SCIENCE AGAINST THE ENVIRONMENT
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SCIENCE AGAINST THE ENVIRONMENT
The latest report from the International Joint Commission (IJC)
reveals that industry and government officials have a new
strategy for rolling back environmental protection in the
Created in 1909 by treaty between the U.S. and Canada, the IJC
has responsibility for water quality in the Great Lakes. Every
two years, the IJC issues a formal report on its progress against
pollution in the Great Lakes. The eighth such report was
published last month. (See REHW #505.)
The new report makes clear that environmental protection programs
in the Great Lakes are being eroded. About a third of the new
report is spent explaining how existing programs are being
threatened and why they should be maintained.
Although couched in non-political language, the report makes it
clear that a combination of libertarians in Congress (and in
state governments), funded by corporate polluters, have hit upon
a formula for crippling environmental protections in the Great
Lakes (and elsewhere). The formula has two parts: require
scientific standards of proof for all decision-making, and at the
same time cut funding for scientific research.
Because the mass media do not regularly (if ever) report on
science funding, or on the uses of science in decision-making,
these assaults on environmental protection are invisible to the
The IJC does not say so, but this coordinated effort by
libertarians and corporate polluters serves two purposes: for the
libertarians, it diminishes the size of government (which is the
main ideological goal of libertarians), and for the corporate
polluters it provides increased independence because it
diminishes government's ability to monitor their activities,
identify environmental harms, and enforce the law.
The new-found formula for crippling environmental protection is
being used successfully everywhere. But let's look at how it is
working in the Great Lakes:
The IJC reports that it surveyed all of the major scientific
research institutions responsible for conducting programs related
to water quality in the Great Lakes. Responses came back from 31
organizations with combined budgets totaling $88 million, which
represents 80% of all scientific funding for Great Lakes research.
Those 31 organizations reported that they expect their total
operating budgets to be cut anywhere from 23% to 53% this next
year. Salaries within those organizations are expected to be cut
anywhere from 31% to 45%. The number of researchers in the 31
organizations is expected to decline by anywhere from 47% to 62%.
In other words, in round numbers, scientific research in the
Great Lakes is slated to be cut roughly by half. (pg. 5)
While science funding is being cut at the federal and state
levels, polluters and libertarians are simultaneously insisting
that scientific certainty must be established before chemicals
can be banned or even regulated. They are working hard to
substitute a scientific standard for decision-making in place of
the "reasonable person" standard.
Science is a very conservative enterprise. Before scientists
will change their minds about the nature of reality and agree
that something new is happening, they require 95% probability or
in some cases 99% probability. For example, scientists must be
95% (or 99%) sure that a chemical is causing harm before they
will say, "Harm is occurring." Until they become 95% sure, they
will only say, "I'm not sure. We need more studies to give us
In contrast, a jury in a civil trial makes a decision based on
"the preponderance of the evidence" or "the weight of the
evidence." This is the normal, "reasonable person" standard for
decision-making in our society. If most of us had to wait for
95% certainty before we could make a decision about anything,
most of us would be paralyzed most of the time.
Therefore, the incessant pressure to make decisions based only on
"good science" is really an attempt to paralyze decision-making.
How does this help the polluters?
Corporate polluters and their representatives in government have
made a national policy (unwritten, but real policy all the same)
that says the burden of proof is on the public to prove harm, and
not on the polluters to prove safety. Therefore, new chemicals
can be put into commercial use without any safety testing. And
chemicals can remain in use until it can be shown that they have
caused substantial harm --a process that can take decades or
longer. (The burden of proof is reversed in the case of
pharmaceutical drugs at the Food and Drug Administration, but
ONLY in the case of pharmaceutical drugs. Drugs must be proven
safe and effective before they can be marketed. Now, however,
the libertarians and corporate polluters have developed a
concerted campaign to reverse even this FDA standard.)
Given the national policy that puts the burden of proof on the
public, a scientific standard of proof helps keep chemicals on
the market. A "reasonable person" might conclude that a chemical
was causing harm after learning that several people or animals
had been harmed, but a scientist insists on the 95% level of
certainty. By substituting scientific certainty for the
"reasonable person" standard in decisions, science is pressed
into the service of the polluters.
The use of a scientific standard of proof also greatly increases
the importance of doubt. A reasonable person reading 3
scientific studies showing harm is probably ready to make a
decision. When a fourth study comes in showing a different
conclusion, the reasonable person weighs the evidence --three
studies show one thing, one study shows another --and probably
comes down on the side of the three studies. However, a
scientist faced with conflicting studies is justified in being
very cautious about drawing ANY conclusion. "The data are
conflicting. We need more study," is the likely response from a
scientist. Meanwhile harm continues.
