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Environmentalism at Wit's End: A Review of Pandora's Poison

May 11, 2018

Joseph Bast has written a detailed critique of the pseudoscience, false assumptions, and ideological objectives of Greenpeace’s campaign to ban chlorine.

Chemicals in beakers in a lab

In a February 2000 paper for The Heartland Institute, Heartland President Joseph Bast produced a detailed (6,320 word) review of a book by Greenpeace activist Joe Thornton titled, Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy. More than just a book review, Bast’s essay lays bare the pseudoscience, false assumptions, and ideological objectives of Greenpeace’s campaign to ban chlorine.

Thorton's book posits that modern toxicology and epidemiology lack the tools to safely protect humans from dangerous man-made chlorine-based chemicals and calls for the immediate "sunset" of their commercial use. He puts forward a “new paradigm” with four principles:

  • The Precautionary Principle, which says we should not wait for scientific proof of harm before prohibiting activities that might be dangerous, so long as the advocates of prohibition are able to meet a standard of proof called “weight of evidence”;
  • Reverse Onus, which says corporations that propose to introduce new chemicals into the environment should first have to prove that they will cause no harm to anyone;
  • Zero Discharge, which says some chemicals are so very bad that no emission level is safe; and
  • Clean Production, which says it is better to eliminate the use of bad chemicals early in the production process than to regulate them at the end of the pipeline (336-349).

Bast observes that the paradigm isn’t new at all, but rather was proposed by Greenpeace a decade earlier and rejected by the scientific community as being “moral philosophy at least, and religion probably.” The precautionary principle is invoked to allow circumstantial evidence and junk science to enter the policy debate, but that has led to bad policy. The reverse onus principle plays a burden on inventors and creators that is simply impossible to meet.

Regarding the zero discharge and clean production principles, Bast says they rely on a series of false assumptions, which he identifies as:

The Dose-Response Relationship is Linear assumption, which lies at the base of nearly all of his projections of damage to human health. Yet if the relationship between dose and response is not linear -- if it is shaped like a hockey-stick, for example -- then the notion that exposure to very low levels of organochlorides is dangerous is severely attenuated. A healthy scientific debate is taking place over how many dose-response curves are in fact curved rather than linear.

The Single Molecule is Enough assumption, which says the dose-response line is continuous to just one molecule above zero/zero, so exposure to even a single molecule of a toxic agent will cause lasting injury to some small number of people. In 400 years, science has yet to come across convincing evidence of a compound whose dose-response curve does not reach the Y axis before (usually well before) coming within a molecule of zero/zero; it is for this reason “the dose makes the poison” is part of conventional science.

A Mouse is a Little Man assumption, which holds that tests on laboratory animals give meaningful data about real world exposure by humans. Thornton overlooks the point made by Bruce Ames and others that half of all compounds tested are found to be carcinogenic, almost without doubt an artifact of animal testing methods.  If animals are not reliable stand-ins for humans, then nine-tenths of the research results he reports do not show what he claims they show. Yet faith among scientists in animal testing seems to be dropping faster than Thornton can assemble tests showing a potential threat to human health.

The Natural Sequestration Fails assumption contradicts the fact that even persistent toxins gradually become less bioavailable over time due to sedimentation and other forms of natural sequestration.

The Public Interest principle, which (as Thornton formulates it) holds that government officials almost never compromise scientific truth to advance their own self interest, and when by chance they do, their actions tend toward less regulation rather than more.  But this is a naive theory of how bureaucrats are rewarded and penalized in the real world. In reality they are far more likely to be risk averse than their private sector counterparts, willing to stop any innovation no matter how promising on the most specious of grounds since they stand to profit little by a new chemical’s success, but to lose much if the new chemical is harmful or even controversial.

The Complexity is Brittle assumption, that the very complexity of nature makes it vulnerable to the introduction of new compounds that are created by human ingenuity. But the opposite assumption, that complexity is resilient, is just as persuasive and can be backed by as many anecdotes.

The Natural is Good, Artificial is Bad assumption, assumes man-made chemicals are inherently more dangerous than natural chemicals, yet Bruce Ames, the National Academy of Sciences, and other authoritative sources have found naturally occurring carcinogens and hormone mimicking compounds exist in our diets at concentrations that are thousands of times greater than the traces of organochlorides he is able to document. If these natural substances are not causing cancer epidemics or widespread sexual dysfunction -- and the evidence is that they are not -- then why should we worry about the possible effects of man-made substances that threaten to have similar effects?

Bast acknowledges that Thornton is “most believable” when he sticks to the facts: where scientists have found chlorine-based chemicals, the sources of dioxin in the world, and the ideological agenda of Greenpeace and activists like himself, who reside on the “far left end of the [ideological] spectrum.”

Bast concludes, “The real alternative to Thornton’s nightmare is individual freedom: free men and women coming together voluntarily under the rule of law to make products and build a better and safer world for themselves and, of course, future generations. It is a sad commentary on the modern environmental movement that many readers will find attractive the old utopian hope for a pre- or post-capitalist civilization, and never glimpse the bodies -- over 164 million by one count -- of the victims of totalitarian dictators who mouthed similar platitudes a generation ago.”

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Joseph Bast is a Director and Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute. He cofounded Heartland in 1984, serving as executive director then as president & CEO until January 2018. His research and writing focuses on climate change and energy policy. @JosephLBast