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The NEW YORK TIMES leveled another biased, dishonest attack at the nation's environmental protection programs last month. On June 30, TIMES staff writer John Tierney made the front cover of the Sunday TIMES MAGAZINE with the catchy title, "Recycling is Garbage."[1] Tierney's piece is a typical example of work being done now by the Good News industry, which set out 10 years ago to prove that environmental problems don't exist, or have been greatly exaggerated, and that any government effort to solve those problems is a waste of money. Mr. Tierney's latest effort is a classic amalgam of half-truths, outright fabrications, and ideologically-biased reporting.

As we saw last week, in the mid-1980s, companies that annually pump out billions of pounds of poisonous wastes (and products) started funding a small group of writers who have developed a set of techniques for "proving" that government interference in the free market --even for the purpose of protecting the environment --is bad for everyone. As we will see, Mr. Tierney's work is a typical product of the Good News industry.

Writers for the Good News industry serve two masters. First, they directly protect the interests of the corporations that discharge billions of pounds of poisons into the public's air and water each year. Secondly, they provide support for the extremist libertarian view that any government intervention in the free market is harmful and a waste.

Serving the interests of the poisoners is straightforward. For example, in the 1980s, Monsanto Corporation got a bad name for polluting every square foot of the planet with noxious PCBs, dioxin, and harmful pesticides. In truth, no single corporation has ever done greater damage to the planet than Monsanto (though Waste Management, Inc., or WMX, is challenging Monsanto's record.) To rehabilitate its image, Monsanto has successfully employed a good-cop, bad-cop strategy. Monsanto announced, for example, that it is cutting its toxic waste emissions 90%, at the same time donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to support libertarian anti-environmental propagandists like Elizabeth Whelan, some of whose work we examined briefly last week. (See REHW #503). Monsanto is Ms. Whelan's biggest supporter[2] and Ms. Whelan has made herself famous defending Monsanto's products such as PCBs, the cancer-causing herbicide 2,4,5-T, the artificial sweetener Nutrasweet, and the company's genetically-engineered hormone, rBGH, which is now being added to much of the nation's milk supply (by injection into dairy cows). (See REHW #483.) As we saw last week, Ms. Whelan's contribution to the Good News industry is her bold discovery that, if particular historical facts are inconvenient, completely new ones can be manufactured and will be readily accepted by the nation's media. This technique was pioneered in Nazi Germany and perfected in the former Soviet Union but has recently been developed under free market conditions by the Good News industry. John Tierney of the TIMES uses it repeatedly, as we shall see.)

While Monsanto's approach keeps the public confused (Are they good? Are they bad? Aren't they really trying to do better?), Monsanto has quietly developed an entirely new line of genetically-engineered creations, products it has begun to broadcast directly into the environment while denying that any harm will ensue. (Monsanto has repeated similar denials for decades.) The corporation's pledge to cut its toxic wastes 90% is long overdue, but it is also beside the point. It is this firm's PRODUCTS, not its WASTES, that have covered the earth with poisons and soon will disrupt the planet's ecosystems with genetically-finagled forms of life. Good News writers like Elizabeth Whelan serve as a cover for the main source of harm from a corporation like Monsanto, which is its perfectly-legal pursuit of the purposes for which it was created: consolidation of wealth and power, promoting dangerous products, eluding liability and passing as many costs as possible on to the public.

Secondly, of course, writers like Elizabeth Whelan and John Tierney serve a purely ideological master. Most Good News writers are dedicated to the extremist libertarian proposition that government's only valid role is to enforce private property laws, to establish conditions under which the free market can operate without restriction. Monsanto broadcasting genetically-finagled creatures into the environment, while insisting that nothing can go wrong, is the libertarian model. Government sits by while Monsanto populates the environment with forms of life that the Creator saw fit to not make, and the public will be required to "prove harm" before government will lift a finger to protect the environment as it was originally created. By that time, of course, it will be too late to put things right.

Mr. Tierney's work in the June 30 TIMES fits the mold of the Good News writer perfectly: it is a tapestry of lies, half-truths, distortions, and misinformation, woven together by a thread of libertarian ideological bias.

Examples abound. For instance, Mr. Tierney's section on plastic could have been written by the Chemical Manufacturers Association or the American Plastics Council: "Plastic packaging and fast-food containers may seem wasteful, but they actually save resources and reduce trash. The typical household in Mexico City buys fewer packaged goods than an American household, but it produces one-third more garbage, chiefly because Mexicans buy fresh foods in bulk and throw away large portions that are unused, spoiled, or stale." In this view, plastics are an unmitigated good and Mexico should adopt them. Mr. Tierney forgets to mention that spoiled or stale foods, when thrown away, harm no one. The Earth re-absorbs them and turns them back into nutrients for the next generation of plants. Plastics, however, are an entirely different story.

Because plastics degrade so slowly (some will take an estimated 400 years to disappear, even in bright sunlight), the world's surface is becoming littered with plastic bottles, wrappers, lids, rope, cigarette lighters, six-pack rings, jugs, gloves, caps, sheets, bags, sponges, boxes, handles, knobs, toys, and so on. This is the true cost of our devotion to the free marketing of plastic. Will these things improve life in Mexico? Earlier this year I had occasion to visit the village of San Carlos, on Mexico's Pacific coast, where American-style goods are now coming into widespread use. Already the entire town and surrounding countryside are pocked with thousands of ragged clumps of plastic rubbish blown across the desert by Pacific winds, garish plastic intrusions into a traditional setting. Families in San Carlos burn their garbage in open heaps which perpetually emit sickening fumes, toxic gases that suffuse this fishing village with the acrid reek of smoldering plastic. This is not progress.