Thus, substituting a scientific standard for decisions, in place
of a reasonable person standard, increases the importance of
doubt and makes it easier for a determined group of scientists to
prevent decisions from being made. Since paralyzing government
is an ideological goal for both the libertarian AND the corporate
polluter, substituting a scientific standard of proof serves both
"It is... ironic," says the IJC's Eighth Report, "that statements
about a lack of 'sound science' in current policy discussions
about toxic chemicals are heard concurrently with calls for
financial cutbacks to the very programs that could provide
additional, credible scientific information and contribute to
responsible public policy in such areas as human health and
persistent toxic substances." (pg. 17)
The same dynamic can be seen in the debate over global warming.
Some 250 scientists worldwide concluded last December that humans
are changing the earth's climate. (See REHW #467 and #471.) But
half a dozen industry-sponsored scientists are disputing the
finding. These critics are focusing on the uncertainties, trying
to prevent decisive action to curb global warming. The NEW YORK
TIMES recently described a "systematic campaign of
disinformation" by the "Global Climate Coalition, an industry
lobbying group" and by others. The TIMES also reported that, in
Congress, "conservative Republican allies" of these critics are
threatening to cut funding for scientific research on global
climate change. Naturally, this is all being done in the name
of "sound science."
Unfortunately, we observe, traditional environmentalists have
almost no way to combat this new initiative for 3 reasons:
** Whether they recognize it or not, most environmentalists are
ideologically committed to REGULATING the behavior of polluters
around the edges, rather than tackling the core issue of DEFINING
what corporations can and cannot do. The regulatory arena was
created by corporate polluters; it is a place where they control
the terms of the debate and strictly limit the possible outcomes.
In sum, regulation cannot solve environmental problems, yet it
is the framework that we all grew up within, and it is the only
way most environmentalists have so far been able to think.
** Many environmentalists believe that better science is the
answer to pollution problems. They do not yet see that science
CAN DESCRIBE BUT CANNOT REMEDY environmental crises brought on by
the withering of democratic commitments and institutions.
Pollution is caused by powerful polluters. It is their power
that makes their pollution possible. The only feasible
counterweight to their power is more democratic decision-making,
yet many traditional environmentalists are not committed to
democracy in this way. Rather they are committed to a
traditional hierarchy in which they get invited to the White
House periodically to sup and supplicate while the pollution
** Many environmentalists are not committed to getting private
money out of politics, which is the only way to break the
stranglehold of polluters on Congress. (See REHW #426 and #427.)
(Some environmentalists have endorsed limits on campaign
contributions, but, perversely, such limits end up consolidating
the power of corporations in the electoral process. Thus
environmentalists who do not favor full public financing of
elections end up protecting the status quo.) Because current laws
and practices encourage private money in elections, corporations
dump mountains of cash into campaigns to elect representatives
who then minister to corporate needs while pursuing their own
libertarian goals. It is a closed-loop system: "You scratch my
back with a campaign contribution, and I'll scratch yours with
legislation guaranteed not to make any difference in the way you
do business." Environmentalists who remain indifferent to this
distortion of the democratic electoral process (or who advocate
the half-way reform of spending limits instead of full public
financing) play directly into the hands of the
libertarian/corporate-polluter axis that is rolling back
environmental protections, using "good science" as its cover.
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 International Joint Commission, EIGHTH BIENNIAL REPORT ON
GREAT LAKES WATER QUALITY (Ottawa, Canada, and Washington, DC:
International Joint Commission, July, 1996). Available free from
the IJC. Telephone (in Detroit, Michigan): (313) 226-2170. In
Canada, phone (519) 257-6700; fax: (519) 257-6740.
 Eight libertarian think tanks have received millions of
dollars to study ways to discredit the Food and Drug
Administration and change its policies. See "Report Finds That
Drug, Medical Device, Biotech and Tobacco Companies gave at Least
$3.5 Million for Anti-FDA Campaign," CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER
July 29, 1996, pgs. 5-6. And see Jeffrey Goldberg, "Next Target:
Nicotine," NEW YORK TIMES August 4, 1996, pg. 23. And see Marian
Burros," F.D.A. Chief Questions Safety of Proposals," NEW YORK
TIMES, May 2, 1996, pg. 21.
 William K. Stevens, "At Hot Center of Debate on Global
Warming," NEW YORK TIMES August 6, 1996, pgs. C1, C10.
Descriptor terms: ijc; science; libertarianism; corporations;
burden of proof; global warming; global climate coalition;
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--Peter Montague, Editor