Brass-Tacks Ecology: Money, Media, Minds


All too often, environmental thinkers neglect ignore concrete political and psychological realities. They are embroiled instead in debates about the comparative importance of one or another proximate cause of environmental neglect (choice of production technologies and materials, overpopulation, and affluence), or one or another alleged ultimate cause (philosophical beliefs and practices; biological heritage; domination and exploitation of poor people, racial minorities, and women). As in the case of the proverbial six blind men, although each camp in these crucial debates provides some important insights into this problem, the picture that emerges from their combined writings is partial and unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory because these thinkers often fail to ask the next logical questions: Why do we stick to harmful synthetic substances when natural ones are readily available? Why do we fail to control our numbers? Why do our policy makers ignore the writings of deep and social ecologists? These debates leave environmental scholarship in a fragmentary state and they deprive the environmental movement of a core practical philosophy capable of guiding and sustaining its actions. To gain a holistic understanding, to close the circle between environmental scholarship, politics, and human nature, we must focus on three additional--and decisively important--roots of environmental neglect.


Brass-Tacks Ecology: Money, Media, Minds


And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

John Godfrey Saxe

Reality of Environmental Decline

Between 1970 and 1990, the United States passed laws, created agencies, and spent one trillion dollars in an ostensible effort to improve environmental quality. Yet, despite some notable gains, and despite the strenuous efforts of grass-roots and national organizations, "the massive national effort to restore the quality of the environment has failed."1

By 1998, the facts speak for themselves. The chances of contracting cancer, emphysema, or asthma are far higher now than they were a century ago. Human sperm counts in many localities are worrisomely low. Many of us suffer from premature hearing loss. We work longer hours than our parents did and spend more time driving to and from work. We are troubled about the effects of such things as lead and dioxin on our children's intelligence and health. We think twice nowadays before plunging, on hot summer days, into rivers, lakes, or seas. We can no longer experience true wilderness. We are uneasy about poisons in our food and drinks; in our homes and workplaces; in our air, water, and soil; in our brains and livers; in our pets, domestic animals, lawns, and farms.

We are surrounded by signs of global environmental decline. Worldwide, some species of frogs, salamanders, and penguins are declining. We have apparently learned nothing from the extinctions of the dodo and the great auk, of the passenger pigeon and the moa. The continued existence in the wild of the most human-like minds we know of---those of apes and cetaceans--is in doubt. Entire fisheries are collapsing. Every hour we add 10,000 people to our numbers, acting as if there are no such things as carrying capacity and future generations; as if we have learned nothing from the environmental failures of earlier civilizations. We squander numberless resources unnsustainably, acting as if each and every resource is replaceable. We continue to produce plutonium and other long-lived poisons, even though we know that nothing on earth can be safely sequestered for millennia. We continue to litter space. When we fight pollution, we typically try to partially clean things up after the fact, instead of opting for the cheaper and healthier path of prevention. More harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun reach us nowadays, raising the specter of skin cancer and cataract epidemics. Soil erosion, desertification, and deforestation are proceeding apace. We are seeing already the first signs of human-induced climate change (this year, Detroit saw its first robins on March 5), doing little more than crossing our fingers than praying dire predictions of floods, tropical diseases, and mass migrations will prove wrong.

Each and every facet of this depressing picture entails a choice. We could in most cases improve the overall quality of our lives and environment, while maintaining, at the very least, the same material standard of living. Yet, more often than not, we have chosen the path of environmental irresponsibility.

This raises two key questions in human ecology and contemporary history: Whence environmental neglect? How can environmental neglect be overcome?

Brass-Tacks Ecology: A Neglected Variable in

Environmental Scholarship and Activism

A long time ago, the ecology movement was shaken by a self-destructive melee about the causes of environmental decline. When the dust finally settled, one fairly commonsense view emerged: environmental decline is traceable to population growth (which in turn is traceable in part to scientific advances), to affluence, and to destructive technologies and behaviors (which go back, in some cases, to pre-literate societies2). There is no denying the reality of this unholy triumvirate. For every human alive in 1650, there are eleven now; compared to their ancestors of a century ago, one-quarter or so of this multitude is engaged in a conspicuous consumption binge the likes of which the world has never seen; and this one-quarter chooses, for instance, to clean computer chips with CFCs instead of lemon juice. Thus, some goals for a sustainable world are clear enough: roll back our numbers, curb conspicuous consumption, choose appropriate technologies. However, this commonsense resolution of this debate leaves unresolved a number of questions: Why do we let our numbers grow exponentially? Why do we choose destructive technologies? Whence conspicuous consumption? Why are we indifferent towards the biosphere, other species, and our future selves?

We face now another round of vocal and needlessly divisive disputes, most notably between social and deep ecologists. Deep ecologists tend to trace environmental neglect to our values and worldview. But they fail to trace the origins of such values. They also fail to address the question: How can you change a country's--or a globe's---value system? They seem to believe that philosophy can by itself explain and cure environmental neglect.

Social ecology traces environmental neglect to hierarchical human relations. But, to begin with, some egalitarian societies wreaked irreversible damage on their environment.2 Likewise, an extremely hierarchical but environmentally benign society can be readily imagined. Why, for instance, couldn't the societies depicted in Huxley's Brave New World or Ira Levine's This Perfect Day live within nature? Social and environmental justice are indeed linked,3 but not in as simple and straightforward a fashion that social ecology would have us believe. Moreover, social ecology steadfastly ignores concrete political realities. Here and there it mentions revolutions as one possible road towards ecological and social freedom. But this is unrealistic; few people are likely to become revolutionaries in the television age. And besides, how do we know that a post-revolutionary world will be more survivable and just than ours? At other times, social ecology tells us to cross our fingers, work towards the golden age as fervently as we can, and hope for the best.

