But Is It True? A Citizen's Guide to Environmental Health and Safety Issues

by Aaron Wildavsky

(Harvard University Press, 574 pp., $35)

A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism

by Gregg Easterbrook

(Viking, 745 pp., $27.95)

The New Ecological Order

by Luc Ferry

translated by Carol Volk

(University of Chicago Press, 190 pp., $34.95)

The conservative tide, which has been successfully assaulting almost every other American reform movement for fifteen years, has finally caught up with environmentalism. Industry lobbyists sit on Capitol Hill rewriting environmental legislation. Crudely drafted bills move through the House gutting appropriations for the Environmental Protection Agency and requiring government to weigh all new environmental regulations against economic cost, a likely route to endless litigation and paralysis. Popular culture may still revel in environmental correctness, as Disney's Pocohontas makes clear, but in the real world of politics and law the American greens are on the defensive.

The political assaults are, for the most part, from ancient enemies of environmentalism acting out of economic self-interest or ideological rigidity. But the same cannot be said for another emerging body of criticism: a series of reassessments by a group of respected academics and journalists who are challenging much conventional environmental wisdom and calling into question some of the movement's most important claims. These writers are generally liberal, with a basic sympathy toward at least some forms of environmental activism, but they have lost patience with what they believe are the inflated claims and extremist values of much of the environmental establishment. Important new books by Aaron Wildavsky, Gregg Easterbrook and Luc Ferry give us a revealing glimpse of (to paraphrase Easterbrook) the coming age of environmental skepticism.

Aaron Wildavsky was a renowned political scientist at Berkeley until his death in 1993 and one of the most prolific scholars of his generation. (But Is It True? is the first of several manuscripts to be published posthumously.) His challenging examination of dozens of contemporary environmental controversies has two purposes. One is to help Americans understand the obligations of citizenship. We are bombarded, Wildavsky contends, with scientific studies and theories that become a spur to public action, but few of us feel competent to evaluate the claims and counterclaims swirling around us. Unable to make informed decisions ourselves, we leave the decisionmaking to others.

In an effort to find a solution to this dilemma, Wildavsky recruited a group of undergraduates and graduate students, none of them scientists, and supervised a broad-ranging inquiry into the scientific claims that support a broad range of environmental initiatives. He wanted to see if untrained people like himself and his students could decipher the evidence and learn to answer a simple question: "But is it true?" And he discovered that they could indeed answer the question, though not without considerable effort. His hope (implausible as it may seem) is that their example will embolden many other Americans to empower themselves as citizens by attempting to understand and to evaluate the claims of science and technology.

Wildavsky's second purpose is more controversial (and less explicitly stated). In a series of books and articles, Wildavsky has raised questions about the ways in which we calculate risk in modern society. He argues that we should not make costly and disruptive policy decisions to avoid risk unless there is clear evidence that risk exists. But too often we do exactly that. Almost all the case studies in this book involve health and environmental issues that have generated a strong policy response even though, Wildavsky argues, there has seldom been proof of real danger. In some cases, in fact, there has been overwhelming evidence that the dangers do not exist.

Wildavsky and his students sifted methodically through mountains of difficult scientific studies and have presented their conclusions in reasonably clear prose. Their conclusions are stark and provocative. In reviewing dozens of health and safety controversies of the last few decades, they find none that appears nearly as serious as environmentalists have claimed. Some are familiar examples of overreaction, widely cited by critics of environmentalism: the cranberry scare of 1959, the controversy about Alar on apples in 1989. But others are widely publicized environmental horror stories that few people have publicly questioned. These are a few of Wildavsky's more provocative claims:

  • The ban on DDT, one of the first great triumphs of modern environmentalism (and a tribute to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring), did "more harm than good."
  • Despite the hysterical fears of parents, asbestos in schools poses no detectable danger to children.
  • There is no evidence that acid rain poses significant danger to the environment except in a few isolated places (such as some high-altitude forests).
  • Most hazardous waste sites (including such notorious ones as Love Canal in upstate New York and Times Beach in Missouri) posed no significant danger to residents. The government's extraordinarily costly Superfund program for cleaning up such sites is, on the whole, a waste of money.
  • There is no credible evidence to support fears of global warming.

