Saturday, December 04, 2004

Conservative Scaremongering

Sometimes it's hard to make the simplest connections. For instance, you always hear conservatives complaining that the Left is prone to "scaremongering." We're a pack of Chicken Littles, to hear them tell it, forever rushing around and shrieking that the sky is falling. Gregg Easterbrook's view is typical:

Fashionable alarmism may eventually create a Chicken Little backlash: as the years pass and Nature doesn't end, people may stop listening when environmentalists issue warnings.

But what's the reason that things like the precautionary principle are so bad, according to the Right? Why must this chemical not be banned, and that industry not be regulated? Why must this land not be protected from development, and that animal not be protected from extinction? Because doing so would "destroy the economy." It would ruin people's livelihoods, weaken the nation, and bring our deaths halfway to meet us.

That certainly sounds like scaremongering to me, but for some reason, alarmism of this type is perfectly reasonable and respectable.

Here's a classic example of conservative scaremongering: In 1977, California banned a nematicide called dibromochloropropane (DBCP) - which was widely used on grapes - because it caused atrophy of the testicles and other inconvenient problems. While the ban was being discussed, DBCP advocates worked themselves into a state of spittle-flecked hysteria that rivaled the worst panic attack of any "environazi" you'd care to name. California farmers had been using almost a million pounds of DBCP per year, and some of them actually claimed that it would be impossible to grow grapes without this chemical. On all sides, "experts" predicted staggering losses and economic upheaval if the ban were implemented. But as it turned out, not only was it possible to grow grapes without DBCP (just as it had been for millennia), but grape yields actually increased after the ban went into effect.

Similar right-wing alarmism greeted 1972's DDT ban, with some experts predicting a fifty-percent drop in US agricultural production. It didn't happen, and output of US agricultural products increased in the years after the DDT ban. Once again, the conservative Chicken Littles couldn't have been more wrong.

Conservative scaremongering also fails to consider opportunity cost (i.e., the cost of choosing one course of action over another). For example, the belief that grapes can't be grown without DBCP, besides being irrational, acts as a barrier to innovation. That harms everyone, not least because DBCP was a relatively inefficient nematicide and actually reduced crop yields in some circumstances.

Needless to say, when it comes to the environment, environmentalists have done a much better job of predicting outcomes than industry-funded research groups have. In most cases, the financial savings that would've been realized by following sustainable agriculture practices dwarf any financial benefit of a chemical like DBCP (unless, of course, you're a shareholder in Shell or Dow Chemical). In fact, DBCP remains one of California's worst environmental problems, appearing in up to 80 percent of the state's polluted groundwater. Here's a description of the situation twenty years after the DBCP ban:
DBCP, or dibromochloropropane, is a potent carcinogen and perhaps the most powerful testicular toxin ever made. The pesticide causes genetic mutations and cancer in every species of animal on which it has been tested. According to University of California researchers, a single dose can cause permanent testicular malfunction in test animals. DBCP has been banned nationwide for 20 years, but is still found in hundreds of Central Valley water supplies. In connection with a lawsuit by families of children who drank DBCP-tainted water at school in Bakersfield, researchers have found a high rate of sterility or abnormally small testicles among the former pupils.

Agribusiness has long since moved on; its Chicken Little hysteria over the DBCP ban is a dim memory, and it has plenty of new battles to fight. Unfortunately, millions of residents of California are finding it considerably more difficult to put the issue behind them.


Anonymous said...


You pointed out exactly what I do about the failure of imagination at work here. By working WITH the environment, rather than against it, the economy can create whole new industries that can employ more people. I mean, I'm not an economist or anything, but I can see this. Oil is running out? It's time to start looking at cleaner, better sustainable energy sources.

When I worked at Lockheed, BTW, I remember that we had in the works these solar array panels for the Space Shuttle that could fit in a 1 foot cube, but when fully expanded, towered about 10 stories and supplied all of the Shuttle's energy neeeds. These solar cells were capable of being that efficient, back in 1990.

As soon as I saw that, I immediately thought of the possibilities. I imagined that kind of technology perfected to capture more energy in a smaller space when the arrays were "open"--we could put some of these arrays on every home and car, have grids to store energy for "common" consumption, like street lights, or for low sun activity, etc., and never have to worry about energy again. But I think we both know how stuff like that goes against some powerful interests in the here and now. But how many people could be put to work developing this, and maintaining it? Businesses don't operate in vacuums, either. Other businesses supply products and services to them. And if the solar business expands, then the business of the suppliers expands, creating more jobs, etc. This is win-win. I wish they'd see it. But then I operate from the abundance mentality, which most businesses don't.

It will take a small company to make something like this happen. The average big business just won't take that kind of risk. They were always beholden to the bottom line, but now they employ far too many accountants and "productivity specialists" to count beans. Don't even get me started on that crap...

Phila said...

That you, LJ? I assume so.

Yeah, it's shocking. I go on quite a bit about hidden costs of existing processes, but the opportunity costs are a whole other issue (especially when you factor in the prospective value of patents and other intellectual property).

I'm going to be scribbling quite a bit about this stuff in the next couple days, as I've got a whole hive of bees in my bonnet at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Yikes. Sorry for not providing my signoff there. Yes, that was yours truly...