use
it for nefarious purposes.
Terrorism is with us. Nuclear terrorism cannot be too far over the horizon
if we continue to spread civilian nuclear technology across the planet.
Therefore, nuclear power is inherently dangerous and anti-social because
it creates a whole new class of problems beyond anyone's control.
Given that corporations are working aggressively, and successfully, to weaken
both national governments AND international controls (NAFTA and GATT are
good examples), it is impossible to even CONCEIVE of a global social system
that could control the problem of weapons proliferation from nuclear power
plants. The only solution is prevention: stop making nuclear power plants.
But Bernard Cohen (and Julian Simon) ignore the proliferation problem entirely
because it is fatal to their thesis.
Technique 2. If the truth is inconvenient, make up new facts to support
your argument. In Simon's 1995 tome (pgs. 595-596), Elizabeth Whelan retells
the story of Alar, simply re-writing history and apparently making up details
to suit her purposes. Alar was a chemical sprayed on apples starting in
1968 to make them stay on the tree longer and ripen, rather than fall off.
In use, Alar breaks down to a byproduct called UDMH. The first study showing
that UDMH can cause cancer was published in 1973. Further studies published
in 1977, 1978, and 1984 confirmed that Alar or UDMH caused tumors in laboratory
animals. EPA opened an investigation of Alar's hazards in 1980, but shelved
the investigation after a closed meeting with Alar's manufacturer, Uniroyal.
In 1984, EPA re-opened its investigation of Alar. In 1985, EPA concluded
that both Alar and UDMH were "probable human carcinogens." However,
buckling to pressure from Uniroyal, EPA allowed Alar to stay on the market.
In 1989, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted a media campaign
against Alar. As a result, apple growers voluntarily stopped using Alar
and have continued to grow apples profitably without Alar ever since.
Some apple growers lost considerable sums in 1989 because many people stopped
buying apples. Failure to consult with growers before launching the media
campaign represented a major political blunder by NRDC, but the science
behind their campaign was sound.
Whelan: "The EPA's experts did not think Alar posed a threat to human
Actual fact: Not only did EPA's Carcinogen Assessment Group label Alar a
"probable human carcinogen" but the U.S. National Toxicology Program
(NTP), representing 10 federal agencies, and the International Agency for
Research on Cancer (IARC) concurred in EPA's judgment. Several weeks before
NRDC began its media campaign, EPA sent a letter to Alar-using apple growers,
saying, "risk estimates based on the best available information at
this time raise serious concern about the safety of continued, long-term
exposure." EPA's letter estimated that 50 out of every million adults
exposed to Alar long-term would get cancer from it, and that the danger
to children was even greater. Whelan (and Simon) simply ignore all these
As the New York Times said in an editorial July 19, 1996: "If journalists
lie or publications knowingly publish deceptively incomplete stories, then
readers who become aware of the deception will ever after ask the most damaging
of all questions: How do I know you are telling me the whole truth as best
you can determine it THIS TIME?"
Peter Montague is editor of RACHEL's Environment and Health Weekly, from
which this is adapted. It is published by the Environmental Research Foundation,
P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036; internet: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Montague also is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO.
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