The only issue on which Wildavsky cedes any points to environmentalists is the controversy over chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are widely believed to deplete the ozone layer. Wildavsky concludes that "unrestrained growth in CFC emissions is clearly unwise," and he grudgingly applauds recent progress in limiting their production. But he also notes that "there is no clear evidence of global ozone depletion," that there is good reason to believe that what depletion there may have been has nothing to do with CFCs and that there are "strong indications that the harm from [ozone] depletion will vary from little to none."

On the surface, at least, Wildavsky's arguments are purely empirical. Like almost all empirical arguments, however, they rest also on philosophical premises and subjective beliefs. To Wildavsky, the fundamental flaw in environmentalism is its absolutism--its unreflective assumption that its claims, its values, its fears are superior to all others. "What norm states that health is the only value or even the dominant value?" he asks. "Whatever happened to other values? How much is a marginal gain in health worth compared with losses in other values such as freedom, justice, and excellence?"

Wildavsky proposes a different standard for evaluating health and safety issues: replace the possibility of harm with the probability of harm as "a criterion for regulation"; reject the prevailing and insupportable assumption that "any chemical harmful at high doses is harmful at exceedingly low doses" and focus on "strong causes with palpable effects" (like cigarette smoking). The web of economic and behavioral restraints that environmentalism has begun to impose on our lives imposes costs on us. We should not be asked to bear those costs on the basis of vague possibilities and inchoate fears. "The truth value of the environmental-cum-safety issues of our time is exceedingly low," he concludes. He calls for a higher standard.

In some respects, the arguments in Gregg Easterbrook's book are strikingly similar. Easterbrook is a journalist who has written widely on environmental issues for years and he, too, expresses a broad skepticism about the claims and the alarmism of many environmentalists (including many of the claims and alarms that Wildavsky debunks). But much more than Wildavsky, he combines those challenges with an impassioned environmental ethic of his own. Easterbrook's book is smoothly and vividly written, based on extensive (if sometimes largely anecdotal) research and often highly persuasive. It is also exceptionally long, a reflection of its almost encyclopedic range.

Easterbrook's argument proceeds along several lines. In the first section of his book, he challenges two claims of modern environmentalism: that the damage that humans do to nature is fundamentally different from the damage nature does to itself; and that much of that damage is permanent and irreparable. Looking back across the millennia, Easterbrook claims, it is difficult to take such claims seriously. Nature has consistently altered itself much more dramatically than the feeble efforts of humans could possibly do; and the environment has consistently recovered from most human (and much natural) alteration with surprising speed and completeness. One of his examples from contemporary ecology is the quick and virtually total recovery of Prince William Sound in Alaska from the Exxon Valdez oil spill--a rebuke to environmentalists who claimed that the damage to the environment was permanent.

More central to Easterbrook's argument (at least if length is any indication) is the second part of his book, in which he argues passionately not only that many environmental warnings are unjustified (an argument much like Wildavsky's) but also that we have not taken enough note of the tremendous progress already made in solving real environmental problems. The progress of the last twenty years in repairing the damage that we have done to the natural world is one of the great triumphs of democratic liberalism and modern government. Our air and water are cleaner than they have been in a century; our wildlife is better protected; our food supplies are safer and more secure. Environmentalists have done themselves a disservice in downplaying successes and emphasizing failures. Recognizing the real achievements of the movement would do more to strengthen its claims (and to challenge right-wing charges that government can do nothing right) than the mindless alarmism that dominates environmentalist rhetoric.

