Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Environmental "Good News" Industry

by Peter Montague

Profit from all this bad enviro news

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. Youth suicides increasing. Common pesticides now thought to interfere with our sex hormones. A large number of countries growing poorer instead of richer.

Now, however, a new industry has emerged in the United States 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.

In those early days the industry had a definite crackpot tinge to it

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 programmes 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 if we would only come to our senses and get government off the backs of corporations.

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 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 Reverend Sun Myung Moon, among many others.

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 hoaxy 'star wars' missile defence system) and Margaret Maxey, who seems to have coined the phrase 'environmental terrorism'.

Suddenly it was apparent that anti-environment writing was a rewarding business

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 legitimise it.

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 two or three 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'.

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-organised panels and symposia, 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 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.

The grandfather of the modern good news industry is economist Julian Simon. Simon is best known for his creative arguments showing that material resources such as copper and oil are infinite.

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.' 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.'

In 1995, Simon expanded his vision to include all of the world's problems, which he declared essentially solved when he edited State of Humanity.

Monsanto Corporation wanted to rehabilitiate its image after polluting every square metre of the planet

By now, a pattern has become apparent in the work of the good news industry. Technique 1 is to argue in great detail about three or four points where data and reasoning allow you to make a good case, while not mentioning the really big point that undermines your entire thesis.

Technique 2: If the truth is inconvenient, make up new 'facts'. In Simon's 1995 tome, Elizabeth Whelan retells the story of Alar, simply rewriting history and 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. In use, Alar breaks down to a by-product 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 tumours in laboratory animals. In 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that both Alar and UDMH were 'probable human carcinogens'.

Whelan: 'The EPA's experts did not think Alar posed a threat to human health.'

Serving the interests of the poisoners is straightforward. For example, in the 1980s, Monsanto Corporation got a bad name for polluting every square metre of the planet with noxious PCBs, dioxin and harmful pesticides. To rehabilitate its image, Monsanto announced that it is cutting its toxic waste emissions 90%, at the same time donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to support libertarian anti-environmental propagandists like Elizabeth Whelan.

Whelan has made herself famous defending Monsanto's products such as PCBs, the cancer-causing herbicide 2,4,5-T, the artificial sweetener Nutrasweet, and the company's genetically engineered hormone, rBGH, which is now being added to much of the USA's milk supply.

Monsanto has quietly developed an entirely new line of genetically engineerd creations, products it has begun to broadcast directly into the environment while denying that any harm will ensue. The pledge to cut its toxic wastes 90% is long overdue, but is also beside the point. It is this firm's products, not its wastes, that have covered the earth with poisons and soon will disrupt the planet's ecosystems with genetically finagled forms of life.

On 30 June 1996, New York Times staff writer John Tierney made the front cover of the Sunday Times Magazine with the catchy title, 'Recycling is Garbage'. Tierney's section on plastic could have been written by the Chemical Manufacturers Association or the American Plastics Council: 'Plastic packaging and fast-food containers may seem wasteful, but they actually save resources and reduce trash. The typical household in Mexico City buys fewer packaged goods than an American household, but it produces one-third more garbage, chiefly because Mexicans buy fresh foods in bulk and throw away large portions that are unused, spoiled, or stale.'

Tierney forgets to mention that spoiled or stale foods, when thrown away, harm no one. The earth reabsorbs them and turns them back into nutrients for the next generation of plants. Plastics are an entirely different story.

Because plastics degrade so slowly (some will take an estimated 400 years to disappear, even in bright sunlight), the world's surface is becoming littered with plastic bottles, wrappers, lids, rope, cigarette lighters, six-pack rings, jugs, gloves, caps, sheets, bags, sponges, boxes, handles, knobs, toys and so on.

Not only are plastics making the entire world resemble a huge, ill-kept garbage dump, but plastics in the oceans also pose life-and-death challenges to turtles, birds, mammals and fish. No ocean waters are exempt.

Plastics are a major source of dioxins, perhaps the major source. And of course medical researchers have identified clusters of disease in humans living near the petrochemical plants where plastics are manufactured. Recently, it has been learned that many plastic products exude chemicals that disrupt the hormones of reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish and mammals, including humans.

To prevent toxic leaks, we would have to repeal the second law of thermodynamics

Good news writers can't pass up an opportunity to rewrite history. For example, Tierney says, 'Today's landfills ... contain small amounts of hazardous wastes, like lead and mercury, but studies have found that these poisons stay trapped inside the mass of garbage even in the old, unlined dumps that were built before today's stringent regulations.'

This would be a powerful argument for getting government off the backs of the dumpers, if it were true. But it's not. The US Superfund list of contaminated sites contains 184 municipal solid waste landfills, all leaking dangerously. Municipal dumps contain 1-2% legally hazardous chemicals, but 1% of a huge quantity of waste represents a substantial danger. And all evidence indicates that landfills eventually leak their toxic contents into the surrounding environment. To prevent toxic wastes from leaking out of municipal dumps, we would have to repeal the second law of thermodynamics.

As the New York Times said in an editorial on 19 July 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?'

[Editor's note: This commentary originally appeared Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly, published by the Environmental Research Foundation. Peter last wrote on this topic in "The State of Humanity," which appeared in an earlier edition of the Monitor]

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Albion Monitor November 6, 1996 (

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