Jul 1 1995

Limbaughesque Science

'Eco-Realism' Vs. Eco-Reality

“Earth Day alarmists had it wrong,” proclaimed conservative columnist Joseph Perkins of the San Diego Union in a pre-Earth Day commentary (5/1/95).

Drawing on a New Yorker article (3/10/95) written by veteran Newsweek writer Gregg Easterbrook, Perkins takes to task liberals and “greenies” for “grossly overstating the prospects of global warming, the threat of species extinction and the health risk of pesticides.”

“We have heard similar alarmist rhetoric on Earth Day,” wrote Perkins, a one-time aide to Dan Quayle. “The warnings of environmental calamity should be greeted with skepticism.”

Perkins is hardly alone in his use of Easterbrook’s work to denounce the environmental movement. Writing for Newsweek (3/10/95), Robert J. Samuelson asserts:

Easterbrook is a true environmentalist. He loves to hike and observe wildlife. But Easterbrook is also an acute reporter offended by ill-informed doomsayers. While environmentalists constantly discover a new ‘crisis,’ he finds dynamic progress and few impending calamities.

Since the publication of the New Yorker article and his recently released book, A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, described by one critic as “745 pages of feel-good optimism,” (Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, 3/13/95) Easterbrook’s work has become useful ammunition for media outlets, conservatives, corporate PR departments and lobbyists against attempts to strengthen the nation’s environmental laws.

But in spite of the conservatives’ embrace of his work, Easterbrook tries to appear objective in the environment debate and to distance himself from the likes of the late Dixy Lee Ray or Rush Limbaugh, criticizing both liberals and conservatives for what he sees as overzealousness.

“The left is afraid of the environmental good news because it undercuts stylish pessimism,” he writes in the New Yorker. “The right is afraid of the good news because it shows that governmental regulations might actually amount to something other than wickedness incarnate, and actually produce benefits at an affordable cost.” This pose of centrism has helped win his book wide acceptance among media pundits, who tend to think the truth is always somewhere in the middle.

Yet despite his willingness to give credit to environmentalists, Easterbrook’s conclusions are hardly distinguishable from the conservatives he criticizes. “Easterbrook comes across as a sophisticated Rush Limbaugh,” writes Peter Montague of the newsletter Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly (3/13/95).

Worse, critical examination of Easterbrook’s work reveals that many of these conclusions are based on dubious interpretations or even outright distortions. “Easterbrook’s labors on his word processor have scant relationship to the real world,” Ken Silverstein and Alexander Cockburn write in the newsletter CounterPunch (5/1/95).

In a recently released report entitled “A Moment of Truth: Correcting the Scientific Errors in Gregg Easterbrook’s A Moment on the Earth” (3/18/95), the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) points out several examples of Easterbrook’s Limbaughesque inaccuracies on the environment.

“Although some mistakes are inevitable given a work of this size, Easterbrook’s are so numerous and so one-sided in their minimization of the seriousness of environmental problems that they must be addressed,” said the authors of the report, which scrutinized four chapters from the book. “Moreover, he has included some assertions in his book after having been warned by technical experts that they were incorrect.”

Some of the errors and distortions found by these and other critics:

EASTERBROOK: “In February 1992 the Gallup Organization polled members of the American Geophysical Union and American Meteorological Society, the two professional groups for climatologists. Only 17 percent said warming trends so far convinced them an artificial greenhouse effect was in progress.” (p. 278)

REALITY: This “fact” (which echoes a claim made by the National Review, George Will and Limbaugh) was disavowed by Gallup: “67 percent of those scientists directly involved in global climate research say human-induced warming is now occurring,” the polling group said in a press release (San Francisco Chronicle, 9/27/92). Only 11 percent said that such warming was not occurring, while the remainder were undecided.

EASTERBROOK: “Scientific support for the notion of a drastic rise in sea level has waned rapidly…. The highest observed actual sea-level rise in this century is a mere one inch.” (p. 292)

REALITY: Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC one of the most respected scientific authorities on the subject of global warming, show that over the past 100 years, the global average sea level has risen by four to eight inches. This is “not a minor error,” EDF notes, “since, for example, this is large enough to have eroded over 40 feet of a typical barrier beach on the East Coast of the United States.”

