So-called “greenwash” was clearly not high on the list of concerns of Paul and Anne Ehrlich when, in 1996, they published Betrayal of Science and Reason: How anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens our Future. On the contrary, on the very first page of the book they made their purpose clear:
The time has come to write a book about efforts being made to minimize the seriousness of environmental problems. We call these attempts the ‘brownlash’ because they help to fuel a backlash against ‘green’ policies. The brownlash has been generated by a diverse group of individuals and organizations, doubtless often with differing motives and backgrounds. We classify them as brownlashers by what they say, not by who they are. With strong and appealing messages, they have successfully sowed seeds of doubt among journalists, policy makers, and the public at large about the reality and importance of such phenomena as overpopulation, global climate change, ozone depletion, and losses of biodiversity.
The question I propose to explore in this post, and those that will follow it, is this: Have the Ehrlich’s warnings about this “brownlash“ been vindicated by the events of the last 15 years? Having read the book, it seems to clear to me that they most certainly have and – more than that – it is clear that many of the key players identified 15 years ago are still in “denial mode” today (people like Dennis Avery). But such detail will come in future posts. First though, I should finish setting the scene: Paul Ehrlich is possibly most well-known for writing The Population Bomb in 1968, for which he was attacked, ridiculed and vilified by many who did not like the implications of the message. In the introductory chapter to their 1996 book the Ehrlichs describe how they both came to study biology and to collaborate on the 1968 book (although credited solely to Paul). They also write about those people that influenced them (such as Rachel Carson), but they also lament the tendency of journalists and the media in general to seek to balance any warning from scientists with the views of those that dismiss any such warnings as “environmental alarmism“. This is just one of the many ways in which the book seems very prescient to our current predicament. However, with regard to those who dismissed their 1968 warning, the Ehrlichs argued that the passage of time had proved them right in many respects (although their opponents don’t like to admit it) and, in other respects, the Ehrlich’s claimed that just because they had not yet been proven right, did not mean that they were wrong. This, of course prompts the question, “Have they been proven right now?” But, first things first, and their 1968 warning that: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…” History records that somewhere between 100 and 140 million people died of starvation in the 1970s and by 1996 the total figure was more like 250 million. The Ehrlichs also point out that there is also clear evidence that the death toll in the 1970s was not worse because strenuous efforts were made to prevent wider catastrophe. Furthermore, the Ehrlichs maintain that we will never eliminate food scarcity because overpopulation is now a reality. However, before they tackle ongoing fables about population, food, resources, and climate, the Ehrlichs first tackle the flawed thinking that drove people in the mid 1990s to want to repeal environmental legislation. Does that sound familiar? Well, it certainly should because the same people are still making the same arguments for the same reasons. This is what I will tackle tomorrow.