Misinformed choices

BETRAYAL OF SCIENCE AND REASON: HOW ANTIENVIRONMENTAL RHETORIC THREATENS OUR FUTURE·Paul R Ehrlich and Anne H Ehrlich· Shearwater Books/Island Press Publication 1996·Price US $24.95 (hardcover)

By Ravi Sharma
Published: Saturday 15 March 1997

world -renowned scientists and writers Paul and Anne Ehrlich have for long devoted themselves to educating the public and policy-makers about environmental issues. Their efforts have greatly improved our understanding of the impact of human activities on the earth's resources and aided in the passage of environmental protection measures. Yet, as the authors explain in their new book, "we and other environmental scientists find ourselves once again struggling to preserve these gains and to keep global environmental deterioration from escalating beyond repair".

In this book, they have written a hard-hitting, timely account of the backlash against environmental policies that they label the 'brownlash'. The brownlash distorts mainstream scientific thinking in an effort to roll back environmental policies in favour of immediate economic interests.It is given voice most often by individuals aligned with right-wing organisations or private interests and is propagated in the mainstream media, which lends it an unfortunate aura of credibility.

As the authors explain, the brownlash succeeds largely because the public and policy-makers alike have a limited understanding of science and scientific procedures: "To the average person the scientific process is a sort of black hole, an alien world of arcane experiments, unintelligible or confusing results, and peculiar people." Ironically, the very principles that create sound science such as peer review, an adversarial framework that subjects accepted scientific knowledge to continual challenge while ensuring that any new hypothesis is vigorously tested create fodder for attacks by opponents.

At the core of the book is a systematic debunking of the myths advanced by the brownlash: natural resources are superabundant, if not infinite; risks posed by toxic substances are vastly exaggerated; stratospheric ozone depletion is a hoax; global warming and acid rain are not serious threats to humanity; there is no extinction crisis; humanity is on the verge of abolishing hunger; food scarcity is a local or regional problem and is not indicative of overpopulation; population growth does not cause environmental damage, and may even be beneficial.

The Ehrlichs explain the empirical findings behind these issues clearly and with scientific objectivity, presenting information that can be used to evaluate and respond to the erroneous information and misrepresentation put forth by the brownlash.

The book also examines how brownlash rhetoric finds its way into the media, citing competition, deadline pressures, and the emphasis upon trends and controversy in reporting. The authors give numerous examples in which national news organisations were duped by brownlash rhetoric and in which journalists sympathetic to the message of the brownlash almost single-handedly affected public opinion.

In closing, the Ehrlichs encourage scientists to get involved in educating the public "if something is worth discovering, it is worth communicating" and the public to "get acquainted with the issues".

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