She'll be right, mate: the anti-environment backlash

Issue 

By Dorothy Tumney

There has been a barrage of anti-environment movement propaganda in the establishment media over the last 12 months. John O'Neill's article "Environmentalists and the Temple of Doom", published in the January 20 Sydney Morning Herald, is typical.

The article begins: "Hardly a week goes by without another warning of imminent catastrophe from the environmental movement. Preaching their cause with almost religious fervour, the greens have been extraordinarily successful in gaining credibility with the public and the media ... [Their] history of disinformation and exaggeration demands a closer scrutiny of their claims."

O'Neill goes on to accuse the environment movement of being "quasi-religious", lacking "intellectual rigour" and indulging in a politics of "the Big Scare". He does this by systematically challenging many of the key assertions and concerns of environmentalists (global warming, dioxin accumulation, shrinking natural resources).

Just to give you a taste, O'Neill disputes the contention that the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was an environmental disaster, referring to one scientist's contention that the spill had actually "fertilised" the area (specifically the sunken vessel's hold) and another's that, in any case, such occurrences are not necessarily catastrophes because "nature adapts to disturbances".

The Big Scare? I'm more worried about the Big She'll be Right Mate — Trust Me, though I have to admit it fails as a snappy slogan for the anti-environment backlash brigade. Of course when it turns out not to have been "all right", there are whole new business opportunities in fixing up the mess. The philosophy is much the same as the pharmaceutical companies' approach to health care by (expensive) illness management rather than prevention.

Tone

The "quasi-religious" accusation against the environment movement is not a new form of attack on radical voices by the power brokers. Such accusations are a means of denigrating passion in debate and are based on the false assertion that scientific credibility is automatically negated by enthusiasm.

The unacknowledged problem for the accusers is that passionate critique of the status quo contains the threat of serious activity to change it. Perhaps it is activism rather than passion that is in bad taste?

Since the early '70s I have had a finger or two in various political pies, especially feminist ones, so all this name-calling has a familiar ring to it. Once a campaign or issue develops enough momentum to start to affect the status quo's bottom line, the tone of the discussion is the first thing to come under fire.

In this context, "eco-extremist" is a category I tip to become much broader. Our vigilant media are in the process of creating the environmental equivalent of the frustrated, man-hating, castrating, probable lesbian, out of control, female threat that they "found" in the women's liberation movement two decades ago.

The necessary corollary of the eco-extremist, the "reasonable greenie" will, on the other hand, be the polite lobbyist, alternative business person, or enthusiastic litter collectors who make no overtly critical remarks about the system as a whole. They, like the successful woman, must prove at each point their "responsible" credentials.

On the surface, the establishment's Big Scare propaganda is all about the failure of environmental disasters predicted by the environment movement to turn up on cue. The real message, however, is that greenies had better tone it down "until they get it right".

Science and prediction

Putting aside the political aims of the anti-environmentalist propaganda campaign for a moment, what about the substance of their claims that the ecology movement's predictions have failed? Is this a sound basis upon which to question or even dismiss the concerns, demands and activities of environmentalists as misguided or dangerous doom-saying? To answer this involves examining the nature of "science", something O'Neill and his fellow conservative propagandists invariably choose to ignore.

The reality is that most scientific predictions don't pan out exactly. (The TV news manages to find at least one medical breakthrough a week, but we never hear of them again.)

Related to this, many major natural and scientific developments, events or consequences come as a total surprise (or nasty shock), even to those working on them.

In fact, scientists are never certain about anything; and rightly so, since yesterday's certainty may well be today's impediment. Given two conflicting theories, one may be right and one wrong, or both may be partly right, or both may be totally wrong. The very usefulness of science is that it is not, like accountancy for example, immutably fixed but can be reviewed, updated and overturned on the basis of constant new information, evidence and explanatory models.

Furthermore, the modelling methods employed to predict outcomes are still in their infancy. The more complex the system being assessed, the more variability has to be allowed for. And the natural world is about as complex as you can get.

Finally, sometimes prediction of an event can prevent it occurring or minimise its effect.

How, in the face of all this uncertainty, does a person or group decide on a course of action? This brings in risk assessment, safety, familiarity, perception of danger, threat to vested interests and so on.

Risk assessment

Determining parameters in risk assessments is not an objective, scientific process. It is one of the more basic power games in capitalist society. If an industry has no control over how its activities are assessed, its entire viability (profits) may be threatened. Imagine, for example, the consequences of an assessment of rival cola drinks proceeding on nutritional grounds only.

The pressures to exclude things — to adopt a "carry on as usual" stance — when assessing environmental or social impact are therefore huge. This is exactly what O'Neill does in his attacks on the dioxin "scare", for instance.

O'Neill begins by confessing his "guilt" in contributing to the Big Scare by interviewing Helen Caldicott in 1989, when she predicted that dioxin would cause an epidemic that would make cancer pale by comparison. As yet, says O'Neill now, no sign of it has arisen. This is a classic case of the "accountancy" approach to prediction, which has little to do with science.

Dioxin's primary function is as a solvent, which means that as a pollutant dioxin comes with all sorts of junk attached and an affinity for blending with organic material. Dioxins react in biological systems roughly like oestrogens — they direct the activity of other factors. They do not, therefore, induce a signature disease — as asbestos induces mesothelioma, for example. Nevertheless, there are instances where information on exposure and appearance of a cluster of dioxin-related effects does substantiate an inference of causation.

Manifestations of low dose dioxin exposure in humans are not known, nor is it clear whether they can be detected on an individual basis. Even evaluating low dose exposure to the "simpler" poisons which produce known toxic effects is just beginning.

Proceeding from a perspective which requires neatly defined and quantified data, the "accountants" of the scientific world can't deal with such uncertainties, so they simply dismiss the probability that dioxins will turn up behind lots of really nasty, if not "doom" causing, stuff.

Global warming is even more complex. Oil and gas companies are in the forefront of the "carry on as usual" brigade on this issue, although the insurance companies, which have a great deal to lose should the predictions of large scale change prove correct, are beginning to have each-way bets.

Dishonest tactics

The "carry on as usual" merchants have begun to use what may be summarised as "tobacco tactics": demand 100% proof of cause and effect; blame everything else; lie, especially about damaging data; rewrite the rules as you go; tie the lot up in legal nitpicking; own legislators; threaten job losses and elimination of lifestyle; move markets by selling the dodgy product to someone else till they ban it; shift the industry base to play regulators off against each other.

Compounding this, the sensational headline imperative in the capitalist media precludes a regular assessment of possibilities and probabilities anywhere other than in the specialist press. The role of the mainstream media commentator in this process is to keep the debate safely within bounds of "reasonable" critique while simultaneously minimising the chances of someone pointing out that the greenhouse effect, for example, is only one reason for not wasting fossil fuels, clear-felling forests and so on.

In the end, it's not just the tone of the discussion, but the actual content which must remain "reasonable", "responsible" and non-threatening to the pro-profit, anti-environment status quo.