EASTERBROOK: “No research has yet shown that industrial chlorine emissions cause any public health or general ecological harm.” (p. 414)

REALITY: A study by the International Commission on the Great Lakes, a group of U.S. and Canadian scientists, found that chlorine has a devastating effect on the ecological health of the Great Lakes. Other studies have linked chlorine-based chemicals to breast cancer (Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, 3/13/95).

EASTERBROOK: “Today’s standard is that chemicals are assumed dangerous, and must be elaborately tested before introduction, with the burden on the manufacturer to establish safety rather than on critics to establish threat.” (p. 231)

REALITY: According to the EPA, of the nearly 70,000 chemicals in commercial use today, only 1 percent have been fully tested for their effects. Seventy-five percent have no testing whatsoever, and 500 new chemicals are introduced each year, many with little testing. Often the burden of proving harm from toxins falls squarely on the shoulders of citizens (“Not just Prosperity,” National Wildlife Federation, 1994).

EASTERBROOK: “In the last decade, environmental litigators have pressured the Fish and Wildlife Service to list creatures at any sign of population decline, regardless of whether the decline appears to engage a threat of extinction. This means a common invocation of doomsday cant–and more creatures are being listed as endangered every day’–is deceptive, since the listings are based on increasingly lenient criteria and now may be registered even when a creature is numerous.” (pp. 567-568)

REALITY: “Most species are listed too late rather than too early to ensure their survival,” EDF reports. “According o a recent study, the median population size of an animal species at time of listing was just under 1,000–well below the level generally considered viable. For plant species, the median population size was fewer than 120 individuals, and 39 of these species were listed with ten or fewer known members.”

EASTERBROOK: “Environmental initiatives worked well even in their early years, when they were driven by top-heavv federal edicts. They work even better as new regulations have centered on market mechanisms and voluntary choice … [such as] a free-market program under which companies trade pollution ‘allowances’ with each other.” (New Yorker, 3/10/95)

REALITY: Pollution trading, instead of reducing pollution, merely transfers the problem from one area to another and promotes inequality. In the first pollution trade under the Clean Air Act in 1992, a company in Wisconsin traded its pollution credits to a company in Tennessee where the minority population was seven times the national average (The Nation, 9/10/92).

EASTERBROOK: “Many corporate types…are gradually abandoning the notion of adversarial relationships with environmental regulators” and demonstrating “respectful environmental behavior.” (p. 623)

REALITY: The present push in Congress toward radical environmental deregulation is being driven by corporate lobbyists. An ABC news investigation (World News Tonight, 6/11/95) recently found that many of the proposed changes in environmental regulations were copied directly from an industry lobbyist’s memo. One proposal is a non-enforceable agreement to permit industries to dump unlimited amounts of pollution into rivers if they promise to clean them up.

“What we are seeing is finger-to-the-wind journalism,” Bud Ward of the monthly newsletter Environment Writer told Extra!. “There is a very rich mother lode for journalists who are seen as challenging conventional wisdom.”

Indeed, Easterbrook joins a growing number of journalists who call themselves “eco-realist” or the “sky-is-not-falling movement,” which includes John Stossel of ABC News, Keith Schneider of the New York Times, and Boyce Rensberger of the Washington Post. These journalists, working for some of the most powerful news outlets in the country, have managed to construct an image of themselves as iconoclastic outsiders.

Schneider recently left the Times to head a Michigan land-use consulting firm, leaving Easterbrook as the most well-known print journalist in the “eco-realist” movement. The success of Easterbrook and others contributes to a climate already hostile to the environment, at a time when proposals are underway to gut the very laws and regulations that have contributed to the success in our environmental health that Easterbrook tells us to celebrate.

“Gregg Easterbrook has been an environmental writer for several years,” wrote Peter Montague (Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, 3/13/95).

He has traveled the world, gleaning first-hand information reported in this book. He has read hundreds of scientific studies and he spent five years preparing his manuscript. Yet he feels compelled to support his case by omissions, distortions and fabrications. What a sad waste of a talented writer.

Ron Nixon is an editor for Southern Exposure magazine who writes on environmental issues. The Environmental Defense Fund’s report on A Moment on the Earth is available from the group at 257 Park Ave. S., 16th Floor, New York, NY 10010.