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From "Bad Environmental and Resource Scares", Chapter 18 of Julian L Simon's 1996 The Ultimate Resource 2, Princeton University Press, pp 258-273, and "Healing the Planet" afternote on p 274.

This extract is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Simon family.

 

Possibly Dangerous Threats

Questionable Issues

Definitely Disproven Threats

Afternote: Healing the planet

 
 
Known Killers

These are important pollutions that certainly can kill many: plague, malaria (the worst killer in the nineteenth century into the twentieth century);[i] typhus, tropical yellow fever, encephalitis, dengue fever, elephantiasis, African sleeping sickness, river blindness, and dozens of other diseases carried by insects, often through the air; cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever carried by polluted water; leprosy, tuberculosis, smallpox, and other epidemic diseases. Spoiled food (botulism and other ills) from primitive preparation and lack of proper storage. Cigarettes (tobacco causes 25-40 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States).[ii] Poor diet (causes perhaps 35 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States).[iii] High doses of medical X-rays. Dust particulates and smoke from burning coal and wood. Overuse of almost anything - for example, alcohol and drugs. Guns, autos, ladders. Work-related exposure to formaldehyde, EDB,[iv] Bhopal-type chemical accidents and kepone.[v] Chernobyl-like nuclear accidents due to carelessness and bad design. Coal-mining, police work, and fire fighting. War, homicide, suicide, forced starvation, and other deaths caused by human predators.
 

Figure 18-1 shows some relative risks. [Not shown here.]

 
 Possibly Dangerous Threats
These are some phenomena which may be dangerous but whose effects (if any) are not well-understood: Too much ozone in Southern California (see chapter 15 concerning Krupnick and Portney). Low-voltage electric and magnetic fields around power lines and appliances.[vi] (There is no known evidence of damage to health from either. They are listed in this section only because some reputable scientists are still asking for more research on the subjects, although others say it is a waste of funds.)
 
 Questionable Issues
 These are phenomena whose dangers have been alleged. They have not been supported by any solid evidence, but have not yet been conclusively disproven:

1900s - 1990s: Global warming.

? - 1990s: Ozone layer. See discussion to follow. [Not included on this page]

1992: "Big Drop in Sperm Count Since '38."[vii] A Danish study asserts drop of almost 25 percent in human sperm count in past half-century. PCBs are said to be the cause by some "experts". Would anyone care to bet on whether this new scare turns out to be valid?

1992: Chlorinated water causing birth defects. Study finds that among 81,055 births in New Jersey, fifty-six were born with spinal defects, and 8 of those were born to women exposed to high levels of chlorine in the water; two or three would have been expected among this group if there were no effect. Since every medicine has side-effects, and just about everything "causes" cancer in one fashion or another, it would not be surprising if chlorine does, too. But given the sample size, and the number of such possible effects that are examined by researchers, the odds are very high that this effect will be found not to exist. Yet it occasioned large newspapers stories with headlines such as "Chlorination Byproducts in Water Seen as Risk During Pregnancy."[viii] No mention is made in the article of the huge pollution-reducing effects of putting chlorine into the water.

1992: "Study Suggests Electric Razor Use May Raise Risk of Getting Cancer". A study of 131 men who had leukemia. For readers some years in the future, you may test the plausibility of new scares then by checking whether this and other 1992 scares have been validated or disconfirmed by then. (Also, only about 3 new cases of leukemia are reported per year per 100,000 people.)[ix] And consider, too: are there any dangers from shaving with a straight-edge razor that are avoided with an electric razor?

  

Definitely Disproven Threats

Earliest history to the present: Land shortage. As nomadic groups grew, land scarcity increased. This led to agriculture. This is just the first in the sequences of technical advances → population increase → new food or land scarcities → new advances described in chapters 5 and 6.

???BCE: Running out of flint. Worries about running out of resources have been with us since the beginning of time. Shortages surely occurred in many places. Archaeologists studying two Mayan villages in Central America found that about 300 BCE in the village far from plentiful flints supplies, there was much more conservation and innovation by reusing the flint in broken implements, compared to the village with plentiful flint nearby.[x] The Neanderthals could produce five times more cutting edge from a block of flint as could their predecessors. And successors of the Neanderthals increased their efficiency to produce eighty times as much cutting edge per block as the Neandertal’s predecessors.[xi] Eventually, flint was replaced by metal, and scarcity declined. This is the prototype of all resource scares.

