All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1971

The Disaster Lobby

Slightly condensed from a speech by Mr. Shepard, publisher of Look magazine, at the 44th annual meeting of the Soap and Detergent Association in New York City, January 28, 1971.

One morning last fall, I left my office in New York and hailed a cab for Kennedy Airport. The driver had the radio tuned to one of those daytime talk shows where the participants take turns com­plaining about how terrible every­thing is. Air pollution. Water pol­lution. Noise pollution. Racial un­rest. Campus unrest. Overpopula­tion. Underemployment. You name it, they agonized over it. This went on all the way to Kennedy and as we pulled up at the terminal the driver turned to me and said: “If things are all that bad, how come I feel so good?”

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 United States is on the brink of catastrophe and only a brand new socio-economic system can save us. I call these people The Disaster Lobby, and I regard them as the most dangerous men and women in America today. Dangerous not only to the insti­tutions they seek to destroy but to the consumers they are sup­posed to protect.

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 New York City, for example. New York‘s Department of Air Resources re­ports a year-by-year decrease in air pollutants since 1965. What’s more, the New York City air is immeasurably cleaner today than it was a hundred years ago, when people burned soft coal and you could cut the smog with a knife.

Which brings us to water pollution. The Disaster Lobby recalls that, back in the days before America was industrialized, our rivers and lakes were crystal clear. True. And those crystal clear riv­ers and lakes were the source of the worst cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid epidemics the world has ever known. Just one of these epidemics—in 1793—killed one of every five residents of Phila­delphia. Our waterways may not be as pretty as they used to be, but they aren’t as deadly either. In fact, the water we drink is the safest in the world. What’s more, we’re making progress cosmetical­ly. Many of our streams will soon look as wholesome as they are.

Perhaps it’s the fear of over­population that’s getting you down. Well, cheer up. The birth rate in the United States has been dropping continuously since 1955 and is now at the lowest point in history. If the trend continues, it is remotely possible that by the year four thousand there won’t be anyone left in the country. But I wouldn’t fret about under population either. Populations have a way of adjusting to conditions, and I have no doubt that our birth rate will pick up in due course.

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 University of California, some one hundred million species of animal life have become extinct since the world began. Animals come and animals go, as Mr. Darwin noted, and to blame ourselves for evolution would be the height of foolishness.

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 Gallup to do a study on the mood of America. Gallup found that, on virtually every is­sue, the views of teenagers coin­cided with those of adults. And on those issues where the kids did not see eye-to-eye with their el­ders, the youngsters often tended to be more conservative.

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 Gallup study re­vealed, are stanch believers in this nation.

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 America a hundred and fifty years ago? For one thing, it was very brief. Life expectancy was thirty-eight years for males. And it was a gruelling thirty-eight years. The work week was seventy-two hours. The average pay was $300. Per year, that is. The women had it worse. House­wives worked ninety-eight hours a week, and there wasn’t a dish­washer or vacuum cleaner to be had. The food was monotonous and scarce. The clothes were rags. In the winter you froze and in the summer you sweltered and when an epidemic came—and they came almost every year—it would prob­ably carry off someone in your family. Chances are that in your entire lifetime you would never hear the sound of an orchestra or own a book or travel more than twenty miles from the place you were born.

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 Washington meekly gave them their ban, in the form of a gradual DDT phase­ out. Other countries followed the U.S. lead.

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 Ceylon, Venezuela, and Sweden—the renaissance of insects has been so devastating that laws against DDT have been repealed or amend­ed. But in our country the use of DDT, down to 10 per cent of its former level, may soon be pro­hibited entirely.

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 University of Chicago, free enterprise in the United States is only half alive. He cited as evidence our government’s con­trol of the mail, water supplies, schools, airlines, railroads, high­ways, banks, farms, utilities, and insurance companies, along with its regulatory involvement in other industries.

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 United States of America.

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 Washington may feel that whole wheat is more nutri­tious and rye should be outlawed.

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 New York‘s polluted air and the worse it gets, the better your chances of dying from it.” But we know that New York‘s air is not getting worse. Just let some private company run that ad and see how fast the consumerism boys would have a complaint on file with the FTC.

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.