Earth Day has embraced hysteria and abandoned science

Sunday is Earth Day, a celebration conceived by then-U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson and first held in 1970 as a “symbol of environmental responsibility and stewardship.” In the spirit of the time, it was a touchy-feely, consciousness-raising, New Age experience. Most activities were organized at the grassroots level.

In recent years, however, Earth Day has devolved into an occasion for professional environmental activists and alarmists to warn of apocalypse, dish anti-technology dirt, and proselytize.

Passion and zeal now trump science, and provability takes a back seat to plausibility. The Earth Day Network, which organizes Earth Day events and advocacy, regularly distorts science and exaggerates fears in order to advance its Big Government agenda.

With a theme of “End Plastic Pollution,” this year’s event is no exception.

The Earth Day organizers have produced a “Plastic Pollution Primer and Action Toolkit,” which enumerates all the scary warnings that activists should use to “empower journalists” to frighten the public and spur politicians to drastic regulatory action.

How dire is the plastics threat?

According to the Earth Day website, about as serious as you can possibly get: “From poisoning and injuring marine life to the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our food to disrupting human hormones and causing major life-threatening diseases and early puberty, the exponential growth of plastics is threatening our planet’s survival.”

Threatening our planet’s survival? This isn’t hyperbole – it’s hysteria. Even Chicken Little didn’t claim the falling sky would destroy Earth.

The Earth Day campaign forfeits a good opportunity by injecting a toxic mix of politics and junk science into “opposition to pollution” – that rare issue where we might have broad consensus. It turns genuine environmentalists (like us) into Earth Day skeptics.

The Earth Day campaign itself isn’t about ending pollution; it’s about ending plastics, foregoing their important applications – and stirring panic.

Consider Bisphenol-A, or BPA, the chemical component of many plastics that environmentalists love to demonize. One prominent environmental group claims BPA is “capable of interfering with the body's hormones, particularly estrogen, and scientists have linked BPA exposure to diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.”

The above claim is not true. It is science fiction, not science.

Repeated independent studies have found that BPA poses no risk to humans at the levels at which we are exposed. The most recent analysis of a study conducted by the federal government and published in February by the Food and Drug Administration found “minimal effects” for the BPA-dosed groups of rodents. And the doses were far higher than humans are ever likely to encounter.

The various marches and demonstrations this Earth Day won’t be limited to the supposed calamity of plastic pollution, of course; they’ll feature many other causes as well.

But instead of a genuine concern for nature, many of those stumping for Earth Day on Sunday will more broadly oppose environment-friendly advances in science and technology, such as fracking, nuclear power, and genetic engineering to produce new crop plants.

And if past is prologue, another recurrent theme will be disdain for the capitalist system that provides the resources to expend on environmental protection and conservation.

This Sunday will likely also be heavy on vitriol toward the regulatory rationalization and reforms of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s new leadership has begun to correct the incompetence, disdain for science and corruption of recent decades.

The Earth Day Network has a “Greening Our Schools” initiative, so it’s not surprising that kids holding signs they’re too young to understand are a fixture of Earth Day events.

A frequent Earth Day assignment kids get in schools is to read Rachel Carson’s best-selling 1962 book “Silent Spring,” an emotionally charged but deeply flawed condemnation of the widespread spraying of chemical pesticides for the control of insects.

As described by Roger Meiners and Andy Morriss in their scholarly yet eminently readable 2012 analysis, “Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic,” Carson exploited her reputation as a well-known nature writer to advocate and legitimize “positions linked to a darker tradition in American environmental thinking: neo-Malthusian population control and anti-technology efforts.”

Carson’s proselytizing and advocacy led to the virtual banning of the pesticide DDT and to restrictions on other chemical pesticides, even though “Silent Spring” was replete with gross misrepresentations and scholarship so atrocious that if Carson were an academic, she would be guilty of misconduct.

Carson’s observations about DDT were meticulously rebutted point by point by Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, a professor of entomology at San Jose State University. He was also a longtime member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences.

In his stunning 1992 essay, “The Lies of Rachel Carson,” Edwards demolished her arguments and assertions and called attention to critical omissions, faulty assumptions, and outright fabrications in the book. Consider this from Edwards:

“This implication that DDT is horribly deadly is completely false. Human volunteers have ingested as much as 35 milligrams of it a day for nearly two years and suffered no adverse effects. Millions of people have lived with DDT intimately during the mosquito spray programs and nobody even got sick as a result. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1965 that ‘in a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million (human) deaths that would otherwise have been inevitable.’ The World Health Organization stated that DDT had ‘killed more insects and saved more people than any other substance.’”

One of the United Kingdom’s great contemporary thinkers, Dick Taverne – also known as Lord Taverne of Pimlico – discusses in his book, “The March of Unreason,” the New Age philosophy that underlies the organizers of Earth Day.

Taverne deplores the “new kind of fundamentalism” that has infiltrated many environmentalist campaigns – an undiscriminating back-to-nature movement that views science and technology as the enemy and as a manifestation of an exploitative, rapacious and reductionist attitude toward nature.

That eco-fundamentalism is out of step with current events. Congress, the Trump administration and many Americans are now firmly on the side of more sensible, more limited regulation. So it would behoove the Earth Day activists to collaborate in good faith and to support advances in environment-friendly technologies and business models.

Among these advances, we would include ridesharing services, Airbnb, modern genetic engineering applied to agriculture, and state-of-the art agricultural chemicals. All these things enable us to do more with less – but they have been vilified by activists.

Perhaps adding Lord Taverne’s book to the Earth Day curriculum would allow students to consider the issues in a more thoughtful way. But we are not sufficiently naïve to expect that to happen.

Rather, we suspect that activists prefer that their eco-fundamentalism continue to go unchallenged. They don’t want reason, science and respect for differing views to interfere with their agenda.

As far as Earth Day is concerned, a more egalitarian, evidence-based approach might advance civil society, alleviate human suffering and even help protect the planet.

Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the Consumer Choice Center.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, molecular biologist and former flu virus researcher, is the Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology. Twitter: @henryimiller