Letter to the Editor


Issues and Evidence, Not Ad Hominem,
Should Characterize Environmental Debate;
A Response to Richard Wright

E. Calvin Beisner

Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies|
Covenant College,
Lookout Mountain, Georgia 30750

From: PSCF 47 (December 1995): 285-287.

Richard Wright's comments in "Tearing Down the Green: Environmental Backlash in the Evangelical Sub-Culture" (PSCF 47:2 [June 1995], 80-91) about my critique of the Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation (EDCC) and about my Prospects for Growth deserve a reply.

His comment that my critique in World (8:27 [November 27, 1993], 10-13) of the EDCC "concludes that there is no serious environmental problem in the world today" is verbally almost identical to the description of that critique by Gordon Aeschliman in his editorial in Prism; he said I had written that "...there is no substantial environmental problem in the world today." My article itself, however, said nothing of the sort. One wonders whether Wright read my article or only Aeschliman's misrepresentation of it. What I did say is that the sorts of crises emphasized in the EDCC (and its prior draft, the best evidence we have of the specifics lying behind the vague generalizations that dominate the Declaration) lacked conclusive empirical evidential basis.

There are indeed severe environmental problems. The worst ones are in developing countries and in present and former communist countries. Among them are unsafe drinking water (mostly because of contamination by untreated human and animal sewage and by natural bacteria, often also because of contamination by agricultural and industrial wastes); serious air pollution (lead, ozone, particulates, carbon monoxide, and other vehicular and industrial emissions); deforestation and desertification (the two sometimes interrelated) owing largely to the gathering of fuel wood by poor people in marginal ecosystems; and the deterioration of agricultural soils because of poor practices. Such problems are directly implicated in the poor health and early mortality of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.

But these are not the sorts of things on which the EDCC, particularly in light of its penultimate draft, focuses: global warming1 (a still hypothetical danger that has not yet caused any deaths and may never, even if it turns out real), acid rain2 (which, even if one accepts claims about harm to forests and lakes...which there is good reason to doubt, according to the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program...has certainly not killed anyone), ozone depletion3 (another hypothetical threat that has not yet led to measurable non-natural increases in ground-level UV-B and may never, and that certainly has not yet killed millions of people); massive species extinction4 (another hypothetical danger for which there is at present no good empirical evidence, and that again has certainly not killed anyone); and so on. My critique argued in part that the EDCC's promotion of the crisis mentality on these still hypothetical problems hazards Christian environmentalism's credibility. Perhaps I should have added that it puts the focus...and invites the lion's share of money to be spent...on problems that, to whatever extent they turn out real, are unlikely to be nearly so dangerous as such present and actual problems, which are associated with a low degree of economic development, as unsafe drinking water in developing countries.

My article also argued, as did Prospects for Growth, that in most of these cases trends are either toward improvement already or can be predicted to be such as economic development continues. There is a very strong statistical correlation between level of economic development and reduction of pollution.5 Long-term economic forces and trends lead me to believe that economic improvement in developing countries will lead to improvements in all of the areas mentioned in the previous paragraph; indeed, in many such countries, for most of the factors, improvement has already been under way for from one to three decades, as reflected in such statistical sources as the World Bank's Social Indicators of Development on Diskette (annual). (An example of such is the marked improvement in access to safe drinking water in low- and middle-income countries from 1970 to 1990: up by about 63 percent in twenty years...by 92 percent [from 28 to 54 percent] in rural areas and by 10 percent [from 75 to 83 percent] in urban areas.6)

Wright pejoratively refers to some of my sources - Julian L. Simon, Herman Kahn, S. Fred Singer, and Dixy Lee Ray...as "scientific" sources. Liberal Democrat environmentalist Gregg Easterbrook, who appears to think every federal environmental policy adopted in the last thirty years has been wise and who champions extensive governmental control of economies yet criticizes the crisis mentality of contemporary environmentalism, wrote in his outstanding (if idiosyncratic) new book Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, "A rule of argument is that when opponents attack someone's qualifications or motives rather than rebutting the substance of arguments, this happens because they do not know how to rebut the substance. Increasingly in the 1990s, doctrinaire environmentalists have been impugning the qualifications or integrity of those who disagree with them" (p. 561). Wright's placing quotation marks around scientific is just such a case of argumentum ad hominem abusive.

