Can We Afford To Squander Our Resources Through Our Reliance on Junk Science?

Published March 14, 2005

In the past we used our natural resources freely. We took great pride in our ability to convert resources into products with a direct benefit to the public. We turned trees into houses, coal and iron into automobiles. Today we hear that we must stop using our economic resources. Scale back! Harvest fewer trees. Drill fewer oil wells. Use less fertilizer. Build no new power plants. Encourage the government to buy back land it once offered to its people, even though the government already owns one third of our land base.

Clearly the future of this nation depends on the proper and wise use of all our resources. “How do we distinguish between the proper use, the misuse or the failure to use our resources.

A few years back EPA caused a national panic by saying that exposure to a single fiber of asbestos would cause children to have lung cancer. Congress appropriated money to test schools, and school districts spent 200 billion dollars to rid their buildings of asbestos.

Tests before the removal showed about .0001 fibers per cubic centimeter in the air. After the removal, tests showed several hundred fibers per cubic centimeter. Now that the money is spent, the EPA tacitly admits what science panels in both England and Canada had already concluded, asbestos in buildings was not a health hazard. However the asbestos left loose after the removal may well be dangerous. Why did we spend this money in this way? One answer is that we practice bad science when it comes to risk assessment, and too much public policy is made by headlines.

We may well squander ten times that amount on technically unsupportable global warming assumptions being pressed upon us by a scientic community receiving $4 billion a year to prove the unprovable, the United Nations wishing to expand its power, big business desiring to drive small business out of business, foreign nations desiring to shackle our economy, environmental zealots wishing to undermine our capialistic economy and a will co-conspiring news media which thrives on all manufactured crisis.

The management of all our resources — natural, financial, human — must be undertaken with an understanding that they are limited, and our decision to spend them must be better researched and better understood. Money already spent on asbestos removal can not be spent on new classrooms.

The dilemma we face does not arise from any lack of understanding of industry. The nation’s attention is being diverted from concerns of research, management and production. When we do discuss expanded production of any kind, we hear immediately from a vocal minority who oppose any economic growth, especially if it is anywhere near their backyard.

Obviously some things should not be built, but in our personal experience we can think of few cases when a proposed factory, generating plant, waste facility, commercial complex, housing development, road or recreational facility has not produced a visible, sophisticated, and often effective opposition.

We also see farmers and farming coming under attack from some of these same elements – whether it is a demand for the unlimited preservation or wetlands, the banning of pesticides and fertilizers, creeping residential development bringing regulations against dust and noise, or the animal rights movement. Any farmer who is paying attention has a right to be concerned; but his concern had better lead to some action.

We are not against wetlands or in favor of dust and noise. We believe in the regulation or our natural resources. We don’t think anyone has the right to spray poison anywhere he likes, and we acknowledge the need for community involvement. What we are concerned about, however, is how in this climate of the politicalization of trivia, we make decisions about our resources. How do we conduct the debate that leads to public policy and law? The answer we fear is “not very well”.

We talked about asbestos and the EPA. Let us use an older example, one we all know: the controversy over Alar which led to its removal from the market. Alar was not initially banned by the government. It was not found by any scientific body conclusively to be harmful. And yet it was forced off the market by a well organized well financed scare campaign which ended costing apple growers and others millions of dollars. This happened at the sad beginning of our now flawed political process which says “the focused concerns of a minority will always prevail over the unfocused concerns of the majority. Well organized, well financed groups with a focused agenda are able to use the media to scare the wits out of an uninformed public, most of whom learn their science from television’s talking heads.

Asbestos and Alar are only two of many instances where vast sums were spent on hypothetical risk while science was ignored. More and more public policy is decided this way. The scare and reaction method has become a staple of fund raising and a primary element of decision making policy levels in this country.

This is how the public learns of hazards of pesticides. Where does it learn about insect borne diseases which are prevented or the food that is saved from pests to feed millions of people? Any cause that involves moral righteousness and impending disaster can be used to raise large sums of money. Saving almost anything – rain forests, seals or an endangered species is very effective in raising money.

Many advocacy groups now have multi-million dollar annual budgets and beautiful new headquarters in New York, Washington and San Francisco. Last year the top 12 environmental groups alone took in $2 Billion in revenue.

Issues like burdensome regulations or misguided approaches to environmental problems, where costs are hidden in the future are partly responsible for the debt we carry. Environmental regulations are rapidly growing percent of our Gross National Product and one must wonder what we are getting in return. The global warming scam alone has the potential to bankrupt society.

The question has to be asked: will we continue to misallocate our available resources, both public and private, so that we deal less effectively with higher priority needs? Will we be so distracted by the “focused concerns of a few” that we fail to address the basic concerns of the many?

We have done a poor job of examining and prioritizing our needs. We have misspent too much of our financial resources on marginal benefits that we can hardly afford the essentials.

America truly faces some serious challenges. Aside from the obvious and unfortunate cost of our War in Iraq, we all agree that our educational system is in need of major overhaul. We are far from winning the war on drugs. In many states our roads and bridges need repair, and in too many places our water and sewer systems need improvement to protect our own drinking water. We always need more jobs. We need to export more. We need to encourage agriculture not put limits upon it. America will have a major role in feeding the 6.3 billion people on the planet today who will soon grow to 8.5 billion by mid-century.

The politics of trivia are not cheap, morally righteous disputes sap our energy. Washing oil soaked birds, scrubbing rocks and curb side recycling may make us feel better, but is it worthwhile? Saving the world from Radon, Asbestos, arsenic, ozone and CO2 is great for raising funds, but what is the real cost to the nation’s industry? Wetlands, wilderness and unobstructed views are vital to us all, but where, how much and at what cost?

If we are to solve our dilemma, we must address each of its dimensions: misinformation, government by unelected special interests. a willingness to ignore science, and the myth that the imagined needs of raw nature stand as equals to the needs of mankind. Only then will we assure that the dilemma, the loss of economic strength, will not prevent us from using our resources to insure survival of our democratic society, and America’s leadership in the world.

Dr. Jay Lehr is the science director at The Heartland Institute. Richard T. McGuire is the former Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets for the State of New York.