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. RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #504 .
. ---July 25, 1996--- .
. HEADLINES: .
. HOW THEY LIE, PART 2 .
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HOW THEY LIE, PART 2
The NEW YORK TIMES leveled another biased, dishonest attack at
the nation's environmental protection programs last month. On
June 30, TIMES staff writer John Tierney made the front cover of
the Sunday TIMES MAGAZINE with the catchy title, "Recycling is
Garbage." Tierney's piece is a typical example of work being
done now by the Good News industry, which set out 10 years ago to
prove that environmental problems don't exist, or have been
greatly exaggerated, and that any government effort to solve
those problems is a waste of money. Mr. Tierney's latest effort
is a classic amalgam of half-truths, outright fabrications, and
As we saw last week, in the mid-1980s, companies that annually
pump out billions of pounds of poisonous wastes (and products)
started funding a small group of writers who have developed a set
of techniques for "proving" that government interference in the
free market --even for the purpose of protecting the environment
--is bad for everyone. As we will see, Mr. Tierney's work is a
typical product of the Good News industry.
Writers for the Good News industry serve two masters. First,
they directly protect the interests of the corporations that
discharge billions of pounds of poisons into the public's air and
water each year. Secondly, they provide support for the
extremist libertarian view that any government intervention in
the free market is harmful and a waste.
Serving the interests of the poisoners is straightforward. For
example, in the 1980s, Monsanto Corporation got a bad name for
polluting every square foot of the planet with noxious PCBs,
dioxin, and harmful pesticides. In truth, no single corporation
has ever done greater damage to the planet than Monsanto (though
Waste Management, Inc., or WMX, is challenging Monsanto's
record.) To rehabilitate its image, Monsanto has successfully
employed a good-cop, bad-cop strategy. Monsanto announced, for
example, that it is cutting its toxic waste emissions 90%, at
the same time donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to
support libertarian anti-environmental propagandists like
Elizabeth Whelan, some of whose work we examined briefly last
week. (See REHW #503). Monsanto is Ms. Whelan's biggest
supporter and Ms. Whelan has made herself famous defending
Monsanto's products such as PCBs, the cancer-causing herbicide
2,4,5-T, the artificial sweetener Nutrasweet, and the company's
genetically-engineered hormone, rBGH, which is now being added
to much of the nation's milk supply (by injection into dairy
cows). (See REHW #483.) As we saw last week, Ms. Whelan's
contribution to the Good News industry is her bold discovery
that, if particular historical facts are inconvenient,
completely new ones can be manufactured and will be readily
accepted by the nation's media. This technique was pioneered in
Nazi Germany and perfected in the former Soviet Union but has
recently been developed under free market conditions by the Good
News industry. John Tierney of the TIMES uses it repeatedly, as
we shall see.)
While Monsanto's approach keeps the public confused (Are they
good? Are they bad? Aren't they really trying to do better?),
Monsanto has quietly developed an entirely new line of
genetically-engineered creations, products it has begun to
broadcast directly into the environment while denying that any
harm will ensue. (Monsanto has repeated similar denials for
decades.) The corporation's pledge to cut its toxic wastes 90%
is long overdue, but it is also beside the point. It is this
firm's PRODUCTS, not its WASTES, that have covered the earth with
poisons and soon will disrupt the planet's ecosystems with
genetically-finagled forms of life. Good News writers like
Elizabeth Whelan serve as a cover for the main source of harm
from a corporation like Monsanto, which is its perfectly-legal
pursuit of the purposes for which it was created: consolidation
of wealth and power, promoting dangerous products, eluding
liability and passing as many costs as possible on to the public.
Secondly, of course, writers like Elizabeth Whelan and John
Tierney serve a purely ideological master. Most Good News
writers are dedicated to the extremist libertarian proposition
that government's only valid role is to enforce private property
laws, to establish conditions under which the free market can
operate without restriction. Monsanto broadcasting
genetically-finagled creatures into the environment, while
insisting that nothing can go wrong, is the libertarian model.
