Rational environmental arguments lost on many voters

Published June 1, 2000

We are sure most of you who read these pages are regularly baffled by how poorly rational arguments on environmental issues fare in the public forum.

  • The logic of maintaining forest health by intelligent logging, and maintaining roads to facilitate such logging and aid in fire suppression, seems irrefutable.
  • Since global warming predictions have proven to be grossly flawed, it is difficult to understand why reasonable people don’t reject the “greenhouse gas” scare.
  • We watch in amazement when modern herbicides and pesticides are labeled as harmful to our health when our lifespans have increased nearly 40 percent since we began using modern agricultural chemicals in the late 1940s.
  • And we are baffled when the public accepts the notion that air pollution is responsible for increased asthma, even when presented with the facts that asthma has increased as air pollution has fallen, and the greatest increases in asthma have come in undeveloped countries.

This list of amazing contradictions between fact and public perception could go on forever.

The explanation, we fear more and more, is becoming clear. Some personal examples seem to be powerful indicators of what is at work here.

Know-nothing liberal elites

This is not a reference to the activist elites who form the leadership of “environmental” and other liberal causes. It defines instead limousine liberals, academic liberals, “social” liberals, the “politically correct” “suburban” liberals, and those who just don’t feel very good about themselves and are endlessly trying to do the “right” thing.

We talked with one such couple recently. She’s in her late 30s, he just turned 50. An interesting age spread. The talk eventually came around to how little we have in common, they expressing their total lack of interest in politics and government, let alone environmental affairs. They did, however, believe that everyone should be paying more taxes because they can afford to; that the environment was being destroyed; and that only the federal government, working with international agencies, could save the planet.

We did have very little in common.

As it turns out, they do not even read the front section of their preferred newspaper, which in their case happens to be The New York Times and the increasingly left-leaning Chicago Tribune. That section goes immediately into the trash so they can get on with the things in which they are interested. They do not watch television news or public policy talk shows, nor do they listen to radio news. They develop their opinions primarily from what they hear at dinner parties and other social events.

A fluke? Doubt it. Many of our counterparts can relate similar stories. One is told by a friend who served in WW II and later as a guard at the Nuremberg trials. An avid hunter, fisherman, and gun collector, he reads four newspapers a day and five news magazines per week. Don’t call him during the evening news or the major political talk shows. He’s busy.

His daughter, her husband, and their grown daughter do none of the above.

A generational thing? It doesn’t seem to be. We spent several days with friends in Florida who were decidedly pre-boomer, nearer the age of our WW II veteran friend. At breakfast each morning, everyone had a section of the newspaper–but the front section of the very fine Tampa Tribune was nowhere to be found . . . until we opened the cabinet door under the sink to dispose of a grapefruit rind. There it was.

Aside from the stains from coffee grounds, soggy corn flakes, and juice, the section was still readable. We made it a point to get up earlier on subsequent mornings.

In the evening, we excused ourselves from the normal neighborhood festivities, where everyone caught up on the “events of the day,” to spend a half hour watching the news.

Uninformed, but voting just the same

The point is that all these folks would appear to be the face of the uninformed liberal elite masses. Among people who live in such an information vacuum, a little fear goes a long way. And, they are going to vote this fall. In all likelihood, with nothing else to guide them, they will votes their fears.

While conservatives issue policy studies and set forth rational, reasonable arguments concerning the environment, the opposition simply relies on a few fears, wins elections and, as Dr. Walter Williams pointed out so well on these pages, uses these fears to expand government.

For those of you who read this and work on elections, whether for issues or candidates, there’s a clue here.