A more instinctive and practical reaction to environmental neglect involves fighting directly for the things one cares most about. The fighters themselves can be roughly divided into three camps: 1. Mainstream environmentalists (e.g., members of the Sierra Club) try to lobby North America into environmental responsibility. 2. Grass-roots environmentalists are more concerned with local issues and are more poorly funded. 3. Mildly militant activists (e.g., Sea Shepherd Society) operate on a shoestring budget and are willing, on rare occasions, to break national laws to achieve their goals.

Now, some practitioners of these three camps often speak and act as if they are worlds apart; as if it is their camp, but not the other two, that will, one day, usher in the golden age.4 In this belief, all three are equally mistaken: Most likely, none of them ever will. Despite their courage, dedication, and decades-long struggles, they are steadily losing ground. We need to move beyond these three camps, beyond the population/affluence/technology debate, beyond deep and social ecology, in our search for the causes and cures of environmental neglect. We need to, in other words, shift our focus to brass-tacks5 political and psychological realities. An earlier paper6 examined the political money leg of that brass-tacks tripod. This paper will extend that discussion to the remaining two legs: the corporate media and human nature.

The Tragedy of The Commons Revisited

History conclusively confirms this variation of Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons metaphor: When forced to choose between a course of action which benefits their short-term interests but harms society, and a course of action which benefits society but harms their short-term interests, and when free to make this choice on their own, organizations tend to choose actions that benefit them and harm society.7 Thus, from the greenhouse effect to ozone layer depletion, from deforestation to topsoil erosion, from the Dalkon Shield to the smoking controversy, from PCBs to asbestos, one consequence of Hardin's metaphor is clear: On this planet, environmental policies often reflect a compromise between organizational interests and the public interest.

Note that the commons metaphor is not prescriptive: Like Machiavelli, Lloyd and Hardin merely tell us how things are, not how they ought to be. Note also that this metaphor recognizes exceptions. No doubt some villagers in ancient England saw the folly of overexploiting the commons, warned their fellows about the consequences, and perhaps even refrained from overgrazing the commons. Likewise, here and there one or another contemporary organization, or some of its members, may disobey Hardin's Law. Unfortunately though, at the present state of human development, these irregularities accomplish little more than sour their perpetrators' lives.

Take, as just one example, the following 1981 summary of the smoking/cancer "controversy:"

Although there has been conclusive evidence for more than a quarter of a century of roughly the sort of scale of death that tobacco causes ... spokesmen for the industry ... still do not accept this. ... When an industry is found to cause substantial numbers of deaths, with a few exceptions ... there will be deliberate attempts to mislead government and the public as to what the evidence is. Even if certain individuals in such industries want to be humane and want to work in some kind of way towards the general good, and they are effective at doing so, then they will find themselves rendered impotent or

fired, because it is not in the commercial interests of an industry to have its products advertised as causing this, that, and the other kind of disease.8

A respected nuclear strategist:

An officer who is considered brilliant but somehow lacking in service loyalty ... may as well pack up his things and go elsewhere. He will not rise very far. . . . The officer who is really objective about his own service as compared with the sister services is not going to rise to high enough estate to make that objectivity of much service to the nation.9

Why then do we overgraze the commons? No single essay or person can fully answer this question. In this essay I shall merely try to show that the answer to this question is far more complex and interdisciplinary than all writers on the subject suppose, and that any holistic explanation must invoke concrete political and psychological realities.


Although the full implications of political money have so far escaped reformers,6 the reality itself is known to school kids. Senators Barry Goldwater and John Stennis--two "old-line conservatives" who, by 1986, "have been senators a combined total of 68 years" describe this creepy root of environmental neglect thus: "It is not 'we the people' but political-action committees and moneyed interests who are setting the nation's political agenda and are influencing the position of candidates on the important issues of the day," said one senator. "We are gradually moving elections away from the people," said the other, "as certainly as night follows day."10 Senator David L. Boren: "When special interests control the financing for campaigns, Congress is very unlikely to act in the national interest."11

Money, then, explains in part why the early promise of environmental cleanup remains unfulfilled:

No matter how large, clever, and sophisticated in the ways of Washington the environmental movement has become, when it comes to lobbying congress, it has remained a mosquito on the hindquarters of the industrial elephant. Corporations finance a lobby that is willing to spend almost unlimited time and money combating a process---environmental regulation--they claim costs them $125 billion a year. Chemical manufacturers, oil companies, big agriculture, timber interests, and their PACs will, unless campaign finance laws are reformed, always have greater access to the legislature than environmental lobbyists. . . . Studies of lobbies and PAC contributions indicate that industry is pretty much willing to match the environmental movement about 10 to 1 in dollars and lobbyists.12


The Media's Role in History

A vast body of scholarship supports the commonsense view that "the news media have shaped American history. Absolutely. boldly. Proudly. Fervently. Profoundly."13

On some occasions, the media helped bring about positive change. Thomas Jefferson felt that the heroism and steadfastness of a few newspapers during the Washington and Adams years, "when our cause was laboring and all but lost under the overwhelming weight of its powerful adversaries, . . . arrested the rapid march of our government towards monarchy."14 In the early 1950s, the infant institution of television news distinguished itself "by taming the diabolical power of Joe McCarthy." It may be the case that the "civil rights movement in this country owes a great deal to television."15

On other occasions, the media retarded progress. Thus, "the role American newspapers of the nineteenth century played in slowing the momentum for women's rights is an example of the press abusing the mighty power it wields."16 [The Spanish Civil War of 1936] "proved once again that the world press is allied to all other commercial and political-commercial interests on the conservative if not reactionary side."17

On the eve of Spanish-American war, an artist on a news gathering mission in Cuba requested permission to return home, for, it seemed to him, all was quiet on the Cuban front. His boss William Hearst reportedly sent him this cable: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Some commentators fail to see that what's important about this tale is plausibility, not historical reality. In law books, the power of declaring war on Spaniards, Cherokees, Iraqis, Wobblies, DDT, CFCs, or excess CO2 is delegated to the first three estates. In the book of life, this power is largely vested in the corporate media. Hearst himself put it best: "The newspapers," he said, "control the nation."18

Media Bias

One troubling corollary of Hearst's dictum is self-evident: "Whoever controls the media, controls the nation." This corollary brings us again to money, for the mass media in America is owned, directly and indirectly, by the very rich. Consequently, as countless commentators have shown, the media in America is reliably biased in favor of big money.