Government sits by while Monsanto populates the environment with
forms of life that the Creator saw fit to not make, and the
public will be required to "prove harm" before government will
lift a finger to protect the environment as it was originally
created. By that time, of course, it will be too late to put
Mr. Tierney's work in the June 30 TIMES fits the mold of the Good
News writer perfectly: it is a tapestry of lies, half-truths,
distortions, and misinformation, woven together by a thread of
libertarian ideological bias.
Examples abound. For instance, Mr. Tierney's section on plastic
could have been written by the Chemical Manufacturers Association
or the American Plastics Council: "Plastic packaging and
fast-food containers may seem wasteful, but they actually save
resources and reduce trash. The typical household in Mexico City
buys fewer packaged goods than an American household, but it
produces one-third more garbage, chiefly because Mexicans buy
fresh foods in bulk and throw away large portions that are
unused, spoiled, or stale." In this view, plastics are an
unmitigated good and Mexico should adopt them. Mr. Tierney
forgets to mention that spoiled or stale foods, when thrown away,
harm no one. The Earth re-absorbs them and turns them back into
nutrients for the next generation of plants. Plastics, however,
are an entirely different story.
Because plastics degrade so slowly (some will take an estimated
400 years to disappear, even in bright sunlight), the world's
surface is becoming littered with plastic bottles, wrappers,
lids, rope, cigarette lighters, six-pack rings, jugs, gloves,
caps, sheets, bags, sponges, boxes, handles, knobs, toys, and so
on. This is the true cost of our devotion to the free marketing
of plastic. Will these things improve life in Mexico? Earlier
this year I had occasion to visit the village of San Carlos, on
Mexico's Pacific coast, where American-style goods are now coming
into widespread use. Already the entire town and surrounding
countryside are pocked with thousands of ragged clumps of plastic
rubbish blown across the desert by Pacific winds, garish plastic
intrusions into a traditional setting. Families in San Carlos
burn their garbage in open heaps which perpetually emit sickening
fumes, toxic gases that suffuse this fishing village with the
acrid reek of smoldering plastic. This is not progress.
Where I live in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay is filled with
thousands of tons of plastic garbage. Along the entire 8100-mile
shoreline of the Bay, the reeds and grasses are interlaced and
layered with broken pieces of styrofoam cups and plates,
polyethylene bottles, polypropylene rope, nylon fishing line and
netting, PVC pipe, and all manner of unidentifiable chunks of
colored plastic bottles, lids, bags, sheets, toys, and
who-knows-what. Hurricane Bertha passed through a couple of
weeks ago, dislodging tons of plastic from among the reeds, much
of it now still floating on the surface in quiet coves. It will
eventually be deposited on the shores again, and will be
re-mobilized the next time a storm comes through --an eternal,
floating garbage dump of indestructible plastic rubbish, a
permanent eyesore, a perpetual desecration of the nation's
largest estuary, and a continual, ongoing hazard to threatened
wildlife throughout the Bay.
Not only are plastics making the entire world resemble a huge,
ill-kept garbage dump --seriously degrading the visual
environment, making an anti-social public statement just like
graffiti --plastics in the oceans also pose life-and-death
challenges to turtles, birds, mammals and fish. No ocean
waters are exempt. Even the remotest parts of the planet,
islands in the arctic seas, are littered with plastic, an
omnipresent reminder of corporate power and a rigid devotion to
unfettered free markets. While they are large, these chunks of
plastic endanger amphibians, birds, and mammals who mistake them
for food. As they break down into microscopic dimensions, these
plastics become a hazard to fin fish, lodging in their gills.
Plastics are a major source of dioxins, perhaps the major source.
