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Beltway Books: Risk, rhetoric, facts

Books | Books on why the environment is better than we think

Issue: "Down Syndrome = Death Sentence?," Jan. 18, 1997

The issue on which Americans may feel the most passionate but know the least is the environment. They repeatedly fall prey to scaremongering by the likes of Vice President Al Gore, who appears to believe that the sky will fall tomorrow--unless taxpayers turn ever more of their earnings over to politicians like him.

Economist Julian Simon uses The State of Humanity to provide a truth antidote for the myths spread by the Chicken Littles of today. He has collected 56 essays by leading experts on subjects from ozone to global warming to agricultural production. In general, the authors find that the environment is growing cleaner and resources more plentiful, and the worst of the supposed crises, like global warming, are largely nonexistent. Mr. Simon explains in his introduction:

&quotThe trends toward greater cleanliness and less pollution of our air and water are even sharper than before, and cover a longer historical period and more countries.... The increase in availability and the decrease in scarcity of raw materials have continued unabated, and have even speeded up. None of the catastrophes in food supply and famine that were forecast by the doomsayers has occurred; rather, the world's people are eating better than ever."

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The State of Humanity is not the only good volume available on the environment. A sensible look at regulatory policy is provided by Risks, Costs, and Lives Saved. Political pressure often causes government to spend, or force private industry to spend, enormous sums to forestall often miniscule threats. Regrettably, reports AEI's Robert Hahn, &quotA growing body of evidence ... shows that many recent expenditures on risk reduction have done very little to reduce risk. Indeed, in some cases, those investments are likely to have increased risks to human health." In Dealing with Risk, Howard Margolis offers an insightful analysis of the problems of making policy in this area. He explains his goal: &quotWhat we want to understand is why it is so often so hard for even well-informed, sophisticated members of the general public to accept what would ordinarily be regarded as a convincing consensus of the most appropriate expert community."

Green Culture is more concerned with language than policy. English professors Carl Herndl and Stuart Brown have collected a dozen essays on the role of rhetoric in environmental politics. Observe Herndl and Brown: &quotThe values and beliefs we hold about the environment are established through the discourses of a bewildering variety of genres, institutions, and media." Although readers may find the views of some of the individual authors irritating, the essays help illuminate the role of presentation in determining political outcomes.

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