The first Earth Day celebration was conceived by then-US senator Gaylord Nelson and held in 1970 as a “symbol of environmental responsibility and stewardship.” In the spirit of the time, it was a touchy-feely, consciousness-raising, New Age experience, and most activities were organized at the grassroots level.
In recent years, Earth Day has evolved into an occasion for environmental Cassandras to prophesy apocalypse, dish antitechnology dirt, and proselytize. Passion and zeal routinely trump science, and provability takes a back seat to plausibility.
Instead of a genuine concern for nature, many of those stumping for Earth Day this April 22 will share opposition to environment-friendly advances in science and technology, such as agricultural biotechnology, fracking, and nuclear power. Another pervasive sentiment will be disdain for the capitalist system that provides the resources to expend on environmental protection and conservation. (It’s no coincidence that poor countries tend to be the most polluted.)
Distortion of Science
The Earth Day Network, which organizes Earth Day events and advocacy, regularly distorts science to advance its cynical agenda. This year’s event, ironically enough, is dedicated to “Environmental & Climate Literacy,” which is indeed sorely needed, given Earth Day’s manipulation and misappropriation of our commitment to protecting the environment.
Consider, for example, the network’s disingenuousness about fracking: “Fracking causes a lot of environmental harm and poses a threat to the health of a population near a fracking site due to contaminated water and the increased risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.” In 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson conceded that she was “not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”
In 2013, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said he had “not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater.” And just last year, the Obama EPA released the findings of its major report on fracking, which relied on 950 sources and was expected by activists to make the case against the technology.
The report was unable to cite any confirmed cases of water contamination. Under pressure from left-liberal members of Congress in the waning days of the Obama administration, the EPA changed the scientific conclusion of the draft report, which originally stated that there was “no systemic effect” on drinking water as a result of fracking.
Without any additional science or cases of contamination, EPA officials who sought to paint fracking in the worst possible light but who were confronted by the paucity of documented contamination wrote that, in “limited cases,” such as in a rare fracking fluid spill, contamination could take place. In other words, not unlike riding your bike through New York’s Central Park, fracking is not a zero-risk proposition.
Earth Day organizers and others pushing for across-the-board fracking bans rather than reasonable safeguards wish to “educate” us about the environment by suggesting that we should get our energy without any risk whatsoever.
Environmental Indoctrination of Children
Even those who can forgive these activists for pressuring regulators and members of Congress to cook the books on scientific reports may be troubled by their campaign to indoctrinate students.
A few years ago, seventh graders at a tony private school near San Francisco were given an unusual Earth Day assignment: make a list of environmental projects that could be accomplished with Bill Gates’s fortune. This approach to environmental awareness fits in well with the “progressive” worldview that the right to private property is subsidiary to undertakings that others think are worthwhile — the redistributive theory of society.
And how interesting that the resources made “available” for the students’ thought experiment were not, say, the aggregate net worth of the members of Congress but the wealth of one of the nation’s most successful, most innovative entrepreneurs.
Rachel Carson’s Egregious Lies
Another Earth Day assignment for those same students was to read Rachel Carson’s best-selling 1962 book Silent Spring, an emotionally charged but deeply flawed excoriation of the widespread spraying of chemical pesticides for the control of insects. As described by Roger Meiners and Andy Morriss in their scholarly yet eminently readable 2012 analysis, “Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic,” Carson exploited her reputation as a well-known nature writer to advocate and legitimatize “positions linked to a darker tradition in American environmental thinking: neo-Malthusian population control and anti-technology efforts.”
Carson’s proselytizing and advocacy led to the virtual banning of DDT and to restrictions on other chemical pesticides even though Silent Spring was replete with gross misrepresentations and scholarship so atrocious that if Carson were an academic, she would be guilty of egregious misconduct. Carson’s observations about DDT were meticulously rebutted point by point by Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, a professor of entomology at San Jose State University, a longtime member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences.