1700 BCE?: Running out of copper. Iron was developed as a replacement for tool manufacture.

1200 BCE?: Tin. New sources were found from time to time. Bronze became increasingly scarce and high-priced in the Middle East and Greece because of a tin shortage probably caused by a war-induced breakdown in long-distance trade. Iron-working and steel-making techniques developed in response.[xii]

550 BCE?: Disappearing forests. The Greeks worried over the deforestation of their country, in part for lack of wood to build ships. When scarcity became acute, shipbuilders shifted to a new design that required less wood.[xiii] Greece is well forested now.

1500s, 1600s: Running out of wood for fuel.

1500s to 1700s CE: Loss of trees in Great Britain. See chapter 10 for outcome.

Late 1700s: With the invention of lightning rods came fear of electricity accumulating in earth (Ben Franklin's time).[xiv]

1798: Food - the Malthusian mother of all scares that warns: increasing population must lead to famine. Since then there has been continuous improvement in average nutrition (see chapter 5).

1800s: Running out of coal in Great Britain. Jevons's book documented the scare. See chapter 11 for outcome.

1850s and intermittently thereafter: Running out of oil. See chapter 12 for outcome.

1895-1910: Rubber. Wild-grown public-property supplies became exhausted and the price of rubber rose from $0.50 to $3. Plantations were established in response. Price fell back to $0.50 by 1910, and then went further down to $0.20.[xv]

1900s: Timber in the United States. See chapter 10 and Sherry Olson (1971).

1922-1925: Rubber again. British-Dutch cartel squeezed supplies, and prices tripled. Increased scarcity provoked conservation in production, increased productivity on plantations, and recycling. Price returned to $0.20 and cartel was broken. Research on synthetics began as a result of the price run-up.[xvi]

1930s, 1950s, 1980s in the U.S., other periods in other countries: Water. See chapters 10 and 17.

1940-1945: Rubber again. War cut supplies. The research on synthetics, induced by the earlier episode, was available for rapid development.

1945: DDT, sensationalized by Rachel Carson in 1962. Said to cause hepatitis.[xvii] Discontinued in United States in 1972. Known then to be safe to humans (caused death only if eaten like pancakes).[xviii] Some damage to wildlife under special conditions.[xix]

With the aid of DDT, "India had brought the number of malaria cases down from the estimated 75 million in 1951 to about 50,000 in 1961. Sri Lanka...reduced malaria from about three million cases after World War II to just 29 in 1964". Then as the use of DDT went down, "Endemic malaria returned to India like the turnaround of a tide.” By 1977 "the number of cases reached at least 30 million and perhaps 50 million".

In 1971, amidst the fight that led to the banning of DDT in 1972, the president of the National Academy of Science - distinguished biologist Philip Handler - said "DDT is the greatest chemical that has ever been discovered". Commission after commission, top expert after top Nobel prize-winning expert, has given DDT a clean bill of health.[xx]

1950s: Irradiated foods. Now approved in 30 countries for various uses, approved in United States, 1992.[xxi]

1957 - continues: Fluoridated water. The arguments used against fluoridating water were eerily similar to those later used against nuclear power - but from the other end of political spectrum.[xxii]

1960s: PCBs. Banned in 1976.[xxiii] A side-effect of banning PCBs is malfunctions in large electrical transformers. One such case caused the July 29, 1990, blackout covering 14 square miles in Chicago, leading to rioting and three deaths.[xxiv]

Early 1960s: Low-level nuclear radiation. Rather than being harmful, this was later shown to produce a beneficial effect called hormesis (see chapter 13).

November, 1959: Thanksgiving cranberries and pesticides.

Mid-1960s: Mercury dental fillings. Declared safe in 1993 by U.S. Public Health Service.[xxv]

Mid-1960s: SST threat to ozone layer; two scientific flip-flops within a few years.[xxvi] (See below.)

1970: Mercury in swordfish and tuna.[xxvii]

1970: Cyclamates banned for causing bladder cancer. Totally cleared in 1985. [xxviii] But ban never lifted.[xxix]

1972: Red dye #2. One Russian study claimed dye caused cancer. Many subsequent studies absolved the dye. Nevertheless, banned in 1976.[xxx]

1970s (and earlier): Running out of metals (see chapters 1-3).

1970s: Saccharin causing bladder cancer. Exonerated in 1990s.[xxxi] But warning still required on containers.

Early 1970s: Pesticides aldrin and dieldrin, suspended in 1974.[xxxii] Chlordane and heptachlor. All banned in the 1970s because of belief that they cause tumors in mouse livers. But "[t]here has never been a documented case of human illness or death in the United States as the result of the standard and accepted use of pesticides. Although Americans are exposed to trace levels of pesticides, there is no evidence that such exposure increases the risk of cancer, birth defects, or any other human ailment."[xxxiii]

1970s: Acid rain. Shown in 1990s not to harm forests. (See below.)

