The Disaster Lobby
AUGUST 01, 1971 by THOMAS R. SHEPARD JR.
Slightly condensed from a speech by Mr. Shepard, publisher of Look magazine, at the 44th annual meeting of the Soap and Detergent Association in
One morning last fall, I left my office in
I wonder how many Americans, pelted day after day by the voices of doom, ever ask themselves that question: "If things are all that bad, how come I feel so good?" Well, I think I have the answer. We feel good because things aren’t that bad. I would like to tell you how wrong the pessimists are, and to focus an overdue spotlight on the pessimists themselves. These are the people who, in the name of ecology or consumerism or some other ology or ism, are laying siege to our state and Federal governments, demanding laws to regulate industry on the premise that the
Why Not the Truth?
Let’s begin with a close-in look at that drumbeat of despair I heard in the taxicab and that all of us hear almost every day. Just how much truth is there to the Disaster Lobby’s complaints?
Take the one about the oxygen we breathe. The Disaster folks tell us that the burning of fuels by industry is using up the earth’s oxygen and that, eventually, there won’t be any left and we’ll suffocate. False. The National Science Foundation recently collected air samples at seventy-eight sites around the world and compared them with samples taken sixty-one years ago. Result? There is today precisely the same amount of oxygen in the air as there was in 1910—20.95 per cent.
But what about air pollution? You can’t deny that our air is getting more fouled up all the time, says the Disaster Lobby. Wrong. I can deny it. Our air is getting less fouled up all the time, in city after city. In
Which brings us to water pollution. The Disaster Lobby recalls that, back in the days before
Perhaps it’s the fear of overpopulation that’s getting you down. Well, cheer up. The birth rate in the
I now come to the case of the mercury in the tuna fish. How did it get there? The Disaster Lobby says it came from American factories, but then the Disaster Lobby believes that all the evils in the world come from American factories. The truth, as scientists will tell you, is that the mercury came from deposits in nature. To attribute pollution of entire oceans to the nine hundred tons of mercury released into the environment each year by industry—that’s less than forty carloads—is like blaming a boy with a water pistol for the Johnstown Flood. Further proof? Fish caught forty-four years ago and just analyzed contain twice as much mercury as any fish processed this year.
Speaking of fish, what about the charge that our greed and carelessness are killing off species of animals? Well, it’s true that about fifty species of wildlife will become extinct this century. But it’s also true that fifty species became extinct last century. And the century before that. And the century before that. In fact, says Dr. T. H. Jukes of the
From Drugs to Unemployment
Then there is the drug situation. Isn’t it a fact that we are becoming a nation of addicts? No, it is not. Historically, we are becoming a nation of non-addicts. Seventy years ago, one of every four hundred Americans was hooked on hard drugs. Today, it’s one in three thousand. So, despite recent experimentation with drugs by teenagers, the long-range trend is downward, not upward.
Another crisis constructed of pure poppycock is the so-called youth rebellion, to which the Disaster Lobby points with mingled alarm and glee. But once you examine the scene in depth—once you probe behind a very small gaggle of young trouble-makers who are sorely in need of an education, a spanking, and a bath, not necessarily in that order—you can’t find any rebellion worth talking about. A while back Look commissioned
The same assessment can be made of the putative black rebellion. There isn’t any. Oh, there are the rantings of a lunatic fringe—a few paranoid militants who in any other country would be behind bars and whose continued freedom here is testimony to the fact that we are the most liberated and least racist nation on earth. But the vast majority of black Americans, as that same
How about unemployment? The Disaster people regard it as a grave problem. Well, I suppose even one unemployed person is a grave problem, but the record book tells us that the current out-of work level of 6 per cent is about par. We’ve had less, but we’ve also had more—much more. During the Kennedy Administration unemployment topped 7 per cent. And back in the recovery period of Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, unemployment reached 25 per cent. So let’s not panic over this one.