Wright refers to "scientific work" as including "demographic" work. Perhaps he is unaware that Simon is one of the world's leading demographic scholars, which implies that he is a scientist. So why the quotation marks? Many people know of him only from popular articles and his popular The Ultimate Resource (which, by the way, still contains a great deal of good science). But his The Economics of Population Growth (Princeton University Press, 1977) is one of the most thorough and sophisticated analyses of the subject ever published; regardless whether one agrees with his conclusions, it must be acknowledged as scientific work. Does writing popular articles disqualify one as a scientist? Then what happens to Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich and other heroes of environmentalism? Singer is a geophysicist (see note 3 for his credentials) one of the earliest (and continuing) researchers on stratospheric ozone (inventor, in fact, of the standard ozone measuring instrument) under NASA. Ray was a long-time member of the zoology faculty at the University of Washington, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and assistant secretary of state in the U.S. Bureau of Oceans. I don't happen to have quick access to Kahn's scientific credentials, but I've read a fair amount of science in a wide variety of fields and consider his work, with Brown and Martel in The Next 200 Years, to have been solidly scientific. To be qualified as a scientist, must one agree with Richard Wright?

Furthermore, in Prospects for Growth I cited Simon as an authority only on the economics of demography; I cited Singer only once, and then as an authority only on stratospheric ozone; I cited Ray only twice, once for her short and clear description of the unenhanced greenhouse effect and once for the rather pedestrian point that correlation doesn't prove causation in studies of the etiology of disease (would Wright like to argue with her at either of these points?); and I never once cited Kahn himself (as opposed to scientists who contributed chapters to a book of which he was co-editor) as an authority on anything. So my only citations of these scientists were entirely legitimate. And Wright completely ignores the dozens of other fully credentialed scientists I also cited.

Wright criticizes me for not having used standard statistical sources from the World Bank, the World Resources Institute, and the Worldwatch Institute. I did use evidence from the World Bank's World Development Report (annual) in Prospects for Growth, as well as from various other standard statistical sources. (In fact, a whole appendix of the book was nothing but statistical tables [most adapted from WDR] that provided the statistical basis for lengthy discussion of the economics of demography in chapter 6.) I did not rely on information from either the World Resources Institute or the Worldwatch Institute because both are advocacy organizations whose reports time and again have contained unreliable data and horribly unreliable predictions. (One might, for an interesting exercise, look back through Worldwatch Institute President Lester Brown's track record as a prophet of trends in resource availability, agricultural productivity, poverty, hunger, famine, and so on. It's not a pretty sight.)

Rather than committing the genetic and ad hominem fallacies, it would have been considerably more helpful for Wright actually to have interacted with some of the demographic and economic arguments in Prospects for Growth. But if he had, would I have been justified in writing off his arguments since, after all, his formal training is not in the economics of demography but in biology? For that matter, should I write off his arguments about ozone and global warming because he is neither a climatologist nor an atmospheric chemist but a biologist?

Nowhere in Prospects for Growth or in my critique of the EDCC did I ever say that the environment should be protected "only because it is important to man" (emphasis added), and I don't believe that. It should be protected first and foremost because that is one of the tasks God has given to man (Genesis 2:15; a point I did make in Prospects for Growth, pp. 23-4, despite Wright's implying that somehow I had completely ignored the verse), and obedience to God is the most important motive for any act. In addition, it should be protected for God's pleasure and man's benefit, and finally it should be protected for the benefit of other creatures, independent of man's benefit. And by the way, I never wrote...and don't believe...that the rest of creation should be enslaved to mankind; that is Wright's word, not mine.

The Christian scientific community would be better served by arguments that stick to issues and evidences and avoid ad hominem and straw man attacks.


