Monday, May 19, 2014

Environmentalism at Wit’s End, Part I

By Joseph L. Bast February 19, 2000
A review of Joe Thornton, Pandora’s Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy (MIT Press, 2000)

In the topsy-turvy world of Greenpeace, man-made chlorine-based chemicals “raise the specter of rising rates of infectious disease and cancer, infertility, changed behavior, reduced intellectual ability, and the decimation of wildlife species.” (105)

You and I live in a very different world, one in which the chlorination of water saves millions of lives each year, age-adjusted cancer rates are falling, fertility rates are highest in those countries where exposure to pesticides is most likely and least regulated, achievement tests must be continuously renormed to account for rising levels of infant intelligence, and where once endangered species such as the peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and brown pelican have been or are about to be moved off the endangered species list.

Greenpeace activists believe you and I are being duped on all these matters by scientists and bureaucrats who are getting rich (or at least gaining status) by covering the tracks of greedy corporations. They have the “leaked memos” and “public relations reports” to prove it. (326-328)  Greenpeace, it seems, has never met a scientist working for the Environmental Protection Agency or some other government bureaucracy who sought to protect his or her job by exaggerating a health risk or proposing to ban a new chemical regardless of its potential benefit to society.

Joe Thornton’s new book, Pandora’s Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy, is the latest volley in Greenpeace’s campaign to ban . . . err, I mean to “sunset” . . . the commercial use of chlorine. It provides a look inside the left-wing environmental movement at the beginning of the 21st century, a time when not just public sentiment and politics are moving decisively away from anti-capitalist utopias, but the long-expected ecological collapse of the world is growing more distant as well. It also has a thing or two to teach us about chlorine.

Mr. Thornton’s Problem

Joe Thornton has a problem. The conventional tools of toxicology and epidemiology -- what he calls the “Risk Paradigm” -- fail to document his claim that man-made chemicals are causing “a stunning array of health effects,” “pose a long-term threat to the health of humans and wildlife,” and so on. (viii) He knows this because of the very poor reception given to a recent book, titled Our Stolen Future, written by Theo Colborn, another Greenpeace staffer, who alleged the same “stunning array of health effects” and claimed to have met the standards of proof demanded by the scientific community. In truth, she hadn’t. (It is telling that Ms. Colborn is acknowledged in the preface of this new book but then not mentioned at all in the 400 and some odd pages that follow.)

Ms. Colborn got her ears pinned back, so to speak, by industry (in the form of a long report from CanTox), government (EPA concluded that “additional research” is required) and even the media (the New York Times pointed out that “there is a difference between a hypothesis and convincing evidence.”) (107) As far as public health scares go, this one was a dud.

Mr. Thornton takes a bold new tact. He admits that “epidemiology has never conclusively linked background exposures [of organochlorides] to public health damage” and “science will never be able to do so as long as the standard is direct and conclusive evidence.” (110) But this only means the rules are wrong, not that the evidence is inadequate. The current approach is “utterly ill suited to addressing the long-term global health threat that organochlorines posed,” he writes. (8) Its insistence that cause and effect relationships be proven and that there are thresholds below which exposure does not cause permanent physical harm are not scientific principles at all, he says, merely “artifacts of science’s limits.” (107)

Mr. Thornton’s critique of science could have stopped here, but he goes much farther than this. He accuses scientists of having a stake in defending the obsolete paradigm since they draw status and political power from being the ones who decide what levels of exposure are safe and what are not. (97) Often, he says, there are financial rewards for those willing to sell out and defend industry. (99). At several places in this book, Thornton makes references to the “sociology of science” to claim there are no real objective truths in science, that everything is run through cultural “filters” that limit what questions are asked and where scientists should look for problems and solutions. (98, 330)

This attack on the credibility of scientists isn’t new -- attempting to “deconstruct” science dates back to the 1930s and is an important part of the “post-modernism” fad dominating most college English and sociology departments today. Still, its presence in this book is a bit jarring and unexpected to readers who thought they were reading a book that takes scientific arguments seriously, even if it may be somewhat outside the bounds of conventional science. But this tactic is quite familiar to those who follow the battles between economists and Marxists, a fight that began two generations ago and continues to this day.

Unable to win the debate on the economists’ terms, European Marxists during the 1920s and 1930s sought instead to undermine the credibility of economics by attributing its principles and assumptions to class bias. If this were true, there could be a “bourgeoisie economics” and a “proletarian economics,” each reflecting the interests and experiences of their respective classes. In response, a group of Austrian economists (most notably Ludwig von Mises) staked out an epistemology of economics they thought would be immune to the Marxist critique. While not all of Mises’ elaborate deductive system has been accepted into mainstream economics, history has been kind to the Austrians. Its subjective theory of values decisively defeated the antiquated Marxist labor theory of value and is still widely accepted. “Marxist economics” today is viewed as an oxymoron in most economics departments.

Thornton attempts to deconstruct science for the same reason Marxists tried to deconstruct economics: It is a sign of desperation, since it implies that the battle to persuade scientists on their own terms has been lost. This in fact appears to be the case, since anti-market environmentalists have fought a losing battle against a growing list of authors -- starting with Dixy Lee Ray and including Julian Simon, Alston Chase, Gregg Easterbrook, Michael Fumento, and most recently Peter Huber -- who have trashed their paradigm and begun to erect a new one based on sound science, markets, property rights, and risk assessment.
Environmentalists who cling to the old views, like Thornton, either make increasingly implausible arguments for their view, or like the rioters in Seattle give up on rational debate altogether and break windows and set fires to get attention. Attacking the credibility of scientists is the literary equivalent of setting fires.

(Part II will follow)

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism.

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