Environmental Disaster | Letters | Chicago Reader

Environmental Disaster 

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Dear Editor:

In the course of my activities since 1981 as a Sierra Club volunteer, I have met Harold Henderson on several occasions and past Reader articles by Henderson demonstrate that he has a deep understanding of a number of environmental problems. I was surprised, then, to see Henderson at least apparently endorse fundamentally flawed views advanced in three books he reviewed which attack the alleged excesses of environmentalists ("Environment: The Manufactured Crisis," September 16).

To be sure, the book authors are correct with regard to certain of the specific issues they discuss. But three basic views advanced in Henderson's article are misguided. First, after citing a series of isolated "comforting" facts which Henderson admits are "inconclusive," Henderson uncritically relates the position of one of the reviewed books that environmentalists are manufacturing crises to scare policymakers into trying to solve problems which have not been proven to exist. But the book's authors are in effect arguing that one should wait until it can be proven scientifically that one has lung cancer to stop smoking. In fact, it is wise to take reasonable steps to lessen the threat of an environmental disaster if there is a significant risk it will occur. There is at a minimum a broad scientific consensus with regard to the problems that have been the focus of environmental concern (e.g., global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion, pesticides, dioxin) that a substantial danger exists.

Second, Henderson quotes Charles Rubin who labels as "totalitarian" and "utopian" efforts to persuade people to live in a way that is less damaging to the environment. While perhaps not so intended, such language feeds the crisis mongering of the antienvironmental "wise-use" and "property rights" movements. Anyone who thinks that environmentalists are guilty of manufacturing crises should attend a hearing in which tepid efforts to restrict development in floodplains or the riding of recreational vehicles in natural areas are denounced as the beginning of a black-booted plot to eradicate private property and freedom in America.

Finally, Henderson sets forth Rubin's view that we should stop worrying about the environment as a whole in favor of discussing specific problems such as sulfur dioxide pollution in urban areas. But this ignores the unfortunate history of efforts to address specific problems that did not take account of the fact that problems are interrelated. One starts out by controlling air emissions of sulfur dioxide but then finds that the polluters have moved to where they can pollute the air in the suburbs (or Mexico) or have changed their industrial processes so that sulfur in some other unpleasant form is poured in the river. One soon decides that we must consider all of the problems created by the production process and ask whether it is really necessary to make so much of a thing whose production causes pollution in various forms. Looking for alternative ways to live comfortably without being destructive is not utopianism, it is prudence.

Albert Ettinger

N. Central Park

Harold Henderson replies:

Hey, guys, I make my living talking to people and (mostly) believing and quoting what they say. After 17 years of this, I noticed environmentalists had told me a number of things that turned out to be false--and they didn't seem to notice, or care. We haven't had the food riots in the U.S. or mass famines elsewhere that Paul Ehrlich foretold; we haven't run out of oil, even though The Limits to Growth gave us only 20 more years in 1972; a ten-year, $500-million federal study found that acid rain affects few lakes and at most one species of tree; U.S. (and Illinois) forests are growing in area and size, not declining. (If Mr. Starrs et al imagine that Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin are barren cutovers or sterile tree plantations, they need to get out camping more.)

This doesn't mean everything is cool. It does mean that rattling off a list of media scare stories proves only that the media like disaster stories. I should know, I wrote my share. I still do, but now I try to be much more careful about how far the scientific evidence backs them up.

Albert Ettinger, whose intelligence and good temper I respect, is of course right: it would be crazy to keep on smoking until you were diagnosed with lung cancer. But it would be equally crazy to undergo a full course of chemotherapy because you once spent an evening in a smoke-filled room. Most environmental issues lie between these extremes. I disagree with him that there's a clear scientific consensus on acid rain, global warming, or dioxin. But these are subjects reasonable people ought to be able to discuss in public without name-calling.

Mr. Ettinger is also right that it's not totalitarian or utopian to "persuade people to live in a way that is less damaging to the environment." But persuasion is not what the authors of The Limits to Growth had in mind when they called for "concerted international measures and joint long-term planning . . . on a scale and scope without precedent." Persuasion is not what Barry Commoner had in mind when (in The Closing Circle) he extolled the environmental "advantage" of "national, all-encompassing plans for industrial and agricultural development."

Nor, I am sorry to say, is "persuasion" what Mr. Ettinger himself describes in his last example. Just because factories can move and sulfur can be discharged into air and water both, he thinks "we" should consider whether it's "really necessary" to produce whatever product caused the pollution. This may be the way to go sometimes-- lead in gasoline, for example. When it is, the benefits should be carefully weighed against the costs (a position the national Sierra Club condemns). But as a paradigm for environmentalism, it strikes me as utopian indeed--and probably counterproductive. The former Soviet bloc countries, in which bureaucrats routinely decided what it was "really necessary" for the economy to produce, have the worst environmental records on earth.

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