There is nothing new in this. In 1919, Upton Sinclair said:

"Our newspapers do not represent public interests, but private interests; they do not represent humanity, but property; they value a man, not because he is great, or good, or wise, or useful, but because he is wealthy, or of service to vested wealth."19

Elsewhere he recounts:

I was determined to get something done about the Condemned Meat Industry. I was determined to get something done about the atrocious conditions under which men, women and children were working the Chicago stockyards. In my efforts to get something done, I was like an animal in a cage. The bars of this cage were newspapers, which stood between me and the public; and inside the cage I roamed up and down, testing one bar after another, and finding them impossible to break.20

Here is another chilling example from that period. The speaker is John Swinton, editor of the New York Tribune. He is answering, at a banquet of his fellow-editors, the toast: "An Independent Press:"

The business of the New York journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his race and his country for his daily bread. You know this and I know it, and what folly is this to be toasting an "Independent Press." We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping-jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.21

A former school-of-journalism dean:

Our picture of reality does not burst upon us in one splendid revelation. It accumulates day by day and year by year in mostly unspectacular fragments from the world scene, produced mainly by the mass media. Our view of the real world is dynamic, cumulative, and self-correcting as long as there is a pattern of evenhandedness in deciding which fragments are important. But when one important category of the fragments is filtered out, or included only vaguely, our view of the social-political world is deficient.22

Media Coverage of the Environment

When it comes to the environment, most studies likewise suggest that media coverage of any issue constitutes a compromise between truth and money. Here, the results of one such study will have to do:

On February 24, 1936, Dr. Pearl delivered a paper to the New York Academy of Medicine. His paper concluded that tobacco shortens the life of all users, a piece of genuinely spectacular news affecting millions of readers and listeners. The session was covered by the press, but they either remained silent about the news or buried it.... In 1954, the American Cancer Society released results of a study of 187,000 men. Cigarette smokers had a death rate from all diseases 75 percent higher than nonsmokers.... It was increasingly clear that tobacco-linked disease is the biggest single killer in the United States, accounting for more than 300,000 deaths a year, the cause of one in every seven deaths in the country, killing six times more people annually than automobile accidents. But though the statistics are conclusive to medical authorities, [by 1986] they were still] treated as controversial or non-existent by the news media.... The print and broadcast media might make page 1 drama of a junior researcher's paper about a rare disease. But if it involved the 300,000 annual deaths from tobacco-related disease, the media either do not report it or they report it as a controversial item subject to rebuttal by the tobacco industry.... Newsweek, for example, had a cover story January 26, 1978, entitled "What Causes Cancer?" The article was six pages long. On the third page it whispered about the leading cause--in a phrase it said that tobacco is the least disputed "carcinogen of all." The article said no more about the statistics or the medical findings of the tobacco-cancer link, except in a table, which listed the ten most suspected carcinogens--alphabetically, putting tobacco in next-to-last place. A week later, Time ... ran a two-column article on the causes of cancer. The only reference it made to tobacco was that "smoking and drinking alcohol have been linked to cancer.

If there was ever any question that ... in the media ... advertising influences news and other information given to the public, tobacco makes it unmistakably clear. The tobacco industry since 1954 has spent more than $9 billion on advertising, most of it in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television have effectively censored news and entertainment to obscure the link between tobacco and death. During that period more than eight million Americans have died from tobacco-linked disease.23

Media Coverage of the Greenhouse Threat

It must be admitted, however, that some researchers and journalists honestly believe that media coverage of political issues is adequate and fair, while a few others feel that is biased all right--against big money. It must be likewise admitted that most media studies are neither recent nor concerned with coverage of environmental issues. It seemed worth while therefore to boost the case for media bias and shallowness by examining recent coverage of one environmental issue.

To do so, I chose one topic which received extensive coverage recently: the greenhouse threat. I cannot, in this paper, present all the evidence that emerged from this media study; instead, I shall only touch upon some key observations and generalizations.

This study was restricted to five months (May-September 1997), one regional paper (The San Francisco Chronicle, abbreviated below as SFC), and three papers which, in view of their reputation, location, and circulation, may be considered as both regional and national in scope: Christian Science Monitor (CSM), New York Times (NYT), and The Washington Post (WP).

I searched the Lexis-Nexis computerized data base for any mention of the term "global warming" in these four newspapers from May 1 through September 30, 1997. Articles that were not concerned with the greenhouse threat but which only mentioned it in passing (e.g., sports or humor columns) were excluded from this study, as were such items as ads, letters to the editor, and news in brief. All other articles in which the term "global warming" appeared and which were likely to contribute to readers' perception of global warming--a total of 100 articles and 93,415 words--provided the basis for this study. Key findings are given below.

(1) On May 21, 1997, twenty-one "leading ecologists" sent president Clinton a letter. This letter warned that the enhanced greenhouse effect must be slowed down, in view of its potentially severe consequences.

This warning has only been cited by the San Francisco Chronicle (probably because the letter was spearheaded and signed by four members of nearby Stanford University). The New York Times and the Washington Post considered this letter, but decided not to use it.24 This omission raises questions about the objectivity of the media, which, during that same time period, cited the views of corporate experts and owners countless times (see below).