1970s: Agent Orange (dioxin). Dioxin declared safe by federal court in 1984 when veterans brought suit.[xxxiv] August, 1991: New York Times front-page headline was "U.S. Backing Away from Saying Dioxin is a Deadly Peril". The story continued, "Exposure to the chemical, once thought to be much more hazardous than chain smoking, is now considered by some experts to be no more risky than spending a week sunbathing". Concerning the Agent Orange case: "Virtually every major study, including a 1987 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has concluded that the evidence isn't strong enough to prove that the herbicide is the culprit" in the bad health of some Vietnam veterans.[xxxv]

Mid-1970s: Humanity in danger because of a millennia-long reduction in the number of varieties of plants used for food. Belied by evidence on famine prior to the 1970s and since then, as explained in the afternote to chapter 6.

1976: Chemical residues at Love Canal.[xxxvi] Scare ended 1980; solid scientific consensus is that there was no observable damage to humans from living near Love Canal.

1976: Explosion of PCB plant in Seveso, Italy. The PCBs caused no harm to anyone. (See the statement by Haroun Tazieff on page 573 [in present chapter 40].

Mid- and late-1970s: Global cooling. By 1980s, replaced by the scare of global warming. (See below.)

1978: Asbestos in schools and other buildings.[xxxvii] The ill-considered regulations on the use of asbestos not only are costly, but have had a devastating side-effect: the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The sealant used to replace the asbestos-based O-ring sealant in the rocket engine that launches space shuttles malfunctioned at the low temperature at which Challenger was launched, causing the explosion shortly after launch and deaths of the astronauts. As in many such cases, it is impossible to foresee all the consequences of an environmental regulation and as David Hume and Friedrich Hayek teach us, we should be extremely wary of altering evolved patterns of behavior lest we make such tragic blunders with our "rational" assessments of what our social interventions may bring about. For more on asbestos, see the 1992 article by Malcolm Ross - a hero in bringing to light the facts about asbestos - and Bennett's 1991 book.

1970s - 1980s: Oil spills. The worst cases of oil spills have all been far less disastrous to wildlife than initially feared.

1980s: Radon. Eventually, too little radon found dangerous, rather than too much.[xxxviii]

1979: Lead ingestion by children lowers IQ. Study by Herbert Needleman led to the federal ban on leaded gasoline. Study entirely repudiated in 1994.[xxxix] No mention of again allowing leaded gasoline has been made, however.

1981: Coffee said to cause 50 percent of pancreatic cancers. Original researchers reversed conclusion in 1986. Also, no connection found between caffeine intake of pregnant women and birth defects.[xl]

1980s, 1990s: BST (Bovine somatotropin). Assertion that this growth-promoting element will make cows more liable to infection proven false.[xli]

1981: Malathion and medfly threat to agriculture in the West. Malathion found safe in 1981 as a medfly killer, after its use had been threatened.

1982: Times Beach dioxin threat, found to have caused no harm to humans. In 1983 dioxin was cleared of charges. The Centers for Disease Control asserts that the Times Beach evacuation was unnecessary.[xlii]

1984: Ethyl dibromide (EDB). Banned, though no one harmed. Result: more dangerous pesticides used instead.[xliii]

Mid-1980s, continues: Ozone hole. No connection found between thinner ozone layer and skin cancer. See below.

1986: In November, warning of lead in drinking water. In December, retraction by EPA.[xliv]

1987: Alcohol said to be responsible for 50 percent increase in breast cancers.[xlv]

1987: Sand from Californian and other beaches. Silica was listed as a "probable" human carcinogen, and warnings were required by the State of California on containers of sand and limestone. Has been classified as carcinogenic by OSHA and other regulatory agencies.[xlvi]

1989: Red dye #3. This scare came and went in a hurry.[xlvii]

?DES (Diethylstilbesterol): Cattle growth hormone said to cause cervical cancer. Banned.[xlviii] Only cause for fear was finding of vaginal cancer when DES used in large doses as a human drug during pregnancy.[xlix]

1989: Aflatoxin in corn. Another supposed threat to our food supply.

1989: Alar.[l]

? Nuclear winter: Atom bombs can surely kill us. But this threat to humanity as a whole was soon found to be shoddy science.

1991: Smoke from Kuwait oil fires and global cooling. No global effects found.[li] "Fires in Kuwait Not a Threat to Climate, Federal Study Finds."[lii] First reports estimated an "unprecedented ecological catastrophe, the likes of which the world has never seen", with five years required to extinguish all the fires. The last fire was extinguished within six months.[liii]

1991: Lefthanded people die earlier. Proved unsubstantiated in 1993.[liv] False scare based on faulty age-compositional data.

