By Donella Meadows
–April 29, 1993–
Kids who want to do something to help the environment get a lot of advice from the media, much of it wrong.
For example, in a Wall Street Journal column Jonathan Adler of the Competitive Enterprise Institute rightfully complains about a Florida TV program that warns children against ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in spray cans and in those “little white cups” made of polystyrene.
The battle against CFCs in aerosol sprays was won by environmentalists in 1978. Spray cans have not been a threat to the ozone layer for 15 years. Polystyrene foam packaging has been CFC-free for three years. It’s worth avoiding spray cans and plastic cups, because they are dump-filling, resource-wasting artefacts of the throwaway society. But they no longer endanger the ozone layer — though kid’s programs ranging from the Ninja Turtles to GI Joe still say they do.
Adler cites another example from a Newsweek supplement in which a child asks Al Gore whether ozone depletion will turn the earth into a desert. Gore replies that we urgently need to act to save the ozone layer. Adler takes him to task, saying that the danger from ozone depletion is no more serious than moving a few hundred miles south. In this exchange the kid, the vice president, and the commentator create a tangle of misinformation.
The kid has confused ozone depletion (which lets dangerous ultraviolet light reach the earth’s surface) with the greenhouse effect (which could warm the earth and create deserts). Gore fails to point that out and then beats a dead horse. The ozone layer is one environmental problem that has been acted upon. International agreements require a complete phase-out of CFCs. Industry is complying ahead of schedule. But Adler is not justified in minimizing ozone depletion. Had there not been environmental warnings and international action, many species of life would have suffered — and no one yet knows whether we have acted in time.
In that same Newsweek supplement, a child asks Al Gore what we can do to stop burning fossil fuels. Gore replies that we need to replace fossil fuels with “alternative fuels, like clean-burning natural gas.”
Vice President Gore and kids, please note: natural gas is a fossil fuel. It is itself a greenhouse gas, and when it burns it emits another, carbon dioxide. It gives off only half as much carbon dioxide as coal and somewhat less than oil — but natural gas is still a cause of global warming.
The environment can be complex, but no more so than the Dow-Jones average or the weather map. CFCs cause ozone depletion, which results in damage to living cells from ultraviolet light. Fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide, which causes global warming. People can understand these things, if the media understand them and communicate them clearly.
One reason for persistent media muddle about the environment is the scientific illiteracy of many reporters and editors. Another reason is laziness — 16 years ago someone wrote correctly that aerosols contain CFCs, and that statement has been copied from one kid’s program to the next without anyone checking its accuracy.
More confusion comes from the fact that planetary science, like all science, is a moving target. Those CFCs that deplete the ozone layer, for instance, are also greenhouse gases — but scientists have recently calculated that their warming effect is just about balanced by the ozone they knock out, which is also a warming gas. You have to stay on your toes to follow stories like that, but the job is no more difficult than keeping up with power shifts in Washington.
There’s another reason for inaccurate environmental messages to kids and adults — deliberate misinformation. Some of it comes from environmental extremists, who can whip up just about any problem into an impending catastrophe. The doom-criers are few. Responsible environmentalists know and say that spray cans do not contain CFCs. But the media flock to the extremists and even create extremism of their own. I have watched more than one careful scientific statement become a screaming headline.
Leaning the other direction is a small but vocal band of right-wing “scientists” who can be counted on to dismiss problems and advocate business as usual. In another recent Wall Street Journal column Dixy Lee Ray claims that a clearcut forest can be restored within a few decades with “approximately the same tree species and … the same wildlife, birds, and insects”. On the same page Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute claims that organic farming produces “expensive fruits and vegetables because the insects and diseases eat most of them” and that DDT “wasn’t dangerous to people or birds.”
Ray, Avery, Wall Street Journal editors, please note: numerous field studies show that the original diversity of a large clearcut returns only after centuries, if ever. Good organic farmers get about the same yields as good chemical-intensive farmers. Chemical-intensive farmers lose 30 percent of their crops on average to insects and disease, despite the chemicals. DDT spraying nearly eliminated many species of birds, including the bald eagle. And a new study says that DDT exposure is correlated with a fourfold increase in incidence of breast cancer.
It is no harder to avoid the biased sources on the environmental beat than it is on any other beat. There is no excuse for even the Wall Street Journal to pass on junk science. All of us, especially kids, need to get the message that you can’t save a planet or anything else without doing some homework. You have to understand what you’re trying to save. The best way for the press to communicate that message is by example.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993