Environmental Munich

First apples; then oatmeal cookies; then Perrier: Is nothing sacred anymore? I ask this rhetorical question to illustrate a dangerous [...]

June 1 1990 by Edwin J. Feulner


First apples; then oatmeal cookies; then Perrier: Is nothing sacred anymore? I ask this rhetorical question to illustrate a dangerous trend: the politicization of science. Even such nonpartisan, scholarly institutions as the New England Journal of Medicine appear to have been affected. But more on that later.

The important questions for business are these: Where will it all end? How much will it cost? And how do we effectively fight back? These are not rhetorical questions. Not fighting back has already cost industry and consumers hundreds of billions of dollars. It has made America less competitive in world markets. And by and large it’s been money up the smokestack: environmental gains could have been accomplished more efficiently using “market” approaches, and the health dangers Washington has had us fighting-chasing after increasingly tiny trace amounts of pesticide residues in our foods, for example-generally are more theoretical than real.

Ahead, however, is even more. Just a few weeks ago, we saw the prelude: the multi-million dollar TV event known as “Earth Day 1990.” This business-bashing orgy identified virtually every economic activity you can think of as either ecologically unsound or otherwise harmful to man or beast.

Earth Day organizers were clear in their intent: to launch a decade of environmental activism. In other words, expect “d�©j�. vu all over again,” to quote the immortal Yogi Berra.

Business should prepare itself for the inevitable onslaught-the likes of which it hasn’t experienced since the early 1970s. That’s when Washington, you’ll recall, created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-now slated for cabinet status-the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

The birth of these alphabet agencies was prompted by the so-called consumer and environmental movements, which at the time appeared to own Washington. The genesis of the “movement” appears to have been Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, which attributed the loss of wildlife species to the pesticide DDT, a conclusion that is still hotly contested. Nevertheless, Washington chose to become a federal nature nanny.

As the late John Wettergreen noted in the 1989 study, The Imperial Congress, this regulatory fervor resulted in “the assumption of vast new authority by the central government [and] the establishment of regulation as the typical political activity of the U.S.” From 1964 to 1974, “the size of the commercial regulatory apparatus alone more than doubled.” Not only did the number of agencies increase from 50 to 72, with the addition of the EPA, CPSC, OSHA and the like, but 35 of the 50 agencies were substantially reformed, becoming “economywide” and even “societywide” in scope.

On the table now is another smorgasbord of issues: the Clean Air Act; acid rain; automobile fuel-economy standards; new food labeling requirements; animal rights; groundwater pollution; mandatory recycling; resource exploration and development; food safety; farm act revisions; global warming, and on and on.

Unfortunately, if past is prologue, Congress will probably listen to the side that screams the loudest or parades the greatest number of celebrities into Washington. And egging them on will be a coterie of well-financed and well-schooled activist organizations, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Union of Concerned Scientists, to name a few.

These organizations, to put it bluntly, don’t play by the same rules that apply to the rest of us. Indeed, they are free to make outrageous claims for which there is no significant evidence. They are even encouraged to do so by the media and Congress. It’s good “political theater.”

That’s the big picture of what business faces. But it is really an abstract collage, created by an unceasing bombardment of reports, analyses, studies, rebuttals, press conferences, headlines, and warnings which have the public so confused they don’t know what or who to believe any more.

Witness two episodes from the past, both of them involving motherhood and apple pie-or more exactly, the toxicity of the agricultural chemical Alar, used in apple growing, and the health benefits of eating oat bran and oatmeal, which makes a fine pie crust.

The Alar scare was a classic, combining the best efforts of the NRDC, an activist litigating organization, and CBS’s 60 Minutes. As Washington Times editorial writer Kenneth Smith noted in a special report for the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), there was no scientific basis at all for the panic. Even other environmental activists-Ellen Silbergard of the Environmental Defense Fund, for example-refused to accept the NRDC’s conclusions. In fact, the authors of the report weren’t even scientists. “Robin M. Whyatt, one of the two principal authors…had only a master’s degree in public health, when a doctoral degree is considered minimum standard to prepare such a document,” Smith noted. “A contributing NRDC author, Janet Hathaway, had degrees in both philosophy and law, but none at all in science.” But that didn’t seem to phase anyone.

By contrast, when Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, ACSH president, and Dr. Bruce Ames, chairman of the biochemistry department at the University of California Berkeley, appeared on a later 60 Minutes show to discuss the NRDC claims, their backgrounds-not the NRDC author’s-became the focus. Co-host Ed Bradley’s implication: since ACSH is partially funded by corporate contributions, and Ames has received corporate research grants, their opinions are suspect.

Not suspect, however, was one Frank Sacks, M.D., whose name jumped into the headlines earlier this year in connection with a study alleging that the health benefits of eating oats are not what they’re cracked up to be. Published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, the study provided ready fodder for the polemicists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which had been lobbying the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit the advertising of such health claims.

What about Dr. Sacks-a neutral scientist, or someone with a hidden agenda? Lest the suspense unnecessarily elevate your blood pressure: Dr. Sacks happens to be one of just eight members of CSPI’s “scientific advisory board.” The New England Journal of Medicine didn’t seem to care. Indeed, only ABC’s Ted Koppel, host of Nightline, appears to have even raised the issue.

Sacks’ modest study involved just 20 participants. The 11 studies that Quaker Oats and General Mills could point to, involving more than 700 participants-oh well, you know, they must be biased.

These examples, and countless others, point in one direction: facts don’t seem to matter any more. But facts do matter, and business needs to do a better and more aggressive job of making sure that policymakers not only have all the available facts before decisions are made, but that they use them properly.

If U.S. business retreats any further it is likely to fall into an environmental black hole. Executives should not allow themselves to be swayed by naive PR types who counsel that they can moderate the opposition by pursuing a policy of appeasement. They need to pursue the same strategy for dealing with their enemies that NATO used for the past 45 years: first containment, then roll-back.


Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy research institution. He also serves on the board of several other foundations and research institutes. Dr. Feulner is the author of Conservatives Stalk The House.