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10/11/96

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New book by Paul and Anne Ehrlich strikes back at "brownlash"

STANFORD -- Paul Ehrlich used to ignore the "brownlash."

Since the Stanford conservation biologist and his wife, biology senior research associate Anne Ehrlich, first published The Population Bomb in the 1960s, they have confronted their share of critics attacking that book and subsequent books on the environment. In the same period, however, the research of ecologists, climatologists, economists and others has led to a broad consensus among the Ehrlichs' fellow scientists that their premise ­ if not all its details ­ was right: The earth has a limited carrying capacity.

In 1992, 1,575 scientists ­ including half of the living Nobel laureates ­ signed the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity," stating that "human beings and the natural world are on a collision course." In 1993, a statement by 58 of the world's scientific academies called for "zero population growth in the lifetime of our children" and said "sustainability of the natural world [is] everyone's responsibility."

Meanwhile, critics ranging from Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell to talk show host Rush Limbaugh to Atlantic Monthly writer Gregg Easterbrook have been claiming that environmental warnings are overblown, that regulations are wrecking the economy, or that the crisis of the environment has been solved by technology. Last year, Ehrlich says, fellow scientists urged him and Anne to work together on a new book, analyzing the claims of what he has dubbed the "brownlash."

The result is The Betrayal of Science and Reason, published by Island Press. It is the Ehrlichs' attack on what they describe as a pattern of "phony stories about the environment that make sensible solutions to humanity's environmental problems much more difficult."

"Brownlash" is a term Ehrlich coined last year to describe "a deliberate attempt to minimize the seriousness of environmental problems through misuse or misreporting of science."

Ehrlich says, "The brownlash is a loosely organized campaign of misinformation generated by groups ranging from grassroots 'wise-use' activists interested in promoting unconstrained extractive use of all the resources of the American West to the coal industry, fearing government restrictions in response to concern over global warming."

He says that the brownlash "persistently and effectively promotes myths" such as:

  • Environmental scientists ignore the abundant good news about the environment;
  • Population growth does not cause environmental damage and may even be beneficial;
  • Humanity is on the verge of abolishing hunger;
  • Natural resources are superabundant, if not infinite;
  • There is no extinction crisis, and so most efforts to preserve species are both uneconomic and unnecessary;
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion is a hoax;
  • The risks posed by toxic substances are vastly exaggerated.

In the book, the Ehrlichs give credit to the legitimate concerns of many groups over loss of jobs and other real economic sacrifices. They discuss a trend among environmentalists, economists and business leaders to work together to meet those concerns.

They say that when brownlash advocates appeal to aggrieved groups ­ and when journalists report on them ­ they often present a false picture of scientific discord in situations where the majority of scientists agree. The media often "balance" a story about well-documented science by consulting the same few skeptics, some of them scientists and some not. Often, the Ehrlichs say, the skeptics are "backed by well-funded propaganda machines."

"The attack of the brownlashers on environmental science helps to undermine all of science and thus the ability to make policy based on science and reason in all areas," they say.

They contrast the brownlashers' techniques with the way science normally works.

"Scientists asking important questions often make mistakes or predictions which turn out to be wrong," Paul Ehrlich says. "Science is in part an adversary game ­ hypotheses advanced by one researcher are tested by that scientist and others as well, and those that do not stand the tests are discarded."

One brownlash technique is to attack scientists for doing exactly what they should do ­ changing their view as new data come in, Paul Ehrlich says. "A classic example is the repeated assault on one of the best climatologists, [Stanford professor] Stephen Schneider, for shifting his concern from the cooling effects of aerosols to the warming influence of greenhouse gases as more information was obtained.

"Scientists are accustomed to changing their views as new data come in; brownlashers usually don't change their views in the light of new data," Ehrlich says. "Brownlashers don't test each other's ideas; rather than make mistakes in pursuit of understanding nature, they often distort what others have discovered.

"World-class scientists can't fake it any more than world-class musicians or world-class athletes can. They must perform properly, or they lose their status."

There is a role for scientists who honestly disagree with the scientific consensus, Ehrlich says. "But for every modern Galileo there are thousands of pretenders with their magical additives that will convert water into gasoline, and their claims that volcanoes cause the ozone hole. Contrarians can be important to scientific progress, but policy should be made on the basis of scientific consensus."

Instead of consulting the majority of scientists to obtain the best available data, the Ehrlichs say that brownlashers push to have issues decided on the basis of politics or on the views of a few contrarian scientists. They say that the brownlash depends on deceptive techniques, including:

  • "Omission or selection of data." For example, an account of the agricultural picture is artificially brightened by the omission of what is happening to the soil and water resources that support agriculture and by comparing food production from 1950 to 1995 instead of from 1985 to 1995.
  • "Lying." The Ehrlichs say that some brownlashers have claimed that there has been no population explosion. Another claim: that large areas of relatively undisturbed land are adjacent to the world's cities.
  • Making "absurd statements that depend on the scientific illiteracy of the public to avoid being exposed as nonsense" ­ for instance, the assertion that ozone-damaging CFCs cannot reach the stratosphere because they are heavier than air, or that the human population can expand for the next seven billion years.

In the book, the Ehrlichs examine claims made by brownlashers about populations and food; limits on resources; biological diversity; atmosphere and climate; and environmental economics. They present current scientific and economic data on each of these topics.

For critiquing the manuscript, they give credit to a long list of experts, ranging from ecologist Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and home secretary of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, to atmospheric chemist and Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland of the University of California-San Diego, to Stanford economist Lawrence Goulder.

Among more than a dozen reviewers at Stanford were Institute of International Studies co-directors Donald Kennedy and Walter Falcon, and ecologists Harold Mooney and Peter Vitousek.

"The scientific community has been extremely helpful," with intellectual support for the book, Ehrlich says.

In the end, however, the reason that he and Anne tackled it was simple: "We just don't like people asserting nonsense."

Note to editors: Paul Ehrlich and Stephen Schneider will be speaking at the annual meeting of the Society for Environmental Journalists in St. Louis on Oct. 18 and 19. In addition, the Ehrlichs are embarked on a national book tour that includes Portland (Oct. 15), Chicago (Oct. 17), St. Louis (Oct. 18 and 19), Boston (Oct 21) and New York/Washington (Oct. 22). On Wednesday, Oct. 23, they will appear at a book signing at 4 p.m. at the Stanford Bookstore. For further information contact Lisa Magnino, Island Press, (202) 232-7933.

Additional World Wide Web links include: Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology at http://www.stanford.edu/group/CCB/ and book publisher Island Press at http://www.islandpress.com/.

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