Until recently, there were only three camps in the environmental
movement. Now some journalists are trying to start a fourth camp.
The original three camps are distinguished by where they place blame
for environmental problems: The first says the general public is at
fault. The second blames powerful economic and social institutions,
chiefly in the "private sector." The third camp blames government.
People in the first camp want to solve environmental problems by
recycling newspapers, planting trees, and putting a brick in their
toilet tank to reduce water use.
The second camp wants the public to recognize that there really is no
"private sector" because all "private" industrial decisions have
profound impacts on public health and well being. They want the public
involved in decisions about technology.
A third camp blames government. They favor eliminating weak laws, poor
regulations, inept officials, and ineffective agency structures.
Now a fourth camp is trying to emerge. This camp says the sources of
environmental distress lie somewhere in the murky past, but solutions
are staring us right in the face; however, we can't reach these
solutions because environmentalists in the first three camps are so
negative, so focused on doom-saying, so cynically intent on making
money by frightening the public through direct mail appeals.
This new, fourth camp has just published its manifesto, calling itself
"ecorealism." Ecorealism is upbeat, positive, buoyantly optimistic. Its
basic premise is that most environmental problems either don't exist or
would soon disappear if environmentalists would just stop exaggerating.
The ecorealists' manifesto is Gregg Easterbook's 745-page encyclopedia
of feel-good optimism, called A MOMENT ON THE EARTH. Here is a
** Human population is not a problem, if you just take the long view of
it (pg. 491);
** Genetic engineering is more natural than soccer fields and rock
concerts (because nature engages in genetic engineering itself [cross-
pollination, for example] but nature never made a soccer field without
human help) (pg. 419);
** No research has ever shown that industrial chlorine releases cause
any public health or general ecological harm (pg. 414);
** New landfills, incinerators, and factories usually do not have
emission problems (pg. 467);
** In the western world, the age of pollution is nearly over, because
by the year 2004 society will have "almost painlessly" adopted a zero
discharge philosophy (pgs. xvi, 206, 256, 648);
** Whatever industry's stance may have been in the past, today
industry's attitude is "respectful environmental behavior" (pg. 623);
** Nature makes far worse environmental problems than people do (pgs.
xvii, 21, 145);
** No one in the general public has ever been harmed by radiation
associated with nuclear power reactors (pg. 493) and humans are not
exceptionally sensitive to radiation exposure (pg. 506);
** Radioactive waste disposal is not really a problem because even at
the WIPP site in southern New Mexico, built to hold long- lived
transuranic military wastes, most of the radioactivity will have
disappeared within 300 years (pg. 514);
** There is no ozone hole over the north pole (pg. 539);
** Toxic waste isn't an important problem because the National Academy
of Sciences in a 1991 report said there is "no clear relationship
between proximity to toxic wastes and cancer;" (pg. 604);
** Environmental problems developed in the old days, back when
"government was tucked snugly in bed with industry" but times have
changed (pg. 372);
** Chemicals are, today, assumed to be dangerous, and the burden of
proof is on the manufacturers of chemicals to prove safety before new
chemicals can be introduced into commerce (pg. 231);
** Most forms of cancer are in decline (pg. 246);
** Dioxin is in the same chemical family as table salt (pg. 414); the
largest study of dioxin and human health found only a "slight" increase
in cancer (pg. 235); dioxin is natural, caused mainly by forest fires
(pg. 238); and, anyway, new emissions of dioxin have already been
"nearly eliminated" (pg. 238).
I'll stop here because the catalog of optimism goes on and on, but the
drift is clear to everyone.
Unfortunately, most of the ecorealists' platform is simply wrong. Let's
examine some of its assertions.
** According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has
been "reassessing" dioxin for the past 4 years, at least half of the
dioxin sources in the U.S. have not been identified (REHW #390, #391),
so Gregg Easterbrook cannot know that new sources of exposure have been
eliminated. EPA says forest fires are a minor source of dioxin and even
that minor source may be caused not by nature but by industrial
releases of chlorine settling onto the leaves of trees. The largest
study of dioxin and human health found a 46% increased hazard of cancer
among workers whose exposure lasted at least a year and began at least
20 years ago (thus allowing the cancer latency period to run its
course); 46% is not a "slight" increase by any reasonable person's
reckoning (REHW #219, #270, #290, #353). True, dioxin is a chlorinated
chemical, and so is table salt, but dioxin is only in the "same family"
as table salt in the sense that an AK-47 and a pea shooter are in the
"same family" --both can be used as weapons to hurt people.
** The incidence rates of 14 out of 16 types of cancer are increasing,
not decreasing. The death rates for 8 of 16 types of cancer are
increasing. (See REHW #385.) Easterbrook is wrong when he says most
forms of cancer are in decline.
** Today in the U.S., new chemicals are introduced at the will of the
manufacturer, and it is up to the public to prove that they cause harm
before a chemical can even be regulated, much less banned. Mr.
Easterbrook has it backwards.