1On which see Robert C. Balling (Ph.D., geography; director of the Office of Climatology and associate professor of geography at Arizona State University; author of over fifty papers on global warming in journals of climatology), The Heated Debate: Greenhouse Predictions Versus Climate Reality (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1992); Sherwood B. Idso (Ph.D., soil science; former adjunct professor in geology, geography, botany, and microbiology, Arizona State University; author of more than 400 articles in refereed journals, including many on the effects of increased atmospheric CO2), Carbon Dioxide and Global Change: Earth in Transition (Tempe, AZ: Institute for Biospheric Research/IBR Press, 1989); Patrick J. Michaels (Ph.D., climatology; associate professor of environmental sciences, University of Virginia; author of many articles in refereed journals of climatology, forestry, and meteorology), Sound and Fury: The Science and Politics of Global Warming (Washington: Cato Institute, 1992); Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow, and William A. Nierenberg (all with Ph.D.s in fields relevant to global warming, and all having published on the subject in refereed journals), Scientific Perspectives on the Greenhouse Problem (Washington: George C. Marshall Institute, n.d.). (I include authors' credentials here and in the next two notes simply to head off another ad hominem argument.)

2On which see Edward C. Krug (Ph.D., soil chemistry; field scientist with the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, author of more than thirty articles in refereed journals), "The Great Acid Rain Flimflam," Policy Review, Spring 1990, 44-48; John J. McKetta (Ph.D., chemical engineering; author of more than 400 articles in refereed journals and of ten professional books, professor and chair of chemical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin), "Acid Rain - The Whole Story to Date," National Council for Environmental Balance, 1988; and J. Laurence Kulp (Ph.D., engineering; director of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program under the EPA; affiliate professor of civil engineering, University of Washington; author of many articles in refereed journals), "Acid Rain," in The State of Humanity, edited by Julian L. Simon (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995 [forthcoming]).

3On which see Hugh W. Elsaesser (Ph.D. in dynamic meteorology, participating guest scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, author of over 100 articles in refereed journals), "An Atmosphere of Paradox: From Acid Rain to Ozone," in Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns, edited by Jay H. Lehr (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992); S. Fred Singer (Ph.D., physics; former professor of environmental sciences, University of Virginia; former chief scientist, U.S. Department of Transportation; former director, National Weather Satellite Center; presently director, Science and Environmental Policy Project; author of more than 400 articles in refereed journals), "My Adventures in the Ozone Layer," National Review, June 30, 1989, 34-38, and "Stratospheric Ozone: Science and Policy," in The State of Humanity, ed. Simon.

4On which see T. C. Whitmore and J. A. Sayer, eds. (for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), Tropical Deforestation and Species Extinction (London and New York: Chapman & Hall, 1992). This fascinating book took shape as an attempt to respond to various essays by Julian L. Simon and Aaron Wildavsky (e.g., Simon, "Disappearing Species, Deforestation and Data," New Scientist, May 15, 1986, and Simon and Wildavsky, "On Species Loss, the Absence of Data, and Risks to Humanity," in The Resourceful Earth: A Response to `Global 2000', edited by Julian L. Simon and Herman Kahn [Oxford: Blackwell, 1984]) charging that no sound empirical evidence existed for claimed rapid rates of species extinction. Despite this, the book's editors sum up the findings of the many studies that led to the book as follows: "Many people have asked IUCN to comment on the numerous conflicting estimates of species extinction and some would like us to come up with a firm and definitive figure for the number of species which are being lost in a given period of time. The data available would not enable this to be done with any reasonable degree of scientific credibility and we have not attempted to do so in this book" (xi), and acknowledgment that expected species loss has been disconfirmed appears in chapter after chapter.

5Mikhail Bernstam, "The Wealth of Nations and the Environment," Institute of Economic Affairs, 1991; cited in Gregg Easterbrook, A Moment On the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (New York: Viking, 1995), 330-31. Easterbrook also cites the work of Princeton University economists Gene Grossman and Alan Krueger showing "that countries increase pollution output as GNP climbs toward the level of about $5,000 per person in constant dollars. Then, as knowledge accumulates and affluence makes possible investments in emission controls, pollution begins to decline" (331).

6Calculated from raw data for over 180 countries in The World Bank, Social Indicators of Development on Diskette, 1994 (Washington: The World Bank, 1994).