Green-Washed Optimism

Reflections

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 61
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

I have before me four reviews of Gregg Easterbrook’s trendy book about the environment, A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism. All the reviews are written by scientists whom I know and respect, and all of them are scathing. The reviewers are more than negative; they’re frustrated, because it isn’t possible to list in a small space everything that is wrong with Easterbrook’s book.

There are his "facts," for example. When you know environmental science and you start reading Easterbrook, you run across a mistake, and you say to yourself, "Oops, he got that wrong. I’d better tell him, so he can clean it up." Then you find another mistake, and another, and you begin to think, "This guy is a sloppy reporter."

You read on, the errors compound, and finally you catch on. Easterbrook isn’t trying to get the story right; he’s forcing evidence through his own twisted bias.

Three scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) took on the exhausting task of writing down every error they could find in just four chapters of Easterbrook’s 745 page book. They produced a small book themselves that listed hundreds and hundreds of mistakes and misinterpretations.

Easterbrook mixes up temperature measured in Fahrenheit with temperature measured in Celsius. He confuses regional data with global data. He misquotes scientific reports. (He says, for instance, that the National Academy of Sciences "backed away" from the high end of its 1979 global warming forecast, when in fact the Academy raised that high end forecast.) Worst of all, Easterbrook ignores all evidence – and there is plenty – that contradicts his point.

And what is his point?

It is that US environmental laws have been enormously successful, but that the people who have devoted their lives to fighting for those laws are hysterical doomsayers. The enviros "pine for bad news." They have a "primal urge to decree a crisis." They are "increasingly on the wrong side of the present, risking their credibility by proclaiming emergencies that do not exist."

To which I have four replies:

* It’s the job of environmentalists to look for problems with the environment. When the radar says there’s a storm coming, we don’t tell it to shut up unless it can be more positive. There is real, continuing environmental bad news. Problems with affordable technical solutions, like sewage in rivers, have been dealt with, in rich countries anyway. But some of the biggest problems – extinction, desertification, green house gases – are getting worse. No one who watches the data and cares about the future can be an unqualified optimist.

* The scariest language comes from the media, not environmentalists. I’ve watched many times as scientists give a measured briefing about the ozone hole or acid rain or whatever. The story gets exaggerated in the reporters’ notes, more so in the writing, a screaming headline is put on top, and the scientists get blamed for doomsaying.

* What environmentalists say to you depends on what you say to environmentalists. When I’m in the presence of Gregg Easterbrook, his sappy optimism makes me want to rub his nose in the facts. In his presence I am a pessimist. When I’m in the presence of the real doomsayers of my trade (there are a few), I’m optimistic, just to balance the conversation.

* Reading "bad" into the news depends on where your interests lie. Ending the fossil fuel economy will be disastrous to owners of oil wells and coal mines, but not to the rest of us. A solar-based economy will be cheaper, safer, and cleaner.

We should celebrate every environmental success and learn from it. That doesn’t mean taking a "don’t worry, be happy" attitude, based on distorted information. The environment supports all life, including our own. The people who monitor it and give us warnings are vital to us, even if we don’t always like what they have to say.

Donella H. Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, is an IC contributing editor, and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.

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