1993: Cancer caused by cellular telephones. This scare is an excellent example of the scare epidemic. A single layman made the charge on a television talk show of a link between his wife's brain tumor and her use of cellular phones. That was enough to produce front-page stories for days, activity in Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Cancer Institute, plus statements by manufacturers that studies of the matter will be forthcoming. All scientists quoted have stated that there is no evidence of a connection. In the meantime, stock prices of firms in the industry fell substantially—the price of Motorola, the largest manufacturer, fell 20 percent[lv]—and many persons became fearful of using their phones.

 
…
 

Afternote: Healing the planet

 

The phrase of the 1990s seems to be “heal the earth” or “… the planet.” It falls from the lips of Jewish rabbis (the only kind, I suppose), Roman Catholic churchmen, Protestant ministers, as well as environmental activists such as Paul Ehrlich, who so named a book. What means this?

The phrase seems to suggest that the planet is sick or injured. When one inquires in what way, one learns that the “problem” is the difference between the way the Earth is now and the way it “originally” was. The “cure” is to be found in “virgin” woods, wilderness untrammeled by the feat of modern woman or man, with all species restored to their numbers before recent times, and without traces of structures built or substances deposited in recent centuries. In other words, all evidence of human activity during the last two hundred or two thousand years is to be “healed.”

The only way that this could be done, of course, is to restore the number of human beings to what it was about ten thousand years ago. And the environmental activists—especially Garrett Hardin and Paul Ehrlich—do not shrink from reducing the numbers of human beings.

The condition of the planet that they call for has nothing to do with its excellence for human health or living standards. The evidence is overwhelming that people now live more healthily and with more of the material goods they desire than ever in the past, and there is no reason to believe that the trend will not continue in the same direction forever. Obviously, then, “healing” will not make human life better in the future. It is to be done for the sake of the planet itself, whatever that means.

It could not be clearer that the view that the planet needs “healing” rests entirely on one set of values. More generally, the call to “heal” the planet is a feel-good notion, full of sentiment but empty of content, and perhaps motivated largely by selfishness.

 
 

References

 

Adelman, Ken. “Surmounting the Fear-Mongers,” Washington Times, July 30, 1993, editorial.

Barrons, Keith C. 1981. Are Pesticides Really Necessary? Chicago: Regnery.

Bennett, Michael J. 1991. The Asbestos Racket, Washington: Free Enterprise Press.

Edwards, J. Gordon. 1992b. “The Myth of Food Chain Biomagnification.” In Lehr 1992, pp. 125-34.

Feinstein, Alvan R, 1988. “Scientific Standards in Epidemiologic Studies of the Menace of Daily Life.” Science 242 (December 2): 1257-63.

Handler, Philip. 1970. Testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development. July 21. Quoted by Wolman 1971.

Harrison, Whelan, Claus, George, and Karen Bolander, Ecological Sanity (New York: David McKay, 1977).

Hobbs, Peter V. and Lawrence F. Radke, 1992. “Airborne Studies of the Smoke from the Kuwait Oil Fires” Science 256 (May 15): 987-91.

Hume, David. 1777/1985. Essay: Moral, Political, and Literary. Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.

Jevons, W. Stanley. 1865. The Coal Question. London: Macmillan.

Jukes , Thomas H. 1992b. “The Tragedy of DDT” In Lehr, pp.217-22.

Krupnick, Alan J., and Paul R. Portney. 1991. “Controlling Urban Air Pollution: A Benefit-Cost Assessment,” Science 252 (April 26): 522-28.

Leakey, Richard E. 1981. The Making of Mankind. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Lehr, Jay. 1992. Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns. New York: Van Nostrand.

Maddox, John. 1972. The Doomsday Syndrome. London: Macmillan.

Maurice, Charles, and Charles W. Smithson. 1984. The Doomsday Myth. Stanford: Hoover Institution.

Mazur, Allan. 1981. Dynamics of Technical Controversy. Washington, D.C.: Communications Press.

Mellanby, Kenneth. 1989. “With Safeguards, DDT Should Still Be Used.” Wall Street Journal, September 12, p. A26.

Morgan, M. Granger. 1990. Review of Currents of Death: Power Lines, Computer Terminals, and the Attempt to Cover Up Their Threat to Your Health, by Paul Brodeur. In Scientific American (April): 118-23.

