Nearly a decade ago, I heard Donella Meadows predict that the information
sphere would become the most polluted area of our lives. A professor at
Dartmouth College, Ms. Meadows is also a syndicated columnist, one of the
authors of <I>The Limits to Growth </I>and an organic farmer. Her lecture
was part of a series at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental
Studies where noted experts addressed global environmental problems.
In that context, it was somewhat startling to hear Ms. Meadows talk about
information pollution. However, she made a strong case for its destructive
environmental effects in a system or society that depends on individual
decisions. Widespread misinformation inhibits rational problem-solving.
Recently, I've run across three clear examples of what Ms. Meadows
predicted nearly 10 years ago. Each one is a situation where a polluting
industry doesn't want citizens to know the truth, and has intentionally
spread erroneous information.
As part of the Food Quality Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1996, the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was charged with printing and
distributing a brochure about pesticides to food consumers. Recently,
<I>The New York Times </I>reported that the brochure was delayed because
seven food, farm and pesticide industry groups brought pressure last August
for changes in the draft document. According to <I>The Times, </I>these
changes involved putting less emphasis on the health risks of pesticides
and eliminating the mention of organic food.
The section called 'Tips to Reduce Pesticides on Foods' was changed to
"Healthy, Sensible Food Practices." The name of the brochure was changed
from "Pesticides on Food" to "Pesticides and Food." Agricultural and
chemical interests would rather not have us think about the large
quantities of dangerous pesticides that they spray on fruits, vegetables
and grains, or know that an organic solution even exists.
Of course, what goes in, must come out. Sewage treatment plants produce
vast amounts of sewage sludge. Unfortunately, many things besides human
wastes wind up in municipal sewers, including industrial wastes and many of
the dangerous materials we've created. The sludge that's left after
removing water can contain toxic heavy metals, asbestos, radioactive
wastes, PCBs and DDT, as well as human pathogens, viruses and parasites.
Naturally, such stuff is hard to get rid of, so the sewage industry
arranged an Orwellian name change. With money from the EPA, it funded a
public relations campaign to rename sludge "biosolids." Last November,
<I>Harper's Magazine </I>featured an article which detailed how this
campaign resulted in the word "biosolid" appearing as a new entry in the
1998 edition of <I>Merriam-Webster Dictionary. </I>The
sewage-industry-influenced definition excludes the word sludge entirely and
includes words such as organic and fertilizer. The industry thinks a
better name will encourage the use of sludge as fertilizer on our food.
The government even suggested last year that sludge (excuse me, biosolids)
might be used for growing organic food.
This greenwashing keeps us ignorant about the true nature of, and the real
problems with, our sewage systems. Citizens are not likely to press for
exclusion of industrial wastes from sewers if they don't know these wastes
are a problem.
Perhaps the most dangerous disinformation campaign, however, is the
deliberate deception about global climate change propagated by
organizations and PR firms funded by the oil, coal, chemical and automotive
industries. It is made worse because conservative political interests use
these distortions to confuse the public and influence legislation.
Ross Gelbspan's book <I>The Heat is On, </I>details this expensive and well
organized effort by the industry most responsible for changing the climate.
He describes how conservative "think-tanks" present political opinion as
scientific fact-- and, how that right-wing dogma is accepted as science by
sympathetic conservative leaders in Congress, who then accuse respected
scientists of practicing religion.
As long as we don't know about the problems with toxic pesticides, polluted
sludge, or climate change, we are not likely to discover the multiple
benefits of growing organic food, safely recycling human wastes (separate
from poisons), or using solar energy.
Yet, as fewer citizens know how to grow food without chemicals, compost
human wastes and heat their homes with the sun, more people are susceptible
to polluted information.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1999, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "Living on the
Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays Living on the Earth:
Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill
Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for a special price of $10 postpaid,
this winter. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from
Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing
and those since November 1995 are available there.
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