(2) Despite pressures in the scholarly community to qualify and hedge one's beliefs, a surprising number of respectable observers take a cataclysmic outcome seriously: "The continued habitability of the earth is clearly in question."25 "Is it possible that we will someday destroy Earth's good health and turn our home into a runaway greenhouse? Will the human volcano heat Planet Earth until all the seas go dry and lead melts in the sunlight? Are we already on the downhill path to Venus? . . . judging by our neighboring world, we are playing with fire."26 We may note in passing that everything pales into insignificance compared to this (admittedly unlikely) apocalypse, yet this subject has been totally ignored by the mass media.

(3) The powerful coal, oil, and car industries, some economists, America's two most recent Republican presidents, and countless congressmen avow that cutting greenhouse gases may cost the nation trillions of dollars and millions of jobs. In a moment of candor, in 1992, Newsweek explained the suspect origins of the Amazing Bush Doctrine:

During the early Bush Administration, estimates batted around for greenhouse reductions ran from $100 billion to a mind-bending $3.6 trillion. Such calculations contained an astonishing omission. The way to control carbon emissions is to make energy use more efficient. The big numbers took into account the capital costs of new conservation technology, but not the value of the fuel saved.

The importance of this question of costs can hardly be exaggerated. If Newsweek is right, if it can be shown that cutting greenhouse emissions will save money, then the greenhouse controversy vanishes into thin air, for how can one oppose steps that would avert the greenhouse threat and save money? So, was this extraordinary possibility, this undreamed of boon, covered fairly?

To begin with, on the basis of space, or number of times a claim is made, the view that cutting greenhouse emissions would cost a fortune prevailed during the five months in question. As Newsweek explains, and as will become clearer shortly, the claim of exorbitant costs is patently absurd. It is dismissed out of hand by most independent energy experts, historians, interdisciplinarians, and economists. Moreover, it defies common sense. Yet, in most media articles that touch upon this issue, the stupendous costs are real. To be precise, in thirteen articles of our sample such costs are taken for granted. Seven articles give both sides, while two articles claim or imply that money will be saved. In no case is the reader given the rather straightforward background information to judge the issue on her own.

Thus an examination of media coverage of this critical issue of costs leads to two conclusions. Readers are not given enough information to judge the issue for themselves; instead, they are quagmired in disconnected views and assertions. Second, although the view that greenhouse gas reductions would save money is occasionally aired, the overall impression is that cutting emissions will cost a fortune and threaten our economy and way of life.

(4) Moreover, as a human ecology instructor, I know from experience that abstractions about greenhouse savings strike home only when accompanied by concrete examples. Next time you find yourself in a hardware store, look around for compact fluorescent light bulbs. The label on the one I have just bought for $11 tells me, correctly, that despite the stiff price, over this bulb's lifetime, and owing to its greater efficiency and longevity, I shall save $39 (if I buy this bulb instead of the standard bulb still widely in use now). Although the package does not say so, experience has also taught me that on summer nights I can keep my home cooler thanks to these magical bulbs.

My human ecology textbook confirms these assertions: "Replacing a standard incandescent bulb with an energy-efficient compact fluorescent saves about $48-70 per bulb over its 10-year life and saves enough electricity to avoid burning 180 kilograms (400 pounds) of coal. Thus, replacing 25 incandescent bulbs in a house with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs saves $1,250-1,750." Energy efficiency lighting could likewise save U.S. businesses some $18 billion a year and could make an appreciable impact (through reduced emissions of CO2) on the greenhouse effect.27

Let me note here that the point is neither incandescence nor fluorescence, neither heat nor light. The point is psychology. One could carry out virtually the same analysis for home insulation, or miles per gallon, or cogeneration, or electric motors--in each case showing that the majority of energy experts are right, and that the greenhouse problem can be solved at a stupendous profit! It is, let me repeat, through such examples that the energy efficiency thesis can be brought home to the layperson. Yet, not a single article among the one hundred provided such concrete and sufficiently detailed explanations

(5) Serendipity made the need to discuss costs even more pressing, for on September 25, 1997 the U.S. Department of Energy28 (DOE), in a voluminous report involving numerous reputable experts, agencies, and organizations, said in effect that America can become richer by reducing greenhouse emissions. So, has this landmark report been cited by the four newspapers?

To begin with, only one of the four [WP 9/26] mentioned this study at all. I hesitate to pick this one essay apart, for in the world of journalism biased coverage is better than no coverage at all. Moreover, this essay, despite its many faults, was the single most informative essay in our entire sample. Bearing these points in mind, let us compare what this essay said about the DOE study to what this study said about itself, starting with the title. The newspaper's title reads: "Technology Can Cut Pollution Without High Cost, Study Says." This title is misleading:

First, the study was concerned with global warming, not merely pollution.

Second, the title fails to make it clear to the reader that the DOE study talked about increased efficiency and other readily available technologies, not about future technologies.

Third, a look at the DOE study itself clearly shows that reductions will save money. Even the Department of Energy's news release, despite its inoffensive language, made this point clear. Annually the reductions would cost "$50 to $90 billion per year" said the release. That is, the best bet for this, and ignoring history, holistic thinking, and common sense (see below), is $70 billion a year. By a similar logic, the best bet for the savings is $80 billion per year. In other words, in this DOE news release, some of the most qualified experts in the U.S., knowing full well the risk they are taking by irking powerful industries, are on record expecting the U.S. to save $10 billion a year from reducing greenhouse emissions.

Fourth, this was a massive Department of Energy Study, not a study by some obscure think tank.