In the Good Old Days We Couldn’t Have Survived
That word "panic" brings me to the H-bomb. Some people have let the gloom-mongers scare them beyond rational response with talk about atomic annihilation. I can’t guarantee immunity from the bomb, but I offer the following as food for thought. Since World War II, over one billion human beings who worried about A-bombs and H-bombs died of other causes. They worried for nothing. It’s something to think about.
One final comment on the subject. Members of the Disaster Lobby look back with fond nostalgia to the "good old days" when there weren’t any nasty factories to pollute the air and kill the animals and drive people to distraction with misleading advertisements. But what was life really like in
Whatever American businessmen have done to bring us out of that paradise of a hundred and fifty years ago, I say let’s give them a grateful pat on the back—not a knife in it.
A Word for DDT
Now I’m not a Pollyanna. I am aware of the problems we face and of the need to find solutions and put them into effect. And I have nothing but praise for the many dedicated Americans who are devoting their lives to making this a better nation in a better world. The point I am trying to make is that we are solving most of our problems… that conditions are getting better, not worse… that American industry is spending over three billion dollars a year to clean up the environment and additional billions to develop products that will keep it clean… and that the real danger today is not from the free enterprise Establishment that has made ours the most prosperous, most powerful, and most charitable nation on earth. No, the danger today resides in the Disaster Lobby—those crape-hangers who, for personal gain or out of sheer ignorance, are undermining the American system and threatening the lives and fortunes of the American people.
When I speak of a threat to lives, I mean it literally. A classic example of the dire things that can happen when the Disaster Lobby gets busy is the DDT story.
It begins during World War II when a safe, cheap, and potent new insecticide made its debut. Known as DDT, it proved its value almost overnight. Grain fields once ravaged by insects began producing bumper crops. Marshland became habitable. And the death rate in many countries fell sharply. According to the World Health Organization, malaria fatalities dropped from four million a year in the nineteen thirties to less than a million by 1968. Other insect-borne diseases also loosened their grip. Encephalitis. Yellow fever. Typhus. Wherever DDT was used, the ailment abated. It has been estimated that a hundred million human beings who would have died of one of these afflictions are alive today because of DDT.
But that’s not the whole story. In many countries, famine was once a periodic visitor. Then, largely because of food surpluses made possible by DDT, famines became relatively rare. So you can credit this insecticide with saving additional hundreds of millions of lives.
Then in 1962, Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring, in which she charged that DDT had killed some fish and some birds. That’s all the Disaster Lobby needed. It pounced on the book, embraced its claims—many of them still unsubstantiated—and ran off to Washington to demand a ban on DDT. And
The effects were not long in coming. Malaria, virtually conquered throughout the world, is having a resurgence. Food production is down in many areas. And such pests as the gypsy moth, in hiding since the nineteen forties, are now munching away at American forests.
In some countries—among them
The tragedy is that DDT, while it probably did kill a few birds and fish, never harmed a single human being except by accidental misuse. When the ultimate report is written, it may show that the opponents of DDT—despite the best of intentions—contributed to the deaths of more human beings than did all of the natural disasters in history.
Can We Afford It?
In addition to endangering human life, the Disaster Lobbyists are making things as difficult as possible for us survivors. By preventing electric companies from building new power plants, they have caused most of those blackouts we’ve been experiencing.
By winning the fight for compulsory seat belts in automobiles, they have forced the 67 per cent of all Americans who do not use seat belts to waste two hundred and fifty million dollars a year buying them anyway.
By demanding fewer sizes in packaged goods on the ground that this will make shopping easier for the handful of dumbbells in our society, they are preventing the intelligent majority of housewives from buying merchandise in the quantities most convenient and most efficient for their needs.
And I need hardly remind you what the Disaster crowd has done and is doing to make washday a nightmare in millions of American homes. By having the sale of detergents banned in some areas and by stirring up needless fears throughout the country, they have created the kind of chaos that may set cleanliness back two generations. And again, as in everything they do, they have missed the point entirely. As Vice-President Charles Bueltman of the Soap and Detergent Association recently pointed out, detergents with phosphates are perfectly safe, eminently effective, and admirably cheap. And if they foam up the water supply in some communities, the obvious remedy is an improved sewer system. To ban detergents is the kind of overkill that might be compared with burning down your house to get rid of termites.
A System Worth Saving
But of all activities of the Disaster Lobbyists, the most insidious are their attempts to destroy our free enterprise system. And they are succeeding only too well. According to Professor Yale Brozen of the
And his statement was made prior to introduction in Congress last year of a hundred and fifty bills designed to broaden government influence over private business. Fortunately, most of the bills were defeated or died in committee. But they will be back in the hopper this year—along with some new bills.
If so many important people are against free enterprise, is it worth saving? I think it is. With all its faults, it is by far the best system yet devised for the production, distribution, and widespread enjoyment of goods and services. It is more than coincidence that virtually all of mankind’s scientific progress came in the two centuries when free enterprise was operative in the Western world, and that most of that progress was achieved in the nation regarded as the leading exponent of free enterprise: the
For in the past two hundred years—an eye blink in history—an America geared to private industry has conquered communicable diseases, abolished starvation, brought literacy to the masses, transported men to another planet, and expanded the horizons of its citizens to an almost incredible degree by giving them wheels and wings and electronic extensions of their eyes, their ears, their hands, even their brains. It has made available to the average American luxuries that a short time ago were beyond the reach of the wealthiest plutocrat. And by developing quick-cook meals and labor-saving appliances, it has cut kitchen chores in most homes from five hours a day to an hour and a half.
But the practical benefits of free enterprise are not my principal reason for wanting to preserve the system. To me, the chief advantage of free enterprise is in the word "free." "Free" as opposed to controlled. "Free" as opposed to repressed. "Free" as in "freedom."
The Assault on Freedom
I am always amazed that members of the Disaster Lobby—libertarians who champion the cause of freedom from every podium, who insist on everyone’s right to dissent… to demonstrate… to curse policemen and smoke pot and burn draft cards and fly the flags of our enemies while trampling our own—these jealous guardians of every citizen’s prerogative to act and speak without government restraint are also the most outspoken advocates of eliminating freedom in one area. When it comes to commerce, to the making and marketing of goods, our liberty-loving Disaster Lobby is in favor of replacing freedom with rigid controls.
And let us not minimize the value of this freedom of commerce to every man, woman, and child in our country.
This is the freedom that makes it possible for the consumer to buy one quart of milk at a time—even though a government economist may think gallon containers are more efficient and quarts should be abolished.
This is the freedom that enables the consumer to buy rye bread if he prefers the taste—although someone in
This is the freedom that allows the consumer to buy a refrigerator in avocado green despite some bureaucrat’s desire to have all refrigerators made in white because it would be more economical that way.
For in a free economy, the consumer—through his pocketbook—determines what is made and what is sold. The consumer dictates the sizes, the shapes, the quality, the color, even the price.
And anyone who doubts the importance of this element of freedom ought to visit one of those grim, drab countries where the government decides what should and what should not be marketed.
But this is the direction in which the Disaster Lobby is pushing our country. What surprises me is how few of us seem to recognize the enormity of the threat. Instead of fighting back, we keep giving in to each inane demand of the consumerists—in the hope, I suppose, that if we are accommodating enough, the danger will go away.
Well, it won’t go away. So let’s start fighting back! It’s not an impossible task because the Disaster Lobby is, by and large, not too bright and far too preposterous. All we have to do to win over the
American people is acquaint them with the facts.
We must show them that the consumerists are for the most part devout snobs who believe that the average man is too stupid to make his own selections in a free marketplace.
Our Disaster group opponents also have the most cockeyed set of priorities I have ever encountered. To save a few trees, they would prevent construction of a power plant that could provide essential electricity to scores of hospitals and schools. To protect some birds, they would deprive mankind of food. To keep fish healthy, they would allow human beings to become sick.
Signs of Immaturity
One curious feature of the Disaster Lobby is an almost total lack of ethics. I say "curious" because these are the people who demand the maximum in ethics from private industry. Not long ago, an organization favoring clean air ran an ad soliciting funds from New Yorkers. It was full of half-truths and non-truths, including this sentence: "The longer you live with
Immaturity is also a characteristic of the Disaster man. His favorite question is, Why can’t we have everything? Why can’t we have simon-pure air and plentiful electricity and low utility rates, all at the same time? Why can’t we have ample food and a ban on pesticides? I recommend the same answer you would give a not-too-intelligent five-year-old who asks, "Why can’t I eat that cookie and still have it?" You explain that you just can’t under our present technology.
Just recently, the Coca-Cola Company felt it necessary to reply to environmentalists who demand immediate replacement of glass and metal soft drink containers with something that will self-destruct. "A degradable soft drink container sounds like a fine idea," said Coca-Cola, "but it doesn’t exist. And the chances are that one can’t be made."
And Edward Cole, president of General Motors, responding to a government mandate for drastic reductions in exhaust emissions within the next four years, stated: "The technology does not exist at this time—inside or outside the automobile industry—to meet these stringent emission levels in the specified time." This inability of the Disaster people to accept reality is reflected in their frequent complaint that mankind interferes with nature. Such a thing is patently impossible. Man is part of nature. We didn’t come here from some other planet. Anything we do, we do as card-carrying instruments of nature. You don’t accuse a beaver of interfering with nature when it chops down a tree to build a dam. Then why condemn human beings for chopping down a lot of trees to build a lot of dams… or to do anything else that will make their lives safer or longer or more enjoyable?
When it comes to a choice between saving human lives and saving some fish, I will sacrifice the fish without a whimper. It’s not that I’m anti-fish; it’s just that I am pro-people.
The Disaster Lobbyist’s immaturity shows up again and again in his unwillingness to compromise… to understand that man must settle for less than perfection, for less than zero risk, if he is to flourish. Failing to understand, they demand what they call "adequate testing" before any new product is released to the public. But what they mean by adequate testing would, if carried out, destroy all progress. If penicillin had been tested the way the Disaster Lobby wants all products tested—not only on the current generation but on future generations, to determine hereditary effects—this wonder drug would not be in use today. And millions of people whose lives have been saved by penicillin would be dead.
We simply cannot test every aspect of human endeavor, generation after generation, to make absolutely certain that everything we do is totally guaranteed not to harm anybody to any degree whatsoever. We must take an occasional risk to do the greater good for the greater number. But that is a rational, mature evaluation—something of which the Disaster Lobby seems utterly incapable.
So this is the face of the enemy. Not a very impressive face. Not even a pleasant face. We have nothing to lose, therefore, by exposing it to the American people for what it is.
Let the Facts Be Known
The time for surrender and accommodation is past. We must let the American public know that, once free enterprise succumbs to the attacks of the consumerists and the ecologists and the rest of the Disaster Lobby, the freedom of the consumer goes with it. His freedom to live the way he wants and to buy the things he wants without some Big Brother in Washington telling him he can’t.
Truth and justice and common sense are on our side. And Americans have a history of responding to those arguments. All we have to do is get the story out… as often as possible, in as many forms as possible. And let’s not vitiate our efforts by talking to each other—one businessman to a fellow businessman. The people we must reach are the consumers of America, and they’re out there right now listening to propaganda from the other side… and, as often as not, agreeing with it. But why shouldn’t they? They have yet to hear the truth.
It’s a bit late to make a New Year’s Resolution, but I suggest this one for anyone willing to chip in with a tardy entry. Let us resolve that 1971 will be the year we help convince the people of America that our nation is a great one, that our future is a bright one, and that the Disaster Lobby is precisely what the name implies. A disaster.