With the recent Tribune articles concerning flame retardants, we have become aware of the industrial cover-up of their dangers. For years, flame retardants, in children’s pajamas and elsewhere, were pushed as necessary for our children’s “safety.” Through this reporting, we once again learned how long it takes to fight powerful industrial corporations to get to the truth.
I read Merchants of Doubt, which meticulously researches the development of “doubt” as a tool used to discredit scientific evidence. This has been going on for a long time. The authors focus on the dangers to life and health involving tobacco, second-hand smoke, acid rain, the ozone layer and global warming. The book continually highlights certain scientists pitting themselves against the academic evidence. These scientists are not educated in the fields where they denigrate academia’s science, but they may be renowned in other fields, so their names are recognizable.
In the case of global warming, 168 scientists from all over the world agree that a major cause of global warming is human activity. But never mind. The nature of science is that it’s a process, always evolving. No 100 percent proof is possible. Never mind that also. The critics cite the lack of 100 percent proof and reframe it as “science does not know.” Doubt is raised and concerns about the dangers diminish. Industry wins and the people lose.
Rachel Carson, the National Book Award winner and acclaimed author of Silent Spring, has a chapter devoted to her in Merchants of Doubt. Why would anyone be doubting her research now, when she died almost 50 years ago? If her research of 50 years ago can be doubted, so much the better for undermining science in general.
Carson never attempted to ban any chemicals, but only to affect their misuse and overuse. She and the United States never banned the use of DDT in world locations where malaria was epidemic. In fact, after increasing the amount of DDT used in Sri Lanka, malaria flared up again. It was determined that the problem was not diminished use of DDT, but that mosquitos developed resistance to it.
What is the point of all this doubt being added to public discourse? According to the authors, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, there is and has been a powerful push, backed by huge amounts of money, to reduce and eliminate regulations that protect the American public. Corporations have only one goal, and that’s profit. There is no place in their legal structure for the common good, human health or environmental needs. And since corporations are now global entities, they are larger and more influential than most governments, including our own.
In Europe and Canada there is a principle that guides governmental laws as to what can be sold. This principle is called the “precautionary principle.” A product cannot be put on the shelf unless it is proven safe first. In the United States, it is the opposite. And most of the testing is done by the corporation itself, not our government. That is why it is so essential to have strong federal regulations. Yet so many times environmental laws have been watered down, poorly funded or are continuously under congressional assault.
Rachel Carson was one amazingly brave woman who, even after developing cancer and undertaking debilitating treatment for it, continued writing her book. She had no university or corporate sponsorship and no computer, just index cards and a regular typewriter. She was a woman of moral conviction — that the public had the right to know the truth and the inalienable right to a clean environment.
We need more people of her moral integrity, selflessness and courage today.
Peggy McGrath is an Oak Park resident who has been writing a series of essays honoring the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”