Easterbrook's ultimate aim is larger than displaying the flaws of contemporary environmentalism. His book is suffused with an almost evangelical optimism about the importance of the "good news" that he is bringing. For we are, he claims, about to enter a new age, an age of environmental optimism. Soon, he predicts, we will recognize the success of our effort to manage our relationship with nature, and so we will regain confidence in our ability to manage the problems of mankind. The flawed "doomsday" character of contemporary environmentalism will give way to a new approach that he calls "ecorealism," through which logic and hardheaded realism will replace emotion in our approach to environmental issues. We will recognize that "nature is not ending, nor is human damage to the environment `unprecedented.'" And perhaps most of all, we will understand that "the fundamental force of nature is not a moral struggle between hunter and hunted" (that is, between humans and the natural world), but "cooperation and coexistence." Nature will, therefore, "soon be viewed again in the way it was by the thinkers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment--as a trove of wisdom and an exemplar for society."

Environmentalism is not just a movement and not just an approach to public policy. It is, in some of its forms, also a philosophy, with powerful and controversial ethical claims. Whether those claims can withstand rational scrutiny is a question that the French philosopher Luc Ferry confronts in his powerful and provocative book, which was published in France in 1993. (It has now been capably--if somewhat stiffly--translated into English by Carol Volk.)

Ferry has no quarrel with mainstream, liberal environmentalism. He seems, in fact, rather more sympathetic to it, and more credulous of its claims, than either Wildavsky or Easterbrook. His quarrel is with the more radical forms environmental thinking has begun to assume, and with the challenge some environmentalists have begun to raise to the most basic assumption of modern, secular society: that the purpose of social action is to better the life of mankind. What if man is not, as most humans have long believed, more deserving of respect and protection than animals or trees? What if we were to redefine our conception of the world so that we accept that we owe as much to nature as we do to one another?

Ferry responds to these questions by challenging two of the radical impulses that environmentalism has recently spawned: the animal rights movement and "deep ecology." These newer phenomena, he argues, challenge much more than the rights of capital or the excesses of the bourgeois lifestyle. They challenge humanism itself.

Ferry has an unerring eye for the weakest points in the philosophical arguments of his targets and he exploits them mercilessly. Animal rights advocates do not err in opposing unnecessary cruelty to animals, he insists. But when they begin to claim, as many of them do, that there is no essential difference between animal rights and human rights, they cross the boundary between a decent respect for suffering and a repudiation of centuries of intellectual tradition. Deep ecologists are correct in trying to limit man's ravaging of the natural world, he claims. But when they argue, as they increasingly do, that trees and other living vegetation are entitled to moral and legal rights apart from their value to human existence and that humans must alter the way they live to avoid abridging those rights, they are moving from the sensible to the absurd. To make these connections, Ferry insists, is to separate the notion of rights from what gives rights meaning: the idea of conscious choice.

This is the heart of the humanistic tradition: the idea that humans are different from animals because they can choose the way they live their lives. The animal, Rousseau wrote in the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality, one of modern humanism's founding texts, is "an ingenious machine" that "chooses or rejects by instinct." But the "human machine" chooses or rejects "by an act of freedom" and can deviate from instinct "often to his detriment.... Thus dissolute men abandon themselves to excesses which cause them fever and death, because the mind depraves the senses and because the will still speaks when nature is silent." What makes us human, then, is that our lives are not predetermined, that we are constrained but not imprisoned by our instincts, that we can triumph or err by our own choice. The ability to choose is the foundation of our notion of rights. To argue that animals and trees have rights in any way comparable to those of humans is to rob rights of any rational basis.

Radical environmentalists, Ferry argues, are not principally concerned with nature in any case. They have seized upon environmentalism as a vehicle for expressing their own deep hostility to the structure of the modern world--their loathing of industrialism, capitalism, consumerism. Environmentalism has taken the place of the faded passions of earlier moments in the twentieth century, fascism, Stalinism, Maoism; but it is in some ways no less dangerous than these earlier fanaticisms--and it is not entirely separate from them.

