Past Activist Naughtinesses That Didn’t Make It Very Far – And One That Did

I present four examples of environmental activists and their claims:

Example 1

Back around 1988 there was a claim that 25% of the waste in our garbage dumps was plastic baby diapers.  It was also a time when our store shelves were well-stocked with biodegradable plastic trash bags.

A professor of archaeology at Southern Illinois University thought that the diaper thing would make a good challenge and project for his students.  They all went out to dumps and began counting and measuring and weighing, among the rats and flies.

They found out some notable things in their field work and their later analyses, all of which was in contradiction with what the common wisdom was at the time.  You see, most people then believed that, yes, there was too much plastic being discarded – the old “wasteful American” meme, aimed at one particular class of products.  This even though millions of Americans did, in fact, take up the biodegradable call to arms and tried to buy biodegradable trash bags in their effort to not inure the environment any more than necessary.

Here is what the research found:

  1. The percentage of plastic diapers in dumps was not 25%, but 00.25%
  2. Even vegetables and newspapers from the 1950s still had not biodegraded, much less plastics
  3. Plastic bags were about 80-90% thinner in the late 1980s than in the early years of the 1950s and 1960s, meaning that even though we threw away more bags, the amount of plastic in our dumps had not changed by very much.  (The plastics companies were doing our conserving for us, in spite of their greed.)
  4. Dumps are anaerobic places, once the trash gets compressed down.  There is not enough oxygen to biodegrade garbage, even when it is not in plastic bags.  Therefore, in bags or not in bags, it was all the same.  Biodegradable bags were of no more use than other plastic bags.
  5. There was only one dump found that had good aeration and good biodegradable processing, Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island in New York City.  It had good biodegradable capability because it had water flowing through it.

If you might be alarmed by that latter, you should be.  Water flowing through a garbage dump means chemicals and heavy metals, leaching out of the landfill.  So, in essence, we need to have no water flowing in a dump, meaning we cannot have biodegradability in our dumps.  Biodegradable bags – though a seemingly good idea – became a non-benefit for the environment.  Yes, it made sense – until someone actually looked at the evidence.

The point here is that plastics were targeted, with baby diapers chosen as the target bogey man.  Why baby diapers?  Why such an easily disproved claim?  25% of our dumps was baby diapers?

Did they think no one would even look?  Did they think we were stupid?

Were diapers chosen as a heart-rendering object to enlist mothers everywhere – who are concerned about the environment they will leave for their kids – to raise red flags and urge policymakers to take action? Did they think women would feel conflicted every time they put a diaper on their newborns?

Example 2

Also in the 1980s was the acid rain issue.  Ever heard of it?  If you are under 25 maybe not.  Just when we were finishing up with cleaning up the smokestacks of American industry, along came people who shouted from the rooftops that our NEW smokestacks were spewing pollutants now higher than before, allowing the pollutants to react in the higher atmosphere and get into our rain clouds and fall as acid rain, somewhere downwind.  And since in the USA with our prevailing west and southwest winds “downwind” meant east and northeast, the claim was made and repeated ad infinitum that the lakes and rivers in the Northeast were suffering from acid rain.  We were killing the many forests of the Northeast.

It took until about 1985 (as I recall) for the Congress to take action.  Someone had the ridiculous idea of actually – like the professor from SIU – going out and collecting evidence, and Congress duly funded this effort, to the tune of $35 million.  Not a great amount but sufficient.

When the data came in, I myself was astounded:  There was one remote, small pond in western New York state that had what appeared to have excess acidity.  That was it.  There was no more evidence of acid rain than that.  All the other rivers and streams and ponds and lakes came up clean.

What were the claims based on?  Anything at all solid?  Did some activist wake up one morning having dreamed it all up?

Again:  Did they think no one would even look into it at all?  Did they think we were STUPID?

Example 3

Also about acid rain… A true story that might get someone shaking their head:

In 1985 I lived in McHenry County, Illinois and was attending metaphysical meetings on Monday nights.  It just happened that an older couple was in my group.  The husband happened to be the County Coroner.  I suppose he isn’t around anymore.  He’d be in his mid-90s by now, and most of us don’t make it that far.  The following is what he dumbfoundedly regaled us with one night, shaking his head:

As Coroner he was expected to attend meetings of the County Commissioners, to which the public was invited, and during which citizens were given a forum to broach new subjects or comment on existing issues.  During that last past meeting a young, scraggly, bearded man stood up and began telling the Commissioners that all the lakes in McHenry County had been suffering from acid rain.

The other Commissioners looked askance at the Coroner, the scientist in the government tasked with all things chemical, wanting to know why no one was aware of this problem.  He admitted that it was something they had not ever looked into.  He let them and the young man know that he would get on it and get results as soon sa he could, so that, if needed, action could be then discussed.  He said he needed to find out the extent of the problem so that he could hopefully even give them all some idea of what the costs might be to clean up the lakes, plus begin to find ways of preventing any further damage.  He had no bone to pick; he just wanted to get to the bottom of it and clean up the lakes for the many people in the county who enjoyed water recreation and duck hunting.