** What the National Academy of Sciences actually said about toxic
wastes and human health was this: "A limited number of epidemiologic
studies indicate that increased rates of birth defects, spontaneous
abortion, neurologic impairment, and cancer have occurred in some
residential populations exposed to hazardous wastes. We are concerned
that other populations at risk might not have been adequately
identified." And the Council said, "Millions of tons of hazardous
materials are slowly migrating into groundwater in areas where they
could pose problems in the future, even though current risks could be
negligible." (REHW #272, #371)
** No ozone hole over the north pole? In 1993, Canadian scientists
reported measuring 35% more ultraviolet light on the ground in Toronto,
due to a large hole in the ozone layer over the north pole.
** Most WIPP radioactive wastes gone in 300 years? The WIPP radioactive
waste dump in New Mexico is slated to hold, at a minimum, one ton of
plutonium-239 with a half-life of 24,400 years. Plutonium is one of the
two or three most potent carcinogens around. According to the
government's environmental impact statement, WIPP may eventually hold
up to 44 tons of plutonium. It will take 10 half-lives, or 240,400
years (far longer than HOMO SAPIENS has walked the earth), for this
plutonium to decay away, not 300 years.
** No one ever harmed by nuclear power reactors? The International
Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), the industry-dominated
standards-setting body for the nuclear industry worldwide, estimates
that nuclear reactors in the U.S. (annually producing 80 gigawatt-years
of power) cause 4000 deaths and 2500 serious genetic defects each year
in future populations. (REHW #200, #201, #202) The U.S. National
Academy of Sciences estimates that the true number is 50% greater than
the ICRP's estimate. Long after the reactors have been shut down, this
damage will continue year after year for aeons into the future as
radioactive gases waft into the air from uranium mill tailings piles,
and other radioactive wastes. Just because the deaths will not occur
today does not mean nuclear energy is "clean." Dead is dead, and
immoral is immoral, today and tomorrow.
** Humans are insignificant compared to nature's damage? True for
hurricanes and earthquakes. But for long-term distribution of toxic
chemicals and certain key nutrients into the environment, humans
surpassed nature some decades ago. For example, each year humans inject
twice as much arsenic into the atmosphere as nature does, seven times
as much cadmium, and 17 times as much lead. Measured by the elements
that nature moves into the oceans via river discharges, we humans
mobilize (through mining) 13 times as much iron as nature does each
year, 36 times as much phosphorous, and 110 times as much tin. Nature
mobilizes 63 million tons of nitrogen each year, but humans (through
fertilizer and fossil fuel combustion) mobilize 215 million tons. Yes,
nature is large and sturdy, but in several important respects, human
activities have already dwarfed natural processes. (REHW #155).
Gregg Easterbrook reserves special treatment for the main problem that
drives the grass-roots environmental movement: health damage from toxic
chemicals. He begins by sneering at the first scientist who reported
harm to the children living near Love Canal, Dr. Beverly Paigen.
Easterbrook says "Paigen essentially assumed that if a Love Canal
resident stated that a health condition was caused by toxic wastes, it
must be so." (pg. 605) With that, Easterbrook dismisses health problems
among children living near Love Canal and lays the foundation for his
claim that toxic chemicals aren't a serious problem. But anyone who
reads Paigen's work can see that she did not rely merely on peoples'
claims that toxic waste had harmed them. Using objective measures,
Paigen and others clearly revealed a pattern of harm to children and
wildlife near Love Canal. At least six peer-reviewed studies have
indicated harm to living things near Love Canal (REHW #104, #276,
#371). Easterbrook's account is disgracefully distorted and false.
Gregg Easterbrook has been an environmental writer for NEWSWEEK for
several years. He has traveled the world, gleaning first-hand
information reported in this book. He has read hundreds of scientific
studies, and he spent 5 years preparing his manuscript. Yet he feels
compelled to support his case by omissions, distortions, and
fabrications. As a consequence, none of the book seems trustworthy, or
even worth reading. Easterbrook comes across as a sophisticated Rush
Limbaugh. What a sad waste of a talented writer.
 Sylvia N. Tesh, "Causal Debates in Environmentalism," JOURNAL OF
PUBLIC HEALTH POLICY (Autumn 1994), pgs. 298-309.
 Gregg Easterbrook, A MOMENT ON THE EARTH (New York: Viking Penguin,
1995); $27.95 but not worth it.
 J.B. Kerr and C.T. McElroy, "Evidence for Large Upward Trends of
Ultraviolet-B Radiation Linked to Ozone Depletion," SCIENCE, Vol. 262
(Nov. 12, 1993), pgs. 1032-1034.
Descriptor terms: environmentalists; environmental movement;
environmentalism; public policy; journalism; ecorealism; population;
genetic engineering; chlorine; landfilling; incineration; natural
disasters; radioactivity; radiation; radioactive waste; military
toxics; ozone depletion; toxic waste dumps; superfund; onus; reverse
onus; dioxin; epa; dioxin reassessment; cancer; plutonium; wipp;
uranium; heavy metals; nutrients; beverly paigen; love canal; wildlife;
gregg easterbrook; international commission on radiological protection;