“the impossible takes a little longer”

When I was in the Navy back in WW2 the Navy Seabees had a motto: “the difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.” My wife, on the other hand was in the Marines. They had a different motto: “if it absolutely, positively, has to be destroyed tomorrow, call in the Marines.”

Environmentalists today could take heart from both. Call in the Marines to help destroy that hole in the ocean floor that is leaking so much oil into the Gulf. (Actually some experts really are advising explosives.) The Seabees impossible dream could give heart to the folks trying to clean up the oil from beaches, wetlands and ocean.

I claimed in my blog a few weeks ago that the oil leak was not the end of the world and some readers were incensed. I stand by that statement even though the disaster doesn’t look any better today than it did a month and a half ago. As an article in the NY Times pointed out last week, however, it was not by a long shot the “worst environmental disaster” in U.S. history.

The famous Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1886, for instance, killed 2,200 people and destroyed many millions (billions in today’s currency) of dollars worth of property. Like the BP spill it was caused by human negligence. An aging dam with neglected  maintenance collapsed. The “dust bowl” of the 1930s destroyed millions of acres of farm land in the Great Plains states, cost hundreds of thousands of people their homes and livelihood and sent into the atmosphere dense clouds of red dust that so darkened the air in Washington DC and New York City you could not see across their streets. That was before depositing all that good Plains soil into the Atlantic Ocean. And then there was the wholesale destruction of forests when the 19th century lumber companies cut the top off Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Consider also the English point of view on current leak. Piers McBride, retired journalist and News reader in England wrote: “11 people killed on an oil rig leased by British Company BP resulting in four presidential visits, a $2.60 billion clean up and the establishment of a $20 billion compensation fund inside two months. 15,000+ people killed in an accident at Bhopal plant owned by American company Union Carbide resulting in no presidential visits, no clean up and $470 million compensation after 25 years.”

All of these earlier environmental disasters were caused, like the present one, by human error and often human greed as well. Some, like the denuding of the primeval forests were even done deliberately, as the present BP disaster (or for that matter the Union Carbide one) was not. None of them brought permanent long term damage that could not be repaired.

Still another example of environmental destruction is Europe during the Second World War. That war brought near total destruction to hundreds of large cities like Berlin, Nuremburg, London and Rotterdam and 20 million or so human casualties. Amazingly enough hard-working, creative people found ways to put it all back together after the war, and in a remarkably short time. I’m betting the same thing will be true of the Gulf damage. I worry, though, that long-term political and social damage may end up a worse problem.

The Gulf tragedy is giving new fuel to doomsday prophets who use it to buttress their claims still once again that (1) the world is running out of resources (especially oil); (2) the world is severely overpopulated; and (3) pollution is getting worse all the time. The more they preach these dogmas, the more popular their solutions become. That is, that we need to rein in our corporations, drastically change our life styles and become ever more “green.” If we don’t make these changes soon our very civilization will collapse in a miasma of oil sludge.

I answer, nonsense. Far too few people realize that most scientists today (not necessarily the ones that get the most publicity) say that all three of these claims are simply not true.

One of the experts we interviewed for some of our filmstrip and later our video programs was the late economist from the University of Maryland, Julian Simon. His lifetime work on Resources, Population and Pollution issues were often not well received in establishment circles in the 20th century. That is putting it mildly. A high-profile  biologist at the Smithsonian Institute, Thomas Lovejoy, bristled when I brought up his name in a question at an interview. He got red in the face and snapped back, “Criticisms from somebody like Julian Simon are utterly trivial. I mean the man does not understand biology at all. He is the guy who says you can do it with mirrors.”

On the other hand Simon had supporters at prestigious places like the independent non-partisan institute Resources for the Future. And since his death in 2001 he has gained increasing credibility.

Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician, environmentalist, “man of the left” and Greenpeace supporter, had the standard liberal opinion of Simon’s work when he first heard of it in a visit to California. He had read that Simon suggested the world was better off environmentally today than ever before. He had read that Simon claimed that resources were more plentiful and were likely to become even more plentiful in coming decades. Simon also claimed that pollution was decreasing and would likely decrease still more in coming decades. And finally Simon claimed that populations were stabilizing and in many places would decline in coming decades, and in any case overpopulation was not a serious world problem.

Lomborg didn’t believe a word of it. He thought Simon must be a crank. Or crazy. Certainly not a scientist.

But Lomborg did think it would be an interesting challenge for him and his students to check up on the Simon’s arguments and the data he used to support them. His expectation was that the check-up would show clearly how misled and unscientific Julian Simon was. After months of careful study he and his students in Denmark were stunned. They found that most of the time Simon was quite accurate. His well-documented data did show pretty conclusively that the world is not running out of resources, the world is not becoming more polluted and that the world is not overpopulated.

Eventually Lomborg published his findings in a meticulously documented book THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

That isn’t the end of the story. Some furious environmentalists in Denmark demanded a retraction. In an effort to refute the book’s claims they brought a complaint about Lomborg to the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD). The committee sided with the environmentalists, proclaiming in good bureaucratic prose, “objectively speaking, the publication of the work under consideration is deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty.”

However a few months later Lomborg and his book were vindicated by a higher-level Danish government commission, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Among a long list of criticisms, the ministry reported that “the DCSD has not documented where Dr. Lomborg has allegedly been biased in his choice of data and in his argumentation, and … the ruling is completely void of argumentation for why the DCSD finds that the complainants are right in their criticisms of his working methods. It is not sufficient that the criticisms of a researchers’ working methods exist; the DCSD must consider the criticisms and take a position on whether or not they are justified, and why.”

As Ronald Bailey argued in Reason magazine, “only economic growth will allow, for example, the 800 million people who are still malnourished to get the food they need. But will they get it? Not if the anti-Westerners win out. As THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST makes clear, those who hate modern industrialized societies—whether they are Islamic radicals or radical environmentalists, threaten the hopes of the poor and imperil the natural world as well.”

Maybe Jeanne Kirkpatrick had the last word when she reviewed a book that was also pro-Simon, The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong. “Ben Wattenberg’s new book is a compelling reminder that we must learn to bear the truth about our society, no matter how pleasant it may be.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. I realize that many educators, perhaps most, do not agree with some of these opinions. I am old enough now to not care whether I preach to the choir or make money by following the politically correct crowd. I really feel it is time educators and their students hear some contrarian views. You can experience some of these by exposing yourself and your students to my latest program RESOURCES, POPULATIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE. (See above.) Go for it and remember “the impossible takes a little longer.”

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