Peter Dykstra: Enviro myth-busting
Bridge fuels, boring trees, and a seven-decade-long word game rank among the low points in environmental propaganda.
The fervor surrounding so many environmental issues makes our subject matter so vulnerable to being fertilized with B.S. Years before fake news about supposedly stolen elections, eco-myths filled news space. Here are four pernicious examples, including one that environmentalists helped promote.
Natural resources and the rapture
"The Secretary of the Interior must have to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations. I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with skill to leave the resources needed for future generations."
With these words, said by James G. Watt early in his tenure as Ronald Reagan’s interior secretary, he essentially gave Jesus a free hand in setting environmental policy. In his defense, Watt, a Pentecostalist, also said,
"The Bible commands conservation — that we as Christians be careful stewards of the land and resources entrusted to us by the Creator."
Watt was also misquoted widely, suggesting that the rapture would be triggered by environmental destruction. Watt denies ever saying this, and there’s nothing on the public record to suggest that he did.
In any event, Watt made enough other impolitic statements and insensitive jokes that he was gone in two years.
“Too cheap to meter”
City skyline with lights turned on during night time with a nuclear power plant in the background.Photo by Nicolas HIPPERT on Unsplash
Nuclear power advocates and opponents have been arguing over these four words since Sept. 16, 1954.
In a speech to the National Association of Science Writers on that evening, Gen. Lewis Strauss promised that his Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) could soon deliver this:
“It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds – and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast for an age of peace.”
But here’s the problem: The anti-nukes insist that Strauss was referring to fission energy – the kind that’s achievable today, as it was in 1954. Pro-nukers insist Strauss was projecting a world driven by fusion energy – you know, the one we still haven’t achieved.
“You’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen ‘em all”
There are many variations to this quote, often used to demonstrate Ronald Reagan’s indifference to forests. And yet it seems like he may have never said any of them.
The closest that historians have come up with is a March 3, 1966 answer about his opposition to expanding Redwood National Park:
“A tree is a tree. How many more do you need to see?”
Eight months later, Californians turned him from B-list film star to a rising-star governor, an eventually, of course, to James Watt’s White House boss. The quote may be wrong, but to coin another misquote, “mighty oafs from little acorns grow.”
The green “bridge fuel” to nowhere
Gas was seen as the "bridge fuel" between coal and oil and renewable energy.Photo by Brad Weaver on Unsplash
The oil and gas industry’s stealthy, decades-long strategy to build fracking into a domestic energy dynamo was brilliantly executed. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was developed in the 1940s and 1950s as a means to unlock vast deposits of oil and gas in shale rock.
By the early 2000s, with the enthusiastic support of the Bush-Cheney White House, fracking turned the energy industry inside out. Natural gas underbid both coal and nuclear in the power sector and abundant petroleum pushed the U.S. to the top spot in energy production.
With clean energy vaguely distant, fracked gas became the “bridge fuel” to our future. Even many environmental leaders, like Sierra’s Carl Pope, bought into the concept.
By then, the century-old Sierra Club was as close as the environmental movement has ever gotten to a national political titan. Beginning in 2007, the Sierra Club took in millions to wage war against coal, the baddest of the fossils. Its “Beyond Coal” campaign was partially fueled by a coal competitor.
Fracking giant Chesapeake Energy’s peripatetic CEO, Aubrey McClendon, dropped at least $26 million on the Sierra Club in a gesture of both unpublicized charity and enlightened self-interest. Sierra’s smart campaigning scored multiple “Beyond Coal” victories.
In 2012, news organizations smelled the money links, while others smelled the methane leaks, pipeline problems and more that tarnished fracking’s reputation as a cleaner fuel source.
Sierra first denied taking Chesapeake’s money, then admitted it, saying they swore off taking more in 2010. Meanwhile McClendon’s star fell: ouster, indictment, and a suspicious death in a one-car crash in 2016.
Today, it’s hard to find anyone in the environmental camp who buys the “bridge fuel” pitch.
But with sharp divisions on environmental policy and the apparent free-for-all on fact-free debate, be ready for far worse.
Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.