By Donella Meadows
–May 30, 1996–
It’s fascinating to watch the reaction to “Our Stolen Future,” the book about endocrine disruptors, which is rapidly coming to be known as the book about sperm.
If you’ve heard of “Our Stolen Future” at all, you’ve likely heard that it blames modern chemicals for the declining sperm count of human males. You may have heard denials too, especially from the New York Times, which has heralded a new study showing that the sperm counts of New York men not only are undiminished, but are twice as high as the sperm counts of Los Angeles men.
I guess it was predictable that the complex message of “Our Stolen Future” would be reduced to simple masculine one-upmanship. The book is only marginally about sperm. It is mainly about the many ways in which some human-made chemicals act like hormones. Within the bodies of all higher forms of life, these chemicals mess up subtle signals that control sexual behavior, sperm and egg production, fertilization, cell division, the unfolding of embryos, immune system function. The possible effects include reproductive failures of birds, birth defects in whales, die-offs of seals, breast cancer in women and — maybe — declining sperm production in men.
Public discussion has zoomed right in on the sperm. The book’s authors, seriously worried people, two of them scientists, have gone along to a certain extent, because they know that sperm are the key to media attention. So a profound issue is trivialized and swept away. Don’t worry about chemicals, folks, especially if you live in New York. (In L.A. maybe the low sperm count is connected to smog or O.J. or immigrants.)
We have many ways to fend off ideas we don’t like. We can pretend we’ve dismissed the evidence by dismissing the messengers. (According to various reviewers, the authors of “Our Stolen Future” aren’t “regular scientists.” One is a “grandmotherly zoologist” and a “technophobe.” Another is a “crusading journalist” and the third a mere “philanthropist.”)
We can deride them for writing a popular book. (“It’s a very unscientific presentation.” Of course it was intended to be, in the belief that the public ought to know what scientists are talking about. For those who want the science there are footnotes to hundreds of journal articles.)
We can sneer at the fact that the publisher hired a publicity firm — “Fenton Communications, the same PR firm that brought us Meryl Streep and the Alar scare.” (By this criterion we should never listen to a politician or corporation, all of whom speak to us through publicists. This accusation also assumes that the Alar scare was false, which is by no means a certainty.)
We can call into question one small corner of the argument and then claim to have disproved the whole thing. That’s what the sperm business is about. The book quotes 61 studies of falling sperm counts in 20 countries. The New York Times cites two studies showing stable sperm counts in Seattle, New York, Minnesota, and Los Angeles. (The men in these studies were volunteers for vasectomy, not typical of the whole population.) So we veer off to argue about sperm, forgetting the larger issue of endocrine disruptors, which would not be disproved even if human virility were booming everywhere.
Some reviewers dismiss the endocrine disruptor hypothesis because there are natural hormone-mimicking chemicals in soybeans and broccoli. (“Our Stolen Future” discusses the difference — vegetable hormones are not fat-soluble, not stored in the body or concentrated up the food chain. And of course the presence of toxins in nature is no license to release still more toxins.)
They have said the book is obsolete because levels of two of the worst chemicals, DDT and PCBs, are dropping. (They are dropping because these chemicals have been banned. Many other suspect chemicals are still in use.)
They have put ridiculous arguments into the mouths of the authors, accusing them of wanting to ban chlorine, to stop treating drinking water and thereby to expose the world to a cholera epidemic. It’s impossible to stomp out false accusations like these. As Mark Twain said, a rumor can go three times around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.
Most maddening is the old tobacco company ploy: “it’s not proven.” A half dozen scientists are found to express doubts. Those doubts allow us, somehow, to ignore the dozens of scientists quoted in the book, who also have doubts (doubts are intrinsic to science), but who are saying, “Hey, we’re seeing something here. Of course it’s not proven, nothing in science is ever proven, but this is troubling evidence.”
Ask any scientist “Is it proved that some chemicals cause endocrine disruption?” and the only possible answer is “No.” Ask “Is it proved that the quantities and mixes of chemicals we release into the environment are harmless?” and again there’s only one answer: “No.” Ask “Which is more likely on scientific grounds, that the tens of thousands of chemicals we dump into nature in enormous quantities are, or are not, harmful to life, including human life?”
It would be amazing if those chemicals, individually or acting together, do no harm. Therefore the important questions are not about scientific doubt but about risk and ethics. Given some sobering evidence here, while we do more studies, while we argue about sperm, while we malign the authors of “Our Stolen Future,” should we, or should we not, go on releasing hormone-mimicking chemicals with abandon into our environment? How many of these chemicals are actually needed? Who profits from them? Who bears the risk? Who should decide?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996