More Earth-Toned Car Alarms

So the other day I ventured into Al Gore’s latest tantrum about global warming in Strolling Bone magazine, speculating that he’s got terrible “Q-Scores” with the public. I should have simply borrowed an idea from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and called Gore “a human car alarm,” which fits better.
Back in 2005 Kristof, who ordinarily retails conventional environmental opinions, went off script with a column attacking the environmental movement for its terrible track record of relentless doomsaying:

Environmentalists have an awful track record, so they’ve lost credibility with the public. . . I was once an environmental groupie, and I still share the movement’s broad aims, but I’m now skeptical of the movement’s “I Have a Nightmare” speeches. . . [E]nvironmental alarms have been screeching for so long that, like car alarms, they are now just an irritating background noise.

Needless to say the environmental community did not take kindly to Kristof’s heresy.
Well, the latest blaring green car alarm is a new report, which the Puffington Host calls “shocking” in its headline, and “alarming” in the body of the story, about the woeful state of the world’s oceans. Bjorn Lomborg was lambasted back in 2001 for describing the environmental worldview as “The Litany” of doom. (Apt that Lomborg chose a liturgical term, as it clearly fits.) But here in this ocean story all the hallmarks of “The Litany” are on display: Mass extinction in the oceans! Dying coral reefs! Biggest “Dead Zone” evah in the Gulf of Mexico! (You can thank our ethanol program for part of that.) Dogs and cats living together!
Okay, Bill Murray made that last part up, in that famous movie where the buffoonish bad guy was fittingly an EPA bureaucrat. And separately I’ve written about some genuine environmental problems in the oceans, such as overfishing because of lack of defined property rights. And I’ve argued that our oceans are surprisingly understudied compared with our space exploration. Where, I asked recently in a public forum, is the oceanic equivalent of the Hubble Telescope? Just about every time someone takes a look into the deep ocean we find out something new and unexpected.
But more to the point, this latest green car alarm will surely turn out to be another “never mind” moment in the future–if anyone bothers to keep track.
But on to the main event. What prompted Kristof’s column back in 2005 was Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s self-critical “Death of Environmentalism” project that culminated in the effort at “modernizing liberalism” that I summarized here the other day. Their new Breakthrough Journal, a neo-liberal version of The Public Interest, came out on Thursday, and one of the articles in this first issue is Hannah Nordhaus’s “An Environmental Journalist’s Lament.” Nordhaus is the author of a new book entitled The Beekeepers Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America, which is mostly an account of a single bee-keeper in Colorado.
As Nordhaus worked on the original feature article on which this book was based a few years ago, the phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder” broke into the headlines. Bee colonies were suddenly and inexplicably dying out around the U.S. No one knew why (a viral infection has subsequently been identified), but naturally environmentalists defaulted to the usual car alarm–industrial chemicals and pesticides are surely to blame, or maybe cell phone transmissions! Suddenly publishers approached Nordhaus to expand her article into a book that would surely be the next Silent Spring.
The whole article is worth reading, but here’s a couple worthy excerpts:

With the benefit of time, it has become clear that the story was a lot more complicated than that. But the rush to judgment and the end-of-days narratives it spawned should serve as a cautionary tale for environmental journalists eager to write the next blockbuster story of environmental decline. I should know. I almost wrote that story myself. . .
Some [environmentalists] also prominently employed a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein, one that had appeared in numerous articles since the crisis began: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” This was an eye-opening quote, impressing upon readers the gravity of the situation: if the smartest guy ever was alarmed about the disappearing honey bee, we too should be afraid, right? Right — except there’s no evidence that Einstein ever said it. Einstein died in 1955; the first known mention of the quote appeared in 1994, in a pamphlet distributed during a political protest staged by French beekeepers objecting to the high cost of sugar for feeding bees and a proposed reduction of tariffs on imported honey.
And there’s also this: it simply isn’t true. . .

And her cautionary conclusion:

By contrast, reflexively blaming pesticides for all of the honey bee’s problems may in fact slow the search for solutions. Honey bees have enough to do without having to serve as our exoskeletal canaries in a coalmine. Dying bees have become symbols of environmental sin, of faceless corporations out to ransack nature. Such is the story environmental journalism tells all too often. But it’s not always the story that best helps us understand how we live in this world of nearly seven billion hungry people, or how we might square our ecological concerns and commitments with that reality. By engaging in simplistic and sometimes misleading environmental narratives — by exaggerating the stakes and brushing over the inconvenient facts that stand in the way of foregone conclusions — we do our field, and our subjects, a disservice.

I wonder if Nordhaus will be invited to present at the next national conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists? I’m not holding my breath. She’s a member of SEJ, but she’ll be hard to hear over all the car alarms blaring at the typical SEJ meeting.

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