So the title could just as well be: "A remarkable recent U.S. government study shows how Americans can eliminate the greenhouse threat, improve their health, and boost their bank accounts." And a subtitle: "Good news: Americans can become healthier, wealthier, and wiser by reducing greenhouse emissions." Or, "A sensational new U.S. study give the lie to the greenhouse controversy and asserts that your household can save $100 every year by reducing greenhouse emissions." Or, at the very least, the title could simply quote the first sentence from the study's own news release: "Clean technology can achieve significant greenhouse gas reductions . . . and produce energy savings that roughly equal or exceed the costs to implement them."

Elsewhere, the Washington Post says: "The Energy Department's study found that the costs of research and development of technology to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by the year 2010 could be paid for--in part or in full--by energy savings." Only later on in the essay is the truth quoted: "The cost of developing energy-saving technologies is "likely to be more than balanced by savings in energy bills," the study said. "This analysis shows that what's good for the environment also can be good for the economy," said Energy Secretary Federico Peña."

In terms of specific examples which let readers judge the issue for themselves, this essay comes closer than the other 99, but not close enough to drive the point home. It describes areas where savings can be accomplished, coming closer with this passage:

The study pointed out that consumer electronic appliances still consume the equivalent of the output of eight to 10 major power plants even when they are not in use. Appliances, including television sets, computers, radios and compact disc players, draw power when they are turned off but still plugged into an outlet, in part because it allows them to start faster.

This still falls short of convincing anyone, for it does not tell the reader the rest of what DOE said, how this can be done, and how it will save money.

The last paragraph of this article says:

Al Chambers, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co., said his company is "very much in favor of technology initiatives and pushing forward as quickly as possible on all the different alternatives that exist." But, he added, "if you think this can be achieved, why would you need to have legally binding targets? If this is all possible, it builds the case for doing this with voluntary measures."

So, here we have it. A careful scientific study by some of the most prestigious and staid scientific bodies in the land gives the lie to the greenhouse "controversy." Like previous studies, it again shows that this controversy is just as legitimate as the tobacco controversy, and that public-spiritedness has nothing to do with keeping it alive. Yet this study is mentioned in only one article of the 100, sandwiched between a misleading title and the opinions of Ford Motor Company.

(6) Nor did our newspapers fail to ignore any research which could conceivably cast doubts on the reality of the greenhouse effect or on the need for action. One article, for instance, wrongly led readers to believe that scientists now believe that human-induced global warming is most likely a fiction, and that the warming we have seen is due to solar cycles. Many other reports of scientific developments implied that global warming would be good for us. Thus, one essay traced bumper wheat crops in Australia to global warming. When the devastating effects of El Niño were reported, the likelihood that El Niño itself is caused by global warming was either whispered in passing, and always attached to an emphatic question mark, or flatly denied.

(7) Industry's views on the other hand were almost always given respectfully and at length. The newspapers of record repeatedly cited a tiny minority of scientists whose views happened to coincide with those of the oil, coal, auto, and petrochemical industries. When the chairman of British Petroleum (a gigantic oil consortium) admits the reality of global warming ("there is now enough scientific evidence to warrant concern"), denies the existence of a crisis (we have plenty of time left to head off this problem), vaguely concedes that perhaps "it's time we should do something," or makes a business decision to invest in solar energy, this is big news. In fact, British Petroleum's views are cited in twelve of the 100 essays.29 Let me repeat this: A warning by 21 leading ecologists is cited in just one article; a major study giving (again) the lie to the greenhouse controversy, is ignored in 99 articles and briefly (mis)reported in one; but the views of British Petroleum are reported in 12 articles!

(8) The history of energy conservation provides yet another proof that we can cut greenhouse gas emissions while running all the way to the bank. This historical lesson appears in any would-be holistic discussion of greenhouse policies,30 and in many introductory college textbooks.31 The DOE study I mentioned earlier put this indisputable historical fact thus: "Between 1973 and 1986, the nations's consumption of primary energy froze . . . while the GNP grew by 35% . . . the country is saving $150 to $200 billion annually as a result of these improvements."32 (italics added).

Thus, the view that curbing greenhouse gases will save American consumers money is not only backed up by commonsense (as in the light bulb example above), not only by the views of most independent energy experts, not only by the experiences of more energy-efficient nations, but by history. This is a fact: Each American household this year will save well over $1,000 thanks to past gains in energy efficiency. At the very least, those who claim that averting the greenhouse threat will now cost the average household $1,000 a year, or that it will cost the nation one red cent, need to show how and why the historical process of saving money through greater energy efficiencies would somehow, and quite miraculously, make an about-turn and start costing money. So we must ask: In how many essays has this remarkable historical process been mentioned, let alone explained?

The answer to this is astoundingly simple: Zero.

(9) An interdisciplinary perspective provides another powerful argument for meaningful greenhouse actions. All ecologists--and all students of complex systems--take interdependence for granted. Reducing greenhouse emissions, as we have seen, may eventually save every American household, roughly (I am not concerned in this paper with exact figures), an additional $1,000 a year (besides the more than $1,000 it has already realized thanks to the 1973-1986 energy efficiency measures). But such savings will have many other incontestably beneficial consequences:

