By Donella Meadows
–August 1, 1991–
The friendly folks at the U.S. Fertilizer Institute are waging a campaign against manure. The word “manure” has a wholesome connotation that is simply not appropriate, say the fertilizer makers. You should not think of manure as a “warm, fuzzy substance.” Henceforth please refer to it as “fecal contamination.”
I think that’s a funny story, because I can’t imagine anyone falling for that particular corporate attempt at brainwashing. But there are others that aren’t so funny.
Says an ad by the Information Council for the Environment (a coalition of coal and utility industries): “If the Earth is getting warmer, why is Minneapolis getting colder? If you care about the Earth — but want to keep a cool head about it — now is your chance to get more facts.” The ad tells you how to get the “facts,” as interpreted by the companies that produce (with our help as we burn their fuels) greenhouse gases that are warming the earth.
According to Science magazine, there is no evidence that Minneapolis is getting colder. Even if it were, temperatures in single localities do not prove or disprove a global trend. The global average temperature is rising. To claim otherwise is, says Thomas Karl of the National Climatic Data Center, to disseminate “disinformation.”
By the precious right of the free press in this nation, anyone can publish disinformation. Democracy can withstand the publication of partial truths and even lies — as long as others are free to correct the record.
That principle goes wrong, however, when access to the press is determined by money, and advocates on one side of a debate have much more money than those on the other side. It goes further wrong when advocates disguise their identity under names that sound like “Information Council for God, Motherhood, and Applepie.” And democracy is at risk when corporations collude with government not only to put forth their version of truth, but to suppress other versions.
Consider, for example, the popular little book recently published by the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave consumers hints about being environmentally responsible. I say “gave” because the book has been cancelled. Why? Because it suggested, for one thing, that you can reduce hazardous chemicals in your house by using soap flakes instead of laundry detergent, vinegar to clean glass, cedar chips for mothballs, boric acid to repel ants, and boiling water instead of commercial drain cleaner.
Irresponsible, said Procter & Gamble, the maker of many cleaning products. “Consumers who follow ‘mix your own’ advice could be injured by inappropriate combinations (e.g. mixing chlorine bleach and ammonia).”
The government book did not suggest mixing those two things, but of course that’s not P & G’s real worry. Nor was the Sweetheart Cup Company really concerned about bacteria when it criticized the book for making disparaging references to the “Throwaway Society.” Said the maker of throwaway cups, “single-service cups … have an average bacteria load of only 2.0 colonies per utensil — compared to 410 colonies for permanentware.”
Before you throwaway all your permanentware you might ask who made that study, how it was done, and whether the bacteria in question are in any way harmful. You might also ask what kind of government knuckles under to corporate pressure like that.
Here’s another example. David Steinman, a California journalist, used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to Food and Drug Administration tests for pesticides in foods. He published his findings in a book called Diet for a Poisoned Planet. One of the facts he reports is that the FDA tested 16 samples of raisins and found a total of 110 different kinds of pesticide residues.
According to Harrowsmith Country Life magazine, which excerpted his book, the California Raisin Advisory Board appropriated $558,000 to discredit Steinman’s book. Sun-Maid Growers retained a law firm to attempt to persuade Steinman’s publisher to pull copies of the book out of stores. The agrochemical industry hired public relations firms to intercept talkshow interviews by Steinman.
The American Council on Science & Health (a pesticide lobbying group, of course) asked White House Chief of Staff John Sununu to “encourage” the Environmental Protection Agency to chastise a senior science advisor who wrote an introduction to Steinman’s book. And the Department of Agriculture made “low key” calls to potential reviewers and sent out mailings impugning Steinman’s character to its national network of spokespersons.
Now I happen to think Steinman’s book is exaggerated, and I think government has a proper role in putting forth facts that counter exaggerations, including corporate ones. But no democratic government should suppress information — nor should responsible corporations. Charles E. Ziegler, senior vice president of Ciba-Geigy wrote a wise essay in the August 1991 Scientific American on that subject. He calls attention to a “second bottom line” — public trust.
“Environmental issues are best addressed through a candid exchange of ideas,” says Ziegler. “Unless corporations … adhere to the moral standards demanded by society, their future, like that of the planet, will be questionable indeed.”
Amen, and until corporations start following that advice, here are some facts, folks. Manure is a terrific fertilizer. The earth is getting warmer. Plain baking soda is the safest, cheapest cleaning agent you can buy. Don’t mix bleach and ammonia. Grapes grown with pesticides dry into raisins with pesticides. Information from corporations and corporations-in-disguise cannot be trusted. And government officials who suppress free speech and free press are violating the Constitution.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991