And of course medical researchers have identified clusters of
disease in humans living near the petrochemical plants where
plastics are manufactured. (See REHW #168.) Recently, it has
been learned that many plastic products exude chemicals that
disrupt the hormones of reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish and
mammals, including humans. (See REHW #501.) No doubt about it,
plastics make living things, including people, sick, and they
In his paean to plastic, Mr. Tierney neglected to mention any of
these serious, intractable problems created by the
plastics-manufacturing corporations exercising their free-market
"right" to dump their anti-social and life-destroying wares on
all of us. Plastics are a kind of corporate graffiti celebrating
the consolidation of wealth and power, and the arrogant
human-centeredness, which, together, lie at the heart of the
libertarian vision. No wonder Mr. Tierney esteems plastics so.
Good news writers can't ever pass up an opportunity to re-write
history. Indeed, that is their main purpose for writing. For
example, Mr. Tierney says, "Today's landfills for municipal trash
are filled mostly with innocuous materials like paper, yard
waste, and construction debris. They contain small amounts of
hazardous wastes, like lead and mercury, but studies have found
that these poisons stay trapped inside the mass of garbage even
in the old, unlined dumps that were built before today's
This is a stunning example of history re-written to serve
libertarian ideology. The message is that today's "stringent
regulations" for landfills are not needed because poisons stay
trapped inside landfills. This would be a powerful argument for
getting government off the backs of the dumpers, if it were true.
But it's not. The U.S. Superfund list of contaminated sites
contains 184 municipal solid waste landfills, all leaking
dangerously. Municipal dumps contain 1% to 2%
legally-hazardous chemicals, but 1% of a huge quantity of waste
represents a substantial danger. And all evidence indicates that
landfills eventually leak their toxic contents into the
surrounding environment. To prevent toxic wastes from leaking
out of municipal dumps, we would have to repeal the second law of
thermodynamics. Since the laws of physics cannot be repealed,
libertarian writers like John Tierney must content themselves
with merely re-writing history, trying to trick the public into
believing that the dangerous is benign, and that government
needn't concern itself with recycling garbage because landfilling
it is safe.
As the NEW YORK TIMES said in an editorial July 19, 1996: "If
journalists lie or publications knowingly publish deceptively
incomplete stories, then readers who become aware of the
deception will ever after ask the most damaging of all questions:
How do I know you are telling me the whole truth as best you can
determine it THIS TIME?"
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 John Tierney, "Recycling is Garbage," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
June 30, 1996, pgs. 24-27, 44, 48, 51, 53.
 "Public Interest Pretenders," CONSUMER REPORTS Vol. 59, No. 5
(1994), pgs. 316-320.
 Michael Weisskopf, "Plastic reaps a grim harvest in the
oceans of the world," SMITHSONIAN (March, 1988), pgs. 59-66. And
see, for example, "David G. Shaw and Robert H. Day, "Colour-and
Form-dependent Loss of Plastic Micro-debris from the North
Pacific Ocean," MARINE POLLUTION BULLETIN Vol. 28, No. 1 (1994),
 David J. Slip and Harry R. Burton IV, "Accumulation of
Fishing Debris, Plastic Litter, and Other Artefacts on Heard and
Macquarie Islands in the Southern Ocean," ENVIRONMENTAL
CONSERVATION Vol. 18, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pgs. 249-254. And,
finally, see Christopher C. Joyner and Scot Frew, "Plastic
Pollution in the Marine Environment," OCEAN DEVELOPMENT AND
INTERNATIONAL LAW Vol. 22, No. 1 (1991), pgs. 33-69.
 Data on Superfund from Alex Kalinowski of U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's Superfund Docket; phone (703) 603-9096.
Descriptor terms: john tierney; new york times; recycling;
municipal solid waste; landfilling; msw; libertarianism;
monsanto; elizabeth whelan; wmx; acsh; american council on
science and health; genetic engineering; plastic; mexico; oceans;
Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic
version of RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY free of charge
even though it costs our organization considerable time and
money to produce it. We would like to continue to provide this
service free. You could help by making a tax-deductible
contribution (anything you can afford, whether $5.00 or
$500.00). Please send your contribution to: Environmental
Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036.
--Peter Montague, Editor