He had not mentioned this part to us in the metaphysical group at that time.  He only told us after the results were back, and he told us just wondering what the hell some people are thinking.  Again, this is as he told us, and to the very best of my recollection.  The facts are not misrepresented here at all.

At the meeting of the County Commissioners at which he presented his findings, he told them that ALL the samples of ALL the lakes and ponds in the county had been taken and analyzed at an independent laboratory.  The lab results all came back clean.  There was no acidity in the lakes in McHenry County.

The young man was in attendance.  He took the liberty of asking the young man what information he had had and why he thought there was an acid rain problem.  To the best of my recollection, my friend said that the young man replied, “That stuff doesn’t matter!  We need to clean up the lakes!”

My friend the Coroner was still astounded and almost speechless as he told us in our small group three days later.  He asked if any of us had any clue why someone would make up such a claim – and then argue that actual lab tests were of no importance.  I told him the following, hoping it would shed some light on it.

Example 4

I was living and in my first year in engineering in Cleveland, Ohio when the Clean Water Act was passed by Congress in 1972.  For the next five years of my career almost all my work was drawing up parts to be used in water and air pollution control systems.  I later in my career worked on several other similar systems.

Being on Lake Erie, Cleveland was on a considerably polluted body of water.  Many Clevelanders were fisheremen, and many people used the lake for other recreation, so the issue of clean water was often in the news, in our awareness.  It was certainly something that Clevelanders did not have to think twice about.  The Cuyahoga River emptied out into the lake right in downtown Cleveland, shortly after passing by the heart of the heavy industrial areas of the city.

Upstream, the Cuyahoga was nearly virginal.  It started out east of the city, flowing away from the lake, then not so far south it made a U-turn and flowed north to the lake.  In that part of Ohio there are four such U-turn rivers – the Grand, the Rocky, the Chagrin, and the Cuyahoga.  They all were shale-bed rivers, shallow enough to walk across for most of their lengths, and for most of their length they had steep and deep and narrow valleys.  If one word could be used to describe them it would be “primeval.”  They had ferns by the millions.  Each flowed through only a very few towns, almost all of them small.  The one real exception is the Cuyahoga, and the one non-small town is Cleveland.

And the Cuyahoga had carried its share (and more) of pollutants downstream and into Lake Erie.  It was a river that needed cleaning up, and because of it and its industry, it made Lake Erie a lake that needed to be cleaned up.

What this story is about is that for some reason the activists – who won their battle – made claims that to  this day I am still angry about.  it was my first exposure to the exaggerations and lies that “green” people will spout in order to get their way.

In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as the rhetoric continued as the vote in Congress was approaching, I kept reading that, “Even if we don’t put one more drop of pollution into Lake Erie, it will take the lake 10,000 years to recover.”

I had no reason to think that wasn’t true.  It was well understood that the lake was quite polluted.

Ten years later, I was living in the Chicago area.  Cleveland was in my past, and I rarely thought about it – even though it still remains my most favorite place in the USA to have lived.  And that includes Maine and Denver, so that is no small thing. One day in the Chicago Tribune was an article saying that Lake Erie had cleaned itself up.  The article stated that pollutants into Lake Erie had been reduced to 25% of what had been going into it prior to the Clean Water Act of 1972.  It further stated that the lake had cleaned out 90% of the pollution.

My reaction was amazement and disbelief.  Not that the lake had cleaned itself up. That was well and good, and I was happy about that.  Especially for those who enjoyed the lake and its fish.  My amazement was that instead of 10,000 years and NO pollutants, the real world was that even with ONLY 75% less pollution entering the lake, it had only taken TEN years to clean up the lake by 90%.

10,000 versus 10.  100% less versus 75% less.  You don’t have to be Einstein to understand that those aren’t even close to being equal.

It was my first experience with lying activists.

Then after the young man and his acid rain, let us just say that I hear activist claims with a lot of skepticism now.  They lost someone who could have been on their side.

Mostly now when I hear their assertions, my reaction is “Oh, yeah?  Show me your evidence!”

Is our environment much better now for having the Clean Water Act?  Yes.

Is our environment much better now for having the Clean Air Act?  Yes.

They didn’t have to lie to get it.  Like I said, they lost an ally.  If they have to lie to get what they want, that makes them no better than a snake oil salesman.


One response to “Past Activist Naughtinesses That Didn’t Make It Very Far – And One That Did

  1. I’d say tamp it down Steve. Are all green activists “scraggly bearded”. I’d rather see a discussion of the facts without the personal animosity towards stereotypes. Why not draw in as broad a spectrum of supporters as possible? All we need it love, right? All we really need is love. Polarization is the last thing we need. Can we get past that? Problems might get solved. Yes, I know that people you love once had long hair, but, really, “scraggly bearded” just feeds the animosity in a way that is unnecessary. You see, it’s because I have friends and relatives who have little interest in the scientific method, but quickly glom onto the “scraggly beard” making it us and them and getting is stuck again.

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