Scoffers at the sustainable-earth position often treat the greenhouse problem in isolation from everything else that ails our planet and species. They forget that while academia can be gainfully fragmented into disciplines, the world cannot: reality is a web, not a collection of parallel lines. We have seen already that the prospective CFCS ban would markedly aid both the ozone depletion problem and the greenhouse threat, but this combined effect is a mere peanut . . . . Besides averting the greenhouse and ozone threats, the proposed measures would entail worldwide savings of untold billions of dollars and countless natural resources. They would improve our material quality of life, reduce pollution, cut severe environmental and health impact of coal use (e.g., black lung disease, land subsidence), improve human health [do you know, for instance, that you are, roughly, twice as likely to contract non-smoking-related cancer as were your great-grandparents?], eliminate future acid rain problems (which are currently aging buildings and monuments, damaging forests, and killing fish in thousands of lakes and streams). Furthermore, these measures would diminish urban smog and help clean up our air, water, and food. They would reduce the incidence of tragic and costly floods, storms, and, perhaps, other natural disasters. They may improve the quality of topsoil and farmland, thereby increasing longterm agricultural productivity. They would gradually lead to the elimination of costly and unsafe nuclear power. "In sum, informal estimates (of EPA) . . . suggest that most--perhaps around 90%--of the problems EPA deals with could be displaced, at negative cost, just by energy efficiency and by sustainable farming and forestry. That is a pleasant by-product of abating global warming at a profit." Moreover, the sustainable-earth path would considerably slow down the worrisome prospect of massive species extinction. It would raise economic competitiveness (for instance, greater energy efficiencies partially explain low production costs of Japanese cars). And it would reduce dependence on foreign energy supplies.33

In our sample of 100, implications of greenhouse policies to health, pollution, and other undisclosed additional gains have been mentioned in only three [WP 6/12], [NYT 6/27], [WP 9/6]. And even in these three, the point of interconnections is always made in passing in another context, it lacks specific examples and explanations, and is never accompanied by an attempt to assess the radical improvements in the quality of life on this earth that are sure to lie in the wake of the soft energy path.

(10) History provides another powerful argument for meaningful greenhouse policies. Since time immemorial, human societies have occasionally exterminated species and irreversibly destroyed habitats, thereby undermining their own future.2 This historical fact shows that humans are capable of wreaking large-scale destruction on the natural environment upon which they depend. Over five months, this troubling record has been totally ignored by the media.

(11) The greenhouse debate involves, without a doubt, an ethical perspective. This perspective can be brought to life through questions such as: Has the average American a right to produce three times as much greenhouse gases as the average Frenchman? Forty times as much as the average Indian? Has North-American industry the right to risk the well-being of the world's people? Has North America a right to risk the existence, or permanently harm the quality of life, of all future generations? Do we have a right to risk massive extinctions of other creatures? Should we further shrivel the lives of the world's poorest and most oppressed one billion?

Yet in the newspapers, this ethical issue has never surfaced, leaving one to wonder: Isn't there an ethical, or even spiritual, side to humanity? Do we really wish to live by fossil fuels, CFCs, and chemical fertilizers alone?

Lessons from Greenhouse Coverage

This greenhouse study allows us to raise anew the issue of media bias and insufficiency. We can perhaps do so by responding to 8 questions:

(1) Has a studious and intelligent reader of the 100 treatises a good understanding of the greenhouse threat?

No. As a matter effect, s/he would miserably fail a high school test about the nature, causes, consequences, or cures of the greenhouse threat (in my introductory ecology class for non-science majors, not more than a D-, I suspect).

(2) In particular, after reading close to 100,000 words in 100 articles on this issue, would that reader know more, or less, than a reader of a few pages of any decent human ecology text for non-science majors?

Much less.

(3) Long ago, Walter Lippmann's said: "The function of the news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relations with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act."34 Does this collection of 100, taken as a whole, convey news or truth?

News par excellence.

(4) Is the coverage reported the way politics is presumably reported: "isolated daily particulars unconnected to the large structural forces that help create them?"35


(5) Would the reader's view of the greenhouse threat be deficient because "one important category of the fragments is filtered out, or included only vaguely"?36

Yes. The picture that emerges, besides being so superficial as to hardly be concerned with the greenhouse threat at all, also excludes several important categories of fragments. One hears from the chairmen of oil and car companies, from captive and marginal scientists, occasionally from mainstream scientists or environmentalists, but rarely from such prominent scholars as Lovins or Asimov, rarely about a warning to humanity which had been signed by more than half the world's living Nobel laureates, never directly from Greenpeace or Rainforest Action. One hears about CO2, but not about ethics or the profit motive.

(6) Consider again readers who, for five months, labored through, and remembered, everything four of the most respected newspapers in the land saw fit to print about something that may turn out to be one of the most important issues that ever faced our species. Would such readers, in Thomas Jefferson words, live and die in the mistaken "belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time"?37

Yes. This is perhaps the media's most insidious achievement: Giving people a caricature of reality, yet somehow managing to implant in them the conviction that they know something of "what has been passing in the world in their time."

(7) On August 12, 1997, the New York Times promised its readers: "Between now and December, when representatives of most nations will meet in Japan to discuss limits on greenhouse gases, The Times will examine the science, politics and economics of climate change." [NYT 8/12] Did the Times (and the other three) evince any signs of planning to keep the stated (or implied) promise of providing such comprehensive coverage?


(8) Above all, is the reader presented "with enough information to make up his or her own mind"?38

No. The reader is presented with an endless parade of the views and speeches of Presidents and CEOs, Senators and Industrialists, independent scientists and captive scientists; with scientific news about one or another aspect of the greenhouse effect; with national and international negotiations. Yet throughout this barrage there is the shared, tacit assumption that the reader has already the background information to fit these disconnected fragments into a larger, meaningful context. But that larger context, "that enough information" is never given. It follows that environmental experts can derive some useful information from skimming newspapers but that the rest of us can learn more about environmental politics from midday naps than from a lifetime of reading newspapers.39

In 1919 Upton Sinclair sizzled: "The social body to which we belong is at this moment passing through one of the greatest crises of its history . . . What if the nerves upon which we depend for knowledge of this social body should give us false reports of its condition?"40

At the close of this millennium, science, nuclearism, and global environmental threats foreclose the option of letting this question dry up, like a raisin in the sun, another eighty years. In Sinclair's days, a coldhearted society could prefer mammon to truth and still muddle along. Now ignorance poses unacceptable risks.