In his stunning 1992 essay, “The Lies of Rachel Carson,” Edwards demolished her arguments and assertions and called attention to critical omissions, faulty assumptions, and outright fabrications. Consider this from Edwards:
This implication that DDT is horribly deadly is completely false. Human volunteers have ingested as much as 35 milligrams of it a day for nearly two years and suffered no adverse effects. Millions of people have lived with DDT intimately during the mosquito spray programs and nobody even got sick as a result. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1965 that “in a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million [human] deaths that would otherwise have been inevitable.” The World Health Organization stated that DDT had “killed more insects and saved more people than any other substance.”
Meiners and Morriss conclude correctly that the influence of Silent Spring “encourages some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world.” Sounds like the doctrine of the organizers of this year’s Earth Day.
One of the United Kingdom’s great contemporary thinkers, Dick Taverne, aka Lord Taverne of Pimlico, discusses the shortcomings of New Age philosophy in his perspicacious book, The March of Unreason. Taverne deplores the “new kind of fundamentalism” that has infiltrated many environmentalist campaigns — an undiscriminating back-to-nature movement that views science and technology as the enemy and as a manifestation of an exploitative, rapacious, and reductionist attitude toward nature. It is no coincidence, he believes, that ecofundamentalists are strongly represented in antiglobalization and anticapitalism demonstrations worldwide.
In this, Taverne echoes the late physician and novelist Michael Crichton, who argued in his much-acclaimed novel State of Fear that ecofundamentalists have reinterpreted traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths and made a religion of environmentalism. This religion has its own Eden and paradise, where mankind lived in a state of grace and unity with nature until mankind’s fall, which came not after eating a forbidden fruit, but after partaking of the forbidden tree of knowledge — that is, science. This religion also has a judgment day to come for us in this polluted world — all of us, that is, except for true environmentalists, who will be saved by achieving “sustainability.”
One of Crichton’s characters argues that since the end of the Cold War, environmental alarmism in Western nations has filled the void left by the disappearance of the terror of communism and nuclear holocaust, and that social control is now maintained by highly exaggerated fears about pollution, global warming, chemicals, genetic engineering, and the like. With the military-industrial complex no longer the primary driver of society, the politico-legal-media complex has replaced it.
This politico-legal-media complex peddles fear in the guise of promoting safety. French writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner captured its tone nicely: “You’ll get what you’ve got coming! That is the death wish that our misanthropes address to us. These are not great souls who alert us to troubles but tiny minds who wish us suffering if we have the presumption to refuse to listen to them. Catastrophe is not their fear but their joy.”
The tiny-minded misanthropes have enjoyed some dubious “successes.” They have effectively banished agricultural biotechnology from Europe, put the chemical industry on the run, and placed the pharmaceutical industry in their crosshairs.
Lord Taverne believes these are ominous trends that are contrary to the principles of the Enlightenment, returning us to an era in which inherited dogma and superstition took precedence over experimental data. Not only do the practices of ecofundamentalism retard technologies and the availability of products which, used responsibly, could dramatically improve and extend many lives and protect the environment, but they strangle scientific creativity and technological innovation.
A Defense of Science, Reason, and Democracy
With Congress, the administration, and many Americans now firmly on the side of more sensible, more limited regulation, it would behoove the Earth Day activists to collaborate in good faith and to support advances in environment-friendly technologies and business models. Among these, we would include ridesharing services, Airbnb, modern genetic engineering applied to agriculture, and state-of-the art agricultural chemicals, all of which enable us to do more with less but have been vilified by activists.
We are not sufficiently naïve to expect that to happen. Rather, we suspect that activists’ ecofundamentalism will continue to undermine the health of civilized society and of democracy.
Lord Taverne observed that when you defend science and reason, you defend democracy itself. Well said, Milord, and happy Earth Day to you.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC, and heads its Risk Analysis Division.