Olson, Sherry H. 1971. The Depletion Myth: History of Railroad Use of Timber. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Ray, Dixie Lee, with Lou Guzzo. 1990. Trashing the Planet. Chicago: Regnery Gateway.

Raymond, Robert. 1984. Out of the Fiery Furnace. Australia: Macmillan.

Ross, Malcolm. 1992. “Minerals and Health”The Asbestos Problem.” In Leyr, pp. 101-14.

Schiager, Keith J. 1992. “Radon—Risk and Reason.” In Leyr, pp. 619-26.

Singer, S Fred. 1992. “My Adventures in the Ozone Layer.” In Lehr, pp. 535-45.

Tierney, John. 1988. “Not To Worry.” In Hippocrates (January/February): 29-32, 34, 37-38.

Tullock, Gordon, and Gordon Brady. 1992. “The Risk of Crying Wolf.” In Predicting Ecosystem Risk, edited by Cairns, Niederlehner, and Orvos. Princeton Scientific.

Whelan, Elizabeth M. 1985. Toxic Terror: The Truth Behind the Cancer Scare. Jameson Books.

Whelan, Elizabeth M. and Fredrick J. Stare. 1992. In Panic in the Pantry, edited by Stephen Barrett. Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus Books.

Williams, Walter. 1992. “Environmental Update.” The Reporter (September 21).

 
 


[i] Barrons 1981, p. 97.
[ii] Tierney 1988, p. 35, adapted from Doll and Peto.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Whelan 1985.
[vi] Morgan 1990.

[vii] San Francisco Chronicle, September 11, 1992, p. A13.
[viii] Washington Post, December 17, 1992, p. A11.
[ix] Wall Street Journal, November 13, 1992, p. B2.
[x] Maurice and Smithson 1984, chapter 9.
[xi] Leakey 1981, p. 151.
[xii] Raymond 1984, chapter 3.

[xiii] Maurice and Smithson 1984, chapter 8.
[xiv] Mazur 1981, p. 1.
[xv] Maurice and Smithson 1984, chapter 3.
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Maddox 1972.
[xviii] Mellanby 1989.

[xix] General references: Harrison, Whelan, Claus, George, and Karen Bolander, Ecological Sanity (New York: David McKay, 1977). Malaria cases in Ceylon in Whelan 1985.
[xx] Whelan 1985 and the host of references therein; Jukes 1992b. Re food chain and DDT, see Edwards 1992.
[xxi] American Council on Science and Health 1982/1988.

[xxii] Mazur 1981
[xxiii] Lehr 1992, p. 86; Ray and Guzzo 1990, chapter 7.
[xxiv] Williams 1992.

[xxv] Washington Post, January 26, 1993, Health, p. 5.

[xxvi] Singer, 1992.
[xxvii] Gosline 1987, personal correspondence.
[xxviii] Ibid.
[xxix] Whelan, correspondence, January 22, 1993.
[xxx] Whelan and Stare 1992, pp. 112-13.

[xxxi] Newsweek, May 11, 1992, p. 69.

[xxxii] Whelan 1985, p. 111.
[xxxiii] Ibid, p. 109.
[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 187-90; Ray and Guzzo 1990, chapter 7.

[xxxv] Science, vol. 257, September 4, 1992, p. 1335.

[xxxvi] Whelan p. 94.

[xxxvii] Ray and Guzzo 1990, p 83. Bennett 1991; Ross 1992.

[xxxviii] Schiager 1992.

[xxxix] The work was bad beyond ordinary scientific error. After much inquiry, the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services decided that although it was entirely flawed, and correction should be published, “no scientific misconduct was found.” Washington Post, March 9, 1994, p. A7.

[xl] Feinstein 1988, p. 1259; Orient 1992. Washington Post, February 3, 1993, p. A2.

[xli] Wall Street Journal, January 7 1991, p. A14, cited by Tullock and Brady 1992.

[xlii] Whelan 1985, pp. 185-86.
[xliii] Ibid, pp. 120ff.
[xliv] ACSH News Release.
[xlv] Feinstein 1988, p. 1259.

[xlvi] Wall St Journal, March 22, 1993, p. A1.

[xlvii] Whelan 1989.
[xlviii] Gosline, 1987.
[xlix] Whelan correspondence, January 22, 1993.
[l] Whelan 1985; Ray and Guzzo, 1990, pp. 78-79.
[li] Hobbs and Radke, 1992.

[lii] Washington Post, June 25, 1991, p. A3.

[liii] Adelman 1993.

[liv] Washington Post, February 14, 1993, p. A3.

[lv] Ibid., p. C6; Newsweek, February 8, 1993, p. 24.