THE LONG WAR ON ENVIRONMENTALISM
In hindsight: Today’s attacks against environmentalism are not a new phenomenon; there is a long history of demonizing activists, scientists, and government bodies.
Consumers today can purchase online a t-shirt that reads, “Green is the New Red,” which pairs the recycling symbol with the Communist hammer and sickle. They can also buy a beer glass that reads: “EPA: Destroying Jobs, Property, and Freedom Since 1970”, or a bumper sticker that states “Climate Change: A bogus crisis invented by the left to destroy capitalism and freedom.”
Such attacks against environmentalism are part of a long history of demonizing activists, scientists, and government bodies. The commodification and normalization of these attacks are the result of campaigns by chemical and energy companies to undermine government and public support for environmental regulations and climate change initiatives.
Environmentalists have been attacked throughout the 20th century. In the early 1900s, a political cartoon depicted Sierra Club founder John Muir as a woman in a skirt frantically trying to keep the waters of change at bay. The cartoon implied that protecting the environment was women’s work; real men were out developing industrial projects such as dams, roads, and pipelines.
In 1962, when biologist Rachel Carson sought to publicize the dangers of widespread and unregulated pesticide spraying in her book Silent Spring, she was attacked by the chemical industry as a Communist, a spinster and a witch, and discredited as a scientist because she was a woman. Carson’s science was sound, however, and she was vindicated in congressional hearings and supported by President John F. Kennedy. Her book became an international bestseller and inspired similar studies in other countries.
As early as 1959, chemical companies such as B.F. Goodrich, Union Carbide, and Dow knew that workplace contact with the chemical vinyl chloride could produce a “disabling disease.” By 1972 the companies had acknowledged in confidential documents that the carcinogenic effect of such exposure was “undeniable.” But fearing a Silent Spring-type of exposé, the industry waged, through the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), an expensive and aggressive lobbying campaign — similar to the tobacco industry’s defense of smoking — to limit the public’s access to medical findings of industry and independent researchers. The federal government responded by asserting its right to regulate the industry in the public interest. Privately, the CMA called for “a campaign that has the dimension and detail of a war… The dollars expended on offense are token compared to future costs. The rewards are the court decisions we have won, the regulations that have been modified, made more cost effective or just dropped.”
Today, Carson is valorized by millions for her scientific contributions and for helping usher in the modern environmental movement. She is also vilified by groups with ties to chemical and energy companies such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has long criticized environmentalists, the EPA, and, more recently, climate change initiatives. In 2007 the CEI launched its website safechemicalpolicy.com (originally titled Rachelwaswrong.com), which featured a photograph of African children who purportedly died from malaria, identified as “victims” of Carson’s “dangerous legacy.” The site reads, “Today millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson.” Additional websites are devoted to attacking Carson’s legacy and EPA regulations considered to be part of that legacy. These websites include Eco-Imperialism: Green Power-Black Death and Junkscience.com. The latter offers “The Malaria Clock: A Green Eco-Imperialist Legacy of Death,” which claims that 122,132,705 people have died as a result of the EPA banning DDT in 1972 (in the United States).
The claims are specious for many reasons, not least because Carson did not ignore the problem of insect-borne diseases. She argued that, “the question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse.” Carson recognized that pesticides could prevent diseases, but only if applied safely. By focusing their attacks on the iconic Carson, who died of breast cancer in 1964, industry-funded groups attack the environmental movement as a whole, and the idea of environmentalism as a legitimate practice. Such groups have commonly conflated environmentalism with Communism or socialism. They suggest that a regulatory state is undermining corporate and individual freedoms and is hence un-American.
The real “dangerous legacy” of Carson’s work is not to America or to freedom, but rather for groups intent on eliminating regulations, her insistence that the public had a “right to know” about the dangers of pesticides sprayed indiscriminately or household chemicals available for purchase with no warning of their dangers to the human body. Carson defined the human body as the first environment, inextricably linked to an ecosystem that was little understood and little studied by government agencies or university scientists, but that was being contaminated by an ever-growing number and combination of toxic chemicals. Industrial chemicals can affect everyone once they enter the ecosystem, the workplace, the home, and the marketplace. The Chemical Abstracts Service, which tracks the yearly expansion of chemical substances and interactions, includes 132 million organic and inorganic chemical substances in its 2017 registry.
Carson defined the human body as the first environment, inextricably linked to an ecosystem that was little understood and little studied by government agencies or university scientists
The chemical industry’s “war” to limit regulation continues today. In March 2017 EPA chief Scott Pruitt rejected EPA scientists’ findings and refused to ban for agricultural use a chemical that the EPA had already prohibited for household use; and in September 2017 the New York Times reported that “The scientist nominated to head the federal government’s chemical regulatory program has spent much of his career helping businesses fight restrictions on the use of potentially toxic compounds in consumer goods.”
This long war on the legitimacy of environmentalism has revealed how corporate-funded groups use the vocabulary of “liberty” and “freedom” to fight regulations. And it has obstructed the public’s right to know about the health risks of exposure to chemical products and byproducts.
Carson argued that it is the government’s obligation to protect the citizenry from potential harm. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson wrote, “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.” In the 2000s, the chairman of Mt. Sinai’s Preventive Medicine department defined the problem thus:“We are conducting a vast toxicologic experiment, and we are using our children as the experimental animals.”
Paul C. Rosier’s column for the Lepage Center this fall focuses on environmental history. He is Mary M. Birle Chair in American History at Villanova University.