CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A review of Trashing the Planet. By Dixy Lee Ray with Lou Guzzo.

Jun 20, 1991

Regnery Gateway, 1990.

When DDT was patented as an insecticide in 1939, it was welcomed as a much-needed substitute for the toxic insecticides then commonly in use – arsenic, mercury, fluorine and lead.

During World War II, DDT was discovered to kill body lice without adverse effect on humans. All Allied troops, therefore, made use of it, with the result that for the first time in the history of warfare, no Allied soldier was stricken with typhoid fever, which is carried by lice. (More soldiers died from typhus in World War I than from bullets.)

Soon thereafter DDT was being used against all insect-transmitted (and epidemic) diseases, such as yellow fever, encephalitis and malaria. The result was nothing short of miraculous. For example, in 1948, before the use of DDT, there were 2.8 million cases of malaria reported in Sri Lanka; in 1963 there were only 17.

Overuse of the pesticide, however, led to a small amount of DDT being detected in soil, water and animals. Over-reaction followed. Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) warned of the demise of all living creatures. As a result, DDT was banned in the US in 1972, despite objections from the scientific community. Much of the rest of the world stopped spraying as well. The result was cataclysmic: in the 1940s, 200 million people a year were stricken with malaria annually, with about two million deaths per year. By 1978 there were 800 million cases of malaria and 8.2 million deaths per year.

The story of DDT illustrates how many of the benefits of modern technology which we now enjoy are under threat by radical environmentalists and pseudo-scientists who are more interested in gaining political control than in pursuing scientific truth. Trashing the Planet is a lengthy elaboration of this theme of who speaks for science and its effect on public policy. Are environmental policies being set by sound science or by politicized special interest groups? The authors contend that genuine scientific knowledge concerning environmental issues is often buried beneath sensationalism, pessimism and sham-science. “There is clearly a dichotomy between what is known and understood by the mainstream body of scientific experts and what the public believes because of the information it gets.”

The deluge of gloom and doom-ism has led to a situation in America where, “despite all the evidence of our physical well-being beyond the dream of all previous generations, we seem to have become a nation of easily frightened people – the healthiest hypochondriacs in the world!”

How has this come about? Scientific information transmitted to the public is often skewed by journalists seeking to emphasise the sensational at the expense of the factual. False, exaggerated or misleading information is repeated often enough until it is accepted as gospel.

The media is not solely responsible for this. Sometimes scientists themselves overstate their case for greater impact. Said one proponent of the theory of CFC damage to the ozone layer, “We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

Besides media hype and shoddy science, a third fact which accounts for the distorted picture we have of environmental issues is the highly organized and influential environmental movement. Many environmentalists have dragged on board the extra baggage of ‘anti-ism’: anti-technology, anti-progress, anti-development and anti-capitalism. These back-to-nature, anti-technology environmentalists are deluding themselves, argue the authors. Nature is not benign, and left to itself it is often extremely destructive. “Without deliberate human intervention, nature would soon eradicate the world’s food producing capacity and unleash plagues of long forgotten virulence. Huge numbers of humans would suffer and die.”

Granted, technology and industry have not ushered in Utopia. “But it is most certainly true that in the industrialized, electricity-driven, technology-based world, people live longer and healthier lives, have greater relief from drudgery and hard manual labour, enjoy a greater share of goods and services, have more mobility, and enjoy more personal liberty than has ever before been experienced on earth. Given an average life expectancy that exceeds 75 years, we must be doing something right – junk food, nuclear waste, and all.”

Or as Robert Nisbet has put it, “It is hard to think of any given part of technology, any particular device, that does not by its very nature serve man. And this is as true of nuclear reactors as of electric lamps.”

But while the masses enjoy the benefits of technology, the intellectuals disdain it. “In the large literature on technology”, writes Nisbet , “the protagonist is almost invariably a master, not a servant. Where the people rejoiced in liberation or promised liberation from the back-breaking toil and drudgery of yore, minds as diversely constituted as Carlyle, Tocqueville, and Nietzsche could only lament the mechanization of the world and the degradation of the human body and mind that went with it.”

But the critics have been proven wrong. Few in the West would exchange the liberating benefits of technological life today for the demeaning, if not dehumanising, peasant-life of yesterday. Even Marx could complain of “the idiocy of rural life.”

Is technology then without any fault? Obviously not, and the authors deal with such problems as acid rain, global warming, pesticides, carcinogens, nuclear waste, asbestos, dioxins, etc., in meaty, fact-filled, albeit brief, chapters. They contend, contra the gloom-and-doom prophets, that these and other problems are not insurmountable, and that this planet is much more resilient and adaptable than is usually realised.

Trashing the Planet is a welcome antidote to the hysteria and disinformation which characterizes so much of the environment debate. Given that only a handful of the 200 or so books published on environmental themes each year share such a balanced, optimistic and clear-headed approach, this book is valuable reading indeed.

[974 words]

Leave a Reply