Human Nature

To understand environmental neglect, to understand how money and media contribute to environmental decline, we must know ourselves. What is it about us that undergirds the tragedy of the commons? That leads us to vote against our principles and interests? That drives us to immerse ourselves daily in the shallow waters of medialand? That drives us to overrun and foul our nest? That leads us to ignore the warnings of the world's environmental science community? Obviously, I cannot delve here even into the little that we do know about the subject. But, just to remind the reader of the reality and central role of human nature, I shall highlight two human failings.


With a few notable exceptions, environmental analysts ignore this troubling side of human nature. Many novelists, on the other hand, take it for granted. "All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls" said John Steinbeck.41 Or take Willa Cather: "The worst things he had come upon in his journey through the world were human--depraved and poisonous specimens of man."42

Using the Prisoner's Dilemma, game theorists have long shown that trusting and conciliatory behavior often begets exploitation.43 In one such study,44 American college students can make money by delivering messages through a computer. They are led to believe that monetary gain depends on the cooperation of a similarly placed fellow "student" (in reality, a computer program). However, if neither side cooperates with the other, a mutually paralyzing deadlock results and both lose money. The other "student" employs a pacifist strategy. He always concedes the first round to the subject. He does so even though this concession puts him at a serious disadvantage--if the subject wins the first round the subject can, by administering painful shocks to the pacifist, win all other rounds. In subsequent rounds, the pacifist insists on fair play, thereby forcing the subject to either concede equality or use painful shocks to retain an unfair advantage and make a few shekels. When the pacifist is shocked as a result of his principled stand, he steadfastly eschews retaliation (he can shock the subject too). So we have here a situation in which a cooperative person always concedes an advantage in order to demonstrate his good will and avoid a mutually detrimental deadlock. He then presses for equality. If he fails to attain equality, he receives painful electric shocks. Although he can retaliate, he never does. In this setup, all subjects believe themselves to be under pressure from two teammates (in reality, a computer program) urging a callous strategy. Also, all subjects are led to believe that the pacifist is a Quaker who is morally committed to nonviolence.

In the first four rounds, 87 percent of the subjects behaved callously. In later rounds, and especially after direct appeals from the pacifist, this fraction declined to 59 percent. Moreover, when an audience is added, or when the subject is no longer pressured from teammates, the pacifist is only slightly less exploited than before.45 That is, close to two-thirds consistently dominate and hurt a cooperative and nonviolent person.

The results for these ... experimental manipulations suggest that when the pacifist fails it is not primarily because he fails to project a clear image of his intentions. Naively we had assumed that the various manipulations would only serve to strengthen the pacifist's case--the personal profile information, the availability of communication, the opportunity to forgo harmful actions--all of these would ostensibly contribute to the effectiveness of the pacifist's bargaining strategy. Behind this lay the assumption that the pacifist would more than likely benefit from anything that served to bring his character, his claims, and his commitments into sharper focus. Our results suggest that this assumption needs to be questioned or at least seriously qualified. ... The pacifist's tactics apparently invite exploitation and aggression even among those who do not begin with such intentions.46

Conceptual Conservatism.

"Emancipation of belief," says J. K. Galbraith, is the "most formidable of the tasks of reform and the one on which all else depends."47 "The mind," says Wilfred Trotter, "likes a strange idea as little as the body likes a strange protein and resists it with similar energy. It would not perhaps be too fanciful to say that a new idea is the most quickly acting antigen known to science. It we watch ourselves honestly we shall often find that we have begun to argue against a new idea even before it has been completely stated."48 Some works of fiction likewise underscore the ubiquity and importance of this failing.49

Laboratory studies also show that "belief is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe."50 Thus, debriefing experiments have repeatedly suggested that "beliefs are remarkably resilient in the face of empirical challenges that seem logically devastating."51 Resistance to conceptual change had also been observed in members of a religious cult after a failure of a prophecy which was, until then, central to their belief system.52

Perhaps the most striking evidence comes from experiments in which science Ph.D.'s served as unwitting subjects in a study of belief revision. Over 90% of these scientists were unable to let go of a spuriously-acquired false belief (in a volume formula of a sphere) even after this belief has been sharply contradicted by their own direct observations (filling two different spheres with water, transferring the water into a box, and directly measuring the volume of water in the box).53


These mutually reinforcing variables--money, media, and minds--throw much light on environmental neglect. They remind us, as well, that the first step towards environmental responsibility involves a personal choice: If we wish our scholarship to bear meaningful intellectual and political fruits, we must break through our disciplinary cages.54


The following people have read and commented on the greenhouse/media portion of this manuscript: Donna Hoefler-Nissani, Brian Martin, Jim Michels, and Norma Shifrin. They all have my heartfelt thanks.


1. Commoner, Barry, Making Peace with the Planet (Pantheon: New York, 1990), p. 40.

2. Diamond, Jared, The Third Chimpanzee (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

3. See, for instance, Popper, Karl R., The Open Society and its Enemies (London: Routledge, 1966; 5th edition); Nissani, M., Lives in the Balance (Dowser: Carson City, 1992).

4. See, for example, Tokar, Brian, Earth for Sale (Boston: South End, 1997); Dowie, Mark, Losing Ground (Cambridge, Mass: MIT, 1995).

5. Sinclair, Upton, The Brass Check (New York: Published by the author, 1919).

6. Nissani, M., Brass-tacks ecology. The Trumpeter, 14 (#3): 143-148 (1997).

7. Nissani, M. Lives.

8. Richard Peto in: Peto, R. and Schneiderman, M. (eds). Quantification of Occupational Cancer (Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1981), p. xiv.

9. Brodie, Bernard, War and Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 481-483.

10. Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 1986, p. 1.

