By Donella Meadows
–May 1, 1997–
OK, that’s it.
I’ve heard that “science versus emotion” taunt just once too often.
Nuclear power proponents toss it out like a grenade to silence people who are “irrationally” worried about radioactivity. This is an industry whose wastes will be deadly for thousands of years after the last “scientific” spokesman accuses the last worried citizen of unjustified “emotion.”
Food industry leaders have long accused us of hysteria when we object to additives and pesticides in our suppers. They’re right, of course. Not wanting to eat poisonous chemicals IS an emotional thing. One can get quite worked up about it.
The chemical industry is now aiming its “emotion” charge at Theo Colborn, who crusades against chemicals that masquerade as hormones. She exaggerates, they say. She lets her emotions distort the science, they say, as they sweep off the table the hundreds of scientific papers she has collected to make her case.
The straw that has broken my patience is the recent testimony of foresters from the Champion International logging company, fighting a proposed Vermont law to ban aerial spraying with herbicides. “We are not a bunch of crackpots out making uninformed decisions,” said Donald Tase, Champion’s district manager. Said forester Stephen Richardson, “I am pleading with you to listen to science … and not get caught up in emotion.”
Shortly after Champion claimed science for its side, I listened to a panel of three biologists and a toxicologist discuss herbicide spraying. They concluded that science does not know what the effects will be. No one knows exactly what herbicides do to breeding places, food supplies or population balances of the creatures that live in the forest. We don’t know how chemicals that drift or run off into streams will affect aquatic life. We don’t know what will happen to soil microbes. Probably, the panel said, these ecosystem impacts will be of greater concern than toxicity to humans — but that’s a guess.
They did list some certainties. The clearcuts that precede herbicide spraying definitely cause huge losses of soil nutrients. Those nutrients wash into and affect life in waterways, already disrupted because clearcuts change runoff patterns. There is no doubt that wiping out all plants disrupts populations of forest animals. And we know that some of the chemicals mixed with herbicides to make them more soluble, more sticky, or more stable, are actually more toxic to animals, including humans, than the herbicides themselves.
Science helps spell out certainties and uncertainties, but it isn’t the job of science to decide what to do. That takes a little “emotion,” or maybe we could say “values,” or even “common sense.” Is it rational, given ignorance of the consequences, to spray chemicals over hundreds or thousands of acres? Is the purpose for doing so — to turn a multi-species forest into a plantation for the two kinds of trees industry values, so that our toilet paper will be cheaper — worth any risk? How much risk? To whom? Who should decide?
It would be helpful if, as we debate the answers to such questions, we could admit that there is a little science and lots of emotion on all sides.
The public is indeed too ignorant of science and too leery of chemicals, though given past unfortunate experiences with chemicals that corporate and government scientists told us were harmless, we have a rational basis for our leeriness. And there are plenty of scientists arguing on the side of caution.
Corporations can afford to hire excellent scientists, but the organizational driving force behind them is not the Search for Truth, nor the Stewardship of Creation, nor even the Welfare of the Human Race. Their goal is to make money, which is perfectly rational, until it gets pushed to the point of destroying life-support systems. That’s rationality gone over to greed and aggression — not the wimpy, tree-hugging emotions of fear or compassion so often contrasted with “science,” but emotions nonetheless, driven, let’s face it, by testosterone.
I would hate to bring up that sexist point, but the chemical companies have done it for me in the marketing of their products. I have here an ad from a farming magazine for an herbicide called Pursuit. It shows the cockpit of an attack plane as you would see it if you were the pilot, your leather-gloved hand at the throttle. “TAKE COMMAND,” says the headline. In smaller print: “Using PURSUIT puts you in command of the most advanced herbicide technology available.” Another ad shows a jug of herbicide draped with a cartridge belt. “Marksman drops Velvet Leaf like a shot.”
There are commercial pesticides named Arsenal, Bravo, Clout, Force, Impact, Karate, Lance, Lasso, Machete, Oust, Pounce, Prowl, Punch, Ramrod, Rapier, Rodeo, Roundup, Scout, Sting, Stomp, Whip. What is being sold here? Science? Rationality?
So, fellow citizens, let us vow never to permit that “science versus emotion” put-down to be used against us again. Let us note that it most likely comes from someone who is arguing not science, but self-interest, profits, power, short-term benefits for a few with long-term costs for the many. Let us use both our rational minds and our unexplainable ability to sense right and wrong and argue for the health of living communities with all the science and emotion we can muster.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997