Where I live in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay is filled with thousands of tons of plastic garbage. Along the entire 8100-mile shoreline of the Bay, the reeds and grasses are interlaced and layered with broken pieces of styrofoam cups and plates, polyethylene bottles, polypropylene rope, nylon fishing line and netting, PVC pipe, and all manner of unidentifiable chunks of colored plastic bottles, lids, bags, sheets, toys, and who-knows-what. Hurricane Bertha passed through a couple of weeks ago, dislodging tons of plastic from among the reeds, much of it now still floating on the surface in quiet coves. It will eventually be deposited on the shores again, and will be re-mobilized the next time a storm comes through --an eternal, floating garbage dump of indestructible plastic rubbish, a permanent eyesore, a perpetual desecration of the nation's largest estuary, and a continual, ongoing hazard to threatened wildlife throughout the Bay.

Not only are plastics making the entire world resemble a huge, ill-kept garbage dump --seriously degrading the visual environment, making an anti-social public statement just like graffiti --plastics in the oceans also pose life-and-death challenges to turtles, birds, mammals and fish.[3] No ocean waters are exempt.[4] Even the remotest parts of the planet, islands in the arctic seas, are littered with plastic, an omnipresent reminder of corporate power and a rigid devotion to unfettered free markets. While they are large, these chunks of plastic endanger amphibians, birds, and mammals who mistake them for food. As they break down into microscopic dimensions, these plastics become a hazard to fin fish, lodging in their gills.

Plastics are a major source of dioxins, perhaps the major source. And of course medical researchers have identified clusters of disease in humans living near the petrochemical plants where plastics are manufactured. (See REHW #168.) Recently, it has been learned that many plastic products exude chemicals that disrupt the hormones of reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish and mammals, including humans. (See REHW #501.) No doubt about it, plastics make living things, including people, sick, and they kill.

In his paean to plastic, Mr. Tierney neglected to mention any of these serious, intractable problems created by the plastics-manufacturing corporations exercising their free-market "right" to dump their anti-social and life-destroying wares on all of us. Plastics are a kind of corporate graffiti celebrating the consolidation of wealth and power, and the arrogant human-centeredness, which, together, lie at the heart of the libertarian vision. No wonder Mr. Tierney esteems plastics so.

Good news writers can't ever pass up an opportunity to re-write history. Indeed, that is their main purpose for writing. For example, Mr. Tierney says, "Today's landfills for municipal trash are filled mostly with innocuous materials like paper, yard waste, and construction debris. They contain small amounts of hazardous wastes, like lead and mercury, but studies have found that these poisons stay trapped inside the mass of garbage even in the old, unlined dumps that were built before today's stringent regulations."

This is a stunning example of history re-written to serve libertarian ideology. The message is that today's "stringent regulations" for landfills are not needed because poisons stay trapped inside landfills. This would be a powerful argument for getting government off the backs of the dumpers, if it were true. But it's not. The U.S. Superfund list of contaminated sites contains 184 municipal solid waste landfills, all leaking dangerously.[5] Municipal dumps contain 1% to 2% legally-hazardous chemicals, but 1% of a huge quantity of waste represents a substantial danger. And all evidence indicates that landfills eventually leak their toxic contents into the surrounding environment. To prevent toxic wastes from leaking out of municipal dumps, we would have to repeal the second law of thermodynamics. Since the laws of physics cannot be repealed, libertarian writers like John Tierney must content themselves with merely re-writing history, trying to trick the public into believing that the dangerous is benign, and that government needn't concern itself with recycling garbage because landfilling it is safe.

As the NEW YORK TIMES said in an editorial July 19, 1996: "If journalists lie or publications knowingly publish deceptively incomplete stories, then readers who become aware of the deception will ever after ask the most damaging of all questions: How do I know you are telling me the whole truth as best you can determine it THIS TIME?"

--Peter Montague

(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

[1] John Tierney, "Recycling is Garbage," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE June 30, 1996, pgs. 24-27, 44, 48, 51, 53.

[2] "Public Interest Pretenders," CONSUMER REPORTS Vol. 59, No. 5 (1994), pgs. 316-320.

[3] Michael Weisskopf, "Plastic reaps a grim harvest in the oceans of the world," SMITHSONIAN (March, 1988), pgs. 59-66. And see, for example, "David G. Shaw and Robert H. Day, "Colour-and Form-dependent Loss of Plastic Micro-debris from the North Pacific Ocean," MARINE POLLUTION BULLETIN Vol. 28, No. 1 (1994), pgs. 39-43.

[4] David J. Slip and Harry R. Burton IV, "Accumulation of Fishing Debris, Plastic Litter, and Other Artefacts on Heard and Macquarie Islands in the Southern Ocean," ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION Vol. 18, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pgs. 249-254. And, finally, see Christopher C. Joyner and Scot Frew, "Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment," OCEAN DEVELOPMENT AND INTERNATIONAL LAW Vol. 22, No. 1 (1991), pgs. 33-69.

[5] Data on Superfund from Alex Kalinowski of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund Docket; phone (703) 603-9096.

Descriptor terms: john tierney; new york times; recycling; municipal solid waste; landfilling; msw; libertarianism; monsanto; elizabeth whelan; wmx; acsh; american council on science and health; genetic engineering; plastic; mexico; oceans; wildlife; dioxin;


Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic version of RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY free of charge even though it costs our organization considerable time and money to produce it. We would like to continue to provide this service free. You could help by making a tax-deductible contribution (anything you can afford, whether $5.00 or $500.00). Please send your contribution to: Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036.

--Peter Montague, Editor

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