11. Quoted in Kubiak, Greg D., The Gilded Dome (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), p. 207.

12. Dowie, Losing Ground, p. 85.

13. Streitmatter, Rodger, Mightier than the Sword (Boulder: Westview,1997), p. 234.

14. Cited in Rosenfeld, Richard N., American Aurora (New York: St. Martin, 1997), p. 905.

15. Streitmatter, pp. 169, 186.

16. Streitmatter, p. 50. See also Sinclair, p. 324.

17. Seldes, George, Tell the Truth and Run (New York: Greenberg 1953), p. 254.

18. Streitmatter, p. 84.

19. Sinclair, p. 125.

20. Sinclair, p. 39.

21. Sinclair, p. 400.

22. Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon, 1987, second edition), p. xvi.

23. Bagdikian, pp. 169-173.

24. Prof. Harold A. Mooney, personal communication.

25. Woodwell, G. M. Biotic feedbacks from the warming of the earth. In G. M. Woodwell and F. T. Mackenzie, Biotic Feedbacks in the Global Climatic System (pp. 3-21) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 4.

26. Weiner, J. Planet Earth (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1986), p. 174. See also Broecker, W. S. (1994), Is earth climate posed to jump again? Geotimes, 39 (11), 16-18 (see p. 18); Leggett, J. (1992). Global warming: the worst case. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 48 (June), 28-33 (see p. 30).

27. Miller, G. Tyler, Jr. Living in the Environment (New York: Wadsworth, 1998), p. 406.

28. United States Department of Energy. (1997). Scenarios of U.S. Carbon Reductions: Potential Impacts of Energy-Efficiency and Low-Carbon Technologies by 2010 and Beyond. It must be noted that this was merely the latest in a series of such reports. For instance, in 1992 the National Academy of Sciences (Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming, Washington, DC: National Academy Press) said that "savings in both carbon emissions and dollars can be readily accomplished through such simple steps as adding triple pane windows to existing buildings and improving the design of hot water tanks. For the United States alone, such measures would cut total CO2 emissions by some 18%, and would save some $56 billion per year (p. 240).

29. Once again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. See, in particular, Sinclair, Chap. XXII ("A Millionaire and an Author").

30. Lovins, A. and Lovins, L. H. (1991). Least-cost climatic stabilization. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 16, 433-531.

31. Nissani, M. (1997). "The greenhouse effect," in Theodore Goldfarb, ed., Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Environmental Issues. Guilford, CT: Dushkin, (7th edition, 1997).

32. DOE, Chapter 1, p. 1.2.

33. Nissani, M. (1996), "The greenhouse effect: an interdisciplinary perspective," Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 17: 459-489.

34. Cited in Maher, T. M. (1997). How and why journalists avoid the population-environment connection. Population and Environment: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 349-372.(p. 369).

35. Parenti, Michael, Dirty Truths (San Francisco: City Lights Books 1996).

36. Bagdikian, p. xvi.

37. Cited in Schmuhl, Robert. Statecraft and Stagecraft (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1992, 2nd edition), p. 69.

38. Louis D. Boccardi, President, Associated Press, in a presentation given in a December 1997 conference, ("Can Journalism Be Impartial?"). Cited in Iver Peterson's Media Column, New York Times, 12/29/97.

39. Socrates: "It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of, but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know."

40. Sinclair, p. 9.

41. Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row (1945), Chapter XXIII.

42. Willa Cather, "Neighbor Rosicky," VI. In Chernoff, Dorothy A. Call us Americans (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968).

43. Patchen, M. (1987). Strategies for eliciting cooperation from an adversary. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 31, 164-185; Pelton, L. H., The Psychology of Nonviolence (New York: Pergamon, 1974).

44. Shure, G. H., Meeker, R. J., & Hansford, E. A. (1965). The effectiveness of pacifist strategies in bargaining games. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 9, 106-117.

45. Meeker, R, & Shure, G. H. (1969). Pacifist bargaining tactics: some "outsider" influences. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 13, 487-493.

46. Shure et al., 1965, pp. 115-6

47. Galbraith, John K. Economics and the Public Purpose (Boston: Houghtton Mifflin, 1973), p. 223.

48. See Beveridge, W. I. B., The Art of Scientific Investigation (Norton, New York, 1950), pp., 105-106.

49. For a review, see Nissani, M., Conceptual conservatism: an understated variable in human affairs? Social Science Journal 31: 307-318 (1994); Conceptual conservatism in literature. Literary Studies 15: 22-37 (1996).

50. Peirce, C. S. Essays in the Philosophy of Science (New York: Liberal Arts, 1957), p. 11.

51.Ross, L. and Anderson, C. A., Shortcomings in the attribution process: on the origins and maintenance of erroneous social assessments." In Kahneman D., et al. (Eds.), Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982), p. 144.

52. Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W. and Schachter, S. When Prophecy Fails (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1956). See also Timnick, Lois. "Electronic Bullies." Psychology Today, 16 (Feb. 1982): 10-15.

53.Nissani, M. and Hoefler-Nissani, D. M. Experimental studies of belief-dependence of observations and of resistance to conceptual change, Cognition and Instruction 9, 97-111 (1992). For less technical treatments and applications, see Nissani, M., A cognitive reinterpretation of Stanley Milgram's observations on obedience to authority, American Psychologist 45: 1384-1385 (1990); Psychological, historical, and ethical reflections on the Mendelian paradox, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 37: 182-196 (1994); The plight of the obscure innovator in science, Social Studies of Science 25: 165-183 (1995); Can the persistence of misconceptions be generalized and explained? Journal of Thought 32 (#1): 69-76 (1997).

54. Nissani, M. Ten cheers for interdisciplinarity. Social Science Journal 34 (#2): 201-216.