Battling the Wrong Paradigm
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)
Just as he fails to specify all of the assumptions of his “Ecological Paradigm,” Thornton fails to specify all of the elements of the paradigm that currently regulates manufacturing and protects human health and the environment. The current paradigm -- embattled and often thwarted though it is -- rests on four legs: free markets, private property, sound science, and risk-risk assessment.
Thornton doesn’t understand free markets at all, not the role and inspiration of entrepreneurs, not the sovereignty of consumers, and not the relationship between labor and capital. Rather than attempt to produce a mini-economics lesson here I will simply stipulate the point.
Also missing from Thornton’s Risk Paradigm is any understanding of the role played by private property rights in making manufacturers accountable for injury caused by their products. Thornton believes that in the absence of government regulation, manufacturers have no incentive to produce safe products and victims have no recourse, but this is plainly false. Manufacturers of faulty products will not for long have customers, and liability laws give victims legal remedies that include recovery of losses, punitive damages, and even legal orders to stop production. The tort system is designed to evolve over time to reflect new technologies and new information. If long-term and “subtle” damages are truly caused by chlorinated compounds, then the case will eventually be made in court and legal action will occur.
The sound science component of the current paradigm is at once more modest than Thornton suggests and more demanding. As I indicated in the discussion of the Precautionary Principle, it requires honest reporting of results, sound data collection techniques, sufficient sample sizes, and replicability. Abstract debate can and does take place over how hypotheses are formed and whether a scientist can ever conduct an experiment without influencing its subjects, but in the real worlds of technology and medicine, science as a practice goes on every day, gradually enlarging the body of facts and theories that are considered reliable and known. Too much of what passes for science in the environmental movement flunks these real world tests, with the result that untold billions of dollars are squandered pursuing nonexistent threats or real threats in inefficient ways.
The final leg of the current paradigm is risk-risk assessment. This is based on our knowledge that every decision and action involves some cost or risk that must be taken into consideration when proposing to regulate private activity or spend public resources. Requiring air bags in automobiles, for example, may lower the risks of some (adult) passengers but raise it for others (children), and by increasing the average price of a new car, the new regulation forces more people to hold onto their older and less safe vehicles. Money spent on child vaccinations and guard rails on highways are highly efficient investments, saving one life for about every $100,000 spent. Removing the last traces of atrazine and alachlor from drinking water, in contrast, costs an estimated $92 billion for every hypothetical life saved.
Numbers such as these make it clear that choices have to be made about what to regulate and on what to spend limited public resources. According to Harvard risk expert John Graham, thinking clearly about these choices could save 60,000 lives a year in the U.S., without spending any more than we already do on regulatory compliance or safety devises. Public policy ought to be guided by this kind of logic, not by newspaper headlines and the fundraising letters of environmental advocacy groups.
Current production and regulatory practices fall short of the four ideals contained in this paradigm; utopia is not an option. Advocates and critics constantly influence how markets, property rights, science, and risk-risk assessment are used to regulate production and protect human health and the environment. Judging from public health statistics in the U.S. and internationally, and comparing the state of humanity at the end of the 20th Century to, say, the end of the 19th or 18th, the model has been a huge success.
Marching to the Left
Most of us are pleased when the world’s leading scientists tell us age-adjusted cancer rates in the U.S. are falling (National Cancer Institute) and that pesticides and food additives are not a significant source of cancer risk (Doll and Peto). But not Thornton. Why is that?
Partly this is due to a conflict of interest. Greenpeace, Thornton’s employer before he entered graduate school to become more useful to his movement, features the cancer and pesticide scares in its direct mail campaigns. “Crises keep donations flowing to environmental advocacy groups,” says Ronald Bailey, a careful student of the environmental movement. “Without them, how could advocacy groups justify their pleas for donations?” Greenpeace alone cranked out a staggering 43 million direct mail letters in 1990.
Thornton, as mentioned before, also has an ideological agenda, which he generously shares with us throughout this book. Near the end of the book, in a chapter rather ominously titled “The Solution,” he calls for control of industry (all industry, not just the chlorine industry) (427-428) and universities (430) by workers councils and articulates the usual socialist shibboleths of why markets can’t work, why “efficiency” is unfair to workers, etc. He goes so far as to answer for us an updated version of the question often posed to Karl Marx: “Can we really expect nurses, machinists, housewives, and farmers to give meaningful perspectives on toxicology, epidemiology, and other subjects? This question I can answer with an unambiguous yes.” (430)
What I found especially remarkable about this little bit of soul-baring is how much of it could have been written with hardly a word changed in the 1930s, the “pink decade,” before the brutality of those actually implementing socialist ideas in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union became public knowledge. The same appeals to pre-capitalist nostalgia and misrepresentation of the rules of a free society are here, unchanged after half a century of experiences and learning.
It is still fashionable in environmentalist circles to be a socialist but to deny any sympathy with communists or fascists. But one can hardly miss the connection in Thornton’s writing. “In my view,” he writes, “progress is a meaningless concept unless it implies steps toward some specific end.” (406) Who chooses this end? Why, Joe Thornton, of course.
Thornton contrasts his view of progress first with the notion that “the sheer rate of [technological] change” is the only measure of success, and then with “a lost man wandering randomly through the desert.” (406) This is sheer nonsense. No one asserts that change for the sake of change is to be valued. Individuals can and do have plans which they can act on, with or without the oversight and approval of Thornton or his imagined totalitarian alter ego.
The real alternative to Thornton’s nightmare is individual freedom: free men and women coming together voluntarily under the rule of law to make products and build a better and safer world for themselves and, of course, future generations. It is a sad commentary on the modern environmental movement that many readers will find attractive the old utopian hope for a pre- or post-capitalist civilization, and never glimpse the bodies -- over 164 million by one count -- of the victims of totalitarian dictators who mouthed similar platitudes a generation ago.
Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism.