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Friday, October 22, 2010

Can Government Save Us from Manmade Disasters?

Please, folks, can’t we have a little more sophistication about what it takes to prevent environmental disasters? The politicians seem to be stuck on the idea that more government is the solution, and many journalists echo the theme. In discussing the BP spill and several other manmade environmental disasters last summer, Washington Post reporters David A. Fahrenthold and Ylan Q. Mui summarized their explanation of what goes wrong in these situations: “Private interests that took risks in search of a payoff; a government that wasn’t trying hard enough to stop them.” According to this theory, environmental mishaps mean we didn’t have enough government regulation.

The problem with this view is that “government” is an abstraction. In practice everything done in the name of government is done by government employees, ordinary human beings who can be, well, as fallible as anyone. To support this point we need only look at one of the cases Fahrenthold and Mui cited in buttressing their idea that government needs to protect us: the careless spraying of insecticides like DDT.

In the 1950s airplanes flew over swamps and suburbs, fields and forests, drenching everyone and everything with a rain of DDT and other insecticides. It was a triple fiasco: 1) it failed to control the target insect pests (such as the spruce budworm, the imported fire ant, and the gypsy moth, among others); 2) it cost a lot of money; and 3) the spraying slaughtered living things on a vast scale. It killed some farm and domestic animals; it killed hundreds of species of beneficial insects and nematodes; and it killed wildlife, including foxes, raccoons, rabbits, fish, and birds, turning affected areas into—in the eyes of a sensitive environmentalist—an eerie wasteland.

Who carried out this irresponsible madness? Rachel Carson fingered the culprits in her celebrated 1962 book, Silent Spring. The point is often overlooked today, but Silent Spring was not so much a critique of pesticides but a condemnation of their irresponsible use. In case after case, the organizations that drenched land and wildlife with poisonous insecticides were . . . wait for it . . . government agencies! For example, in 1958 the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a campaign to spray 20 million acres in nine southern states in an attempt to eradicate fire ants. The department won congressional approval for the program by making the unsupported assertion that fire ants were dangerous to livestock and crops, when in actuality, as Carson documented, they were no significant threat to either. The spraying did not control the fire ant, but it did cause massive kills of wildlife, especially fish and birds. The program was, said Carson, “an outstanding example of an ill-conceived, badly executed, and thoroughly detrimental experiment in the mass control of insects.”

In New York State the U.S. Department of Agriculture joined forces with the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets in a futile attempt to eradicate the gypsy moth. In 1957, Carson continued, they “showered down the prescribed DDT-in-fuel-oil with impartiality. They sprayed truck gardens and dairy farms, fish ponds and salt marshes. They sprayed the quarter-acre lots of suburbia, drenching a housewife making a desperate effort to cover her garden before the roaring plane reached her. . . . Birds, fish, crabs, and useful insects were killed.”

In Michigan, in an attempt to control the Japanese beetle, government agencies joined forces to dust the suburbs of Detroit with aldrin, a pesticide 100 times more toxic to birds than DDT. The first offender in this debacle was the Michigan state legislature, which gave state agencies the power to spray indiscriminately, without notifying landowners or gaining their permission. The spraying was carried out by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, backed by the pesticide-tropic U.S. Department of Agriculture. When worried citizens reported dead birds and sickened humans and animals, Carson reports, government agencies stonewalled. The Federal Aviation Agency, the Detroit Department of Parks, and the Detroit police all vouched for the safety of the operation even though they had no evidence on the point.

Silent Spring—the gospel of the environmental movement—abundantly demonstrates that government can be an irresponsible, insensitive polluter. This raises an interesting question: Why has this point been forgotten?

My explanation of this blindness is that these reporters—and environmental activists in general—are victims of the “watchful eye illusion.” Human beings have a disposition to believe in authority and to ascribe godlike wisdom and maturity to it. This orientation probably begins in childhood when parents are viewed as wise and capable. As children grow up, many transfer this faith in authority to government, producing the watchful eye illusion: the belief that government is wise and responsible. This illusion will lead people to forget about—or repress—all the evidence demonstrating that government officials are often unwise and irresponsible.

The 1950s spraying scandal hasn’t been government’s only environmental miscue. For another, look at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the state of Washington, where the federal government’s radioactive spills are now expected to cost taxpayers $50 billion to clean up. In just one type of pollution at that site, the feds deliberately vented 725,000 curies of radioactive iodine-131. This was over 36,000 times as much radioactivity as was released in the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in which naughty private interests were supposedly “taking risks in search of a payoff.”

Just as government can be an irresponsible polluter, it can also be an ineffective regulator. Many people don’t grasp this reality because, again, they are blinded by their faith in authority. With naive confidence, they propose, for example, that “government should regulate oil drilling,” thinking that this will prevent oil spills. If they could overcome the watchful eye illusion they would realize that they need to put their proposal more carefully: “Assuming that the government employees doing the regulating are alert, thoughtful, energetic, and responsible, and never lazy, complacent, uninformed, irrational, careless, corrupt, or paralyzed by red tape, government should regulate oil drilling.” Thus stripped of illusion, the idea that government can protect the environment loses much of its luster.

In the final analysis, overcoming environmental abuse is not likely to be achieved by governmental dictation. Instead, it is a process of social learning that includes everyone: friends and neighbors, reporters, pamphleteers, teachers, researchers—and companies too, as they discover how pollution hurts their image and their bottom line.