Ferry takes note of an apparent irony that is also developed brilliantly by Simon Schama in his remarkable Landscape and Memory: that Nazi Germany had one of the most advanced environmental policies of any modern state. The Nazis' reasoning, he suggests, was not entirely different from that of today's deep ecologists. The Nazis believed that the essence of the German nation resided in a pure past, embedded in the country's physical landscape. Radical ecologists believe, equally strongly, that there is an earlier, Edenic moment in natural history that the modern world has irreparably damaged. Given their way, he warns, deep ecologists would, like their totalitarian forebears, sweep most democratic institutions aside in the name of a purer, higher cause. Their program would, if successful, lead to a new kind of authoritarianism no less dangerous than earlier forms.

Wildavsky, Easterbrook and Ferry are all, to varying degrees, sympathetic to the movement that they are challenging. None of them, however, is entirely fair to it. Wildavsky's studied tone of scientific neutrality creates an image of disinterestedness, but the examples that he chooses to explore, central as they have been to the environmental agenda, are selective. A more balanced view of the record of the environmental movement would have included, in addition to Wildavsky's dreary chronicle of exaggerated claims and wasted effort, at least a passing acknowledgment of the movement's genuine achievements and of the real problems that remain unaddressed. (He is silent on issues involving air and water pollution, whose dangers are irrefutable and on which, as Easterbrook makes clear, the environmental movement has had a dramatic impact.)

Easterbrook's long, sunny chronicle of environmental triumphs, and his scornful dismissal of doomsayers who will not acknowledge their own successes, would similarly have been more persuasive if he had been more willing to concede the possibility that environmentalists are correctly alarmed about at least some unsolved problems (say, the increasing dangers facing oceans). And Ferry characterizes only the radicals. He, too, has chosen his examples selectively and has portrayed both the animal rights movement and deep ecology movement as being somewhat more consistent (and consistently extreme) than they actually are.

Still, the cumulative effect of these important books is to raise a powerful challenge to modern environmental orthodoxy. It is a challenge that requires particular attention today. The crisis of governance in the United States, as in much of the Western world, is not, as many claim, solely or even primarily the result of the failures of liberals and the left; and yet those failures are real, and they reinforce, if they are left unaddressed, the arguments of those who are attempting to dismantle the public world and entrust our fate to the numinous workings of the market. Protecting the environment, in fact, is one of the things that the market does least well, one of the things for which government intervention is most important. And so environmentalists have more to lose from the discrediting of the state than many other interest groups and much to fear from this moment of special danger to the survival of an effective government.

Many environmentalists are among the most determinedly uncompromising of all activists; and, despite the contempt with which these writers describe their tactics, that alarmism has been responsible for considerable achievements. But that is not the end of the matter. No movement can survive forever without finding some accommodation with the real world of politics. Environmentalism has reached a point where it must defend its claims against well-meaning and ill-meaning critics; and it must defend its claims on the basis of evidence and rational argument. Emotion will no longer persuade anybody. So far, at least, the movement has had relatively little success in establishing a defensible, moderate center that it can differentiate from its extremes. The excesses of the radicals threaten to discredit the movement as a whole.

The modern concept of ecology--the idea of the "seamless web" of the natural world and the interdependence of all species--is relatively new to human thinking about nature. In the United States, at least, it received one of its first clear expressions less than half a century ago from Aldo Leopold, whose The Sand County Almanac, which appeared in 1949, remains one of the central texts of contemporary environmentalism. Leopold proposed something that seemed startling by the standards of his time: a new philosophical approach to nature that he called the "land ethic," through which humans would learn to respect their obligations to the natural world in the same way they respect obligations to society. Perhaps unintentionally, however, he also suggested something of the dangers that now confront the great movement he helped create. "The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as an emotional process," he wrote at the end of The Sand County Almanac. "Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land, or of economic land-use." Many modern environmentalists revere Leopold for his emotional commitment to the natural world. In today's political world--as Wildavsky, Easterbrook and Ferry in their different ways suggest--they could also profit from his call for an "intellectual" process based on "critical understanding."

Alan Brinkley is a professor of American history at Columbia University and the author of The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (Knopf).