How Alton Jones Foundation Switched from Art and Culture to Radical Green

Published November 1, 1998

The metamorphosis of the W. Alton Jones Foundation has transformed the 54-year-old charity from supporting the arts and culture to warning of environmental Armageddon. And because of its new mission statement, Americans now are saddled with an ” … apparatus necessary to embark on another expensive and probably pointless 30-year inquisition against man-made chemicals …”

So argues environment writer Ronald Bailey in “Leading the Charge: The W. Alton Jones Foundation’s environmental scare tactics” in a recent issue of Philanthropy magazine.

Bailey estimates that the foundation, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, boasts an endowment of about $323 million, and gives grants exclusively to environmental and anti-nuclear causes.

Founded in 1944 by W. Alton Jones, who began life on a Missouri farm and rose to become the top executive of Cities Service Co., the arts-and-culture foundation “radically changed its direction in 1982 at the behest of the younger generation at a time when the nuclear freeze furor was in its heyday,” Bailey writes.

Jones’ environmental crusade began in earnest with the hiring of John P. Myers as the foundation’s executive director in the early 1990s. Myers, recruited from his position as a vice president of the National Audubon Society, co-authored a Jones- promoted book, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? which contained a forward by Vice President Al Gore.

The book’s coauthors, Theo Colborn, a senior fellow at the foundation, and Boston journalist Dianne Dumanoski, were widely touted by Environmental Media Services, a public- relations firm headed by former Gore staffer Arlie Schardt. The book receive wide acclaim, and its authors were lionized by much of the media.

Stolen Future advances the argument that “some man-made chemicals interfere with the body’s own hormones.” Such chemicals are responsible for medical problems that include low sperm counts, infertility, genital deformities, breast and prostate cancers, and neurological disorders in children. Even wildlife cannot escape the effects of these chemicals, say the book’s authors.

Despite opposing views, put forth by the National Academy of Science among others, that nature’s own chemicals present a much greater danger to humans, the book’s claims were put to the test in the laboratory by a researcher at the Xavier/Tulane Center in New Orleans. The results of the research, which were enthusiastically published in the June 1996 issue of Science magazine, claimed that man-made chemicals, while not a health threat when used individually, became more potent and dangerous when combined.

Congress and regulators picked up on the report as they were considering the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, and the resulting legislation reflects the biases and assumptions in Stolen Future.

But Jones, Science and the federal government are looking downright foolish these days because subsequent tests by the original Xavier/Tulane researcher others and have not been able to duplicate the findings.

In the end, Science repudiated its earlier article and published a total retraction.

The retraction received virtually no media coverage, Bailey notes.

“There is just no doubt about it that (Stolen Future) had a very profound and very bad effect on the regulatory system,” said Philip Abelson, a former Science editor. “There was legislation put in (the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996) that is going to cost billions of dollars.”

Bailey noted a slogan that once appeared on the web site for the Xavier/Tulane lab, “The quality of our lives will depend more than ever on the quality of our science.” He concludes his report, “Sadly, this is a message that certain crusading foundations are quite willing to ignore.”