The Arsenic Wars

Posted: May 03, 2001 12:00 AM
"Can I please have some more arsenic in my water, Mommy? More salmonella in my cheeseburger, please." So begins a Democratic National Committee commercial attacking George W. Bush's policy on arsenic levels in water. In the commercial, a cute little girl fills a glass of water from the sink, and asks for not only more arsenic, but also salmonella. To paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan, "There they go again." For seven years, 11 months and 28 days in office, Clinton kept the arsenic levels where they had been since 1942 -- 50 parts per billion. In the waning hours of his administration, he reduced the allowable parts from 50 to 10. On the environment, President George W. Bush simply gets clobbered. Recent polls show that 57 percent of Americans approve of his overall performance, but only 41 percent agree with his environmental policies. Memo to the public: Bush's environmental policies, with one exception, are virtually identical to those of former President Bill Clinton. The New Republic is a center-left magazine. It endorsed Al Gore for president. In a recent article, Gregg Easterbrook analyzed Bush and Gore's environmental stances. "On almost every environmental issue," wrote Easterbrook, "Bush has upheld the Clinton-Gore position. All (Bush has) done," says Easterbrook, "is delay the date on which trace levels of arsenic are cut. This is precisely (his emphasis) what Bill Clinton and Al Gore did for almost eight years -- postponing any tightening of the standard until just before leaving the White House." But, but, this is, after all, arsenic. But Easterbrook says, " ... Arsenic is not one of America's leading environmental problems. It occurs in drinking water at worrisome levels in only a few areas of the country, and public health estimates show at worst a 1 percent increase in the odds of late-life cancer for someone who consumes such water for decades." Do facts matter? Quite simply, many environmental activists assume Americans too stupid, too lazy and too emotional to care about the facts. In his brilliant book, "Capitalism," economist George Reisman says some activists almost brag about their ability to use scare tactics to grab the attention of the public. Reisman quotes an environmental activist, Stephen Schneider, who, in 1989, told the science magazine Discover, "To (grab the public attention) we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest." The right balance between being effective and being honest? Professor Jerry Franklin, an ecologist at the University of Washington, says, "A lot of environmental messages are simply not accurate. But that's the way we sell messages in this society. We use hype. And we use those pieces of information that sustain our position. I guess all large organizations do that." And the money for the "environmental movement" continues to pour in. Sacramento Bee writer Tom Knudson says, "Money is flowing to conservation in unprecedented amounts," writes Knudson, "reaching $3.5 billion in 1999, up 94 percent from 1992. But much of it is not actually used to protect the environment. Instead, it is siphoned off to pay for bureaucratic overhead and fund raising, including expensive direct-mail and telemarketing consultants." In my recent interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, I asked, how does one break the mindset causing people to approach the environment almost as if it were a religion? Cheney's response? "We're trying to get people to come down off the ceiling, if you will, and listen carefully to the discussions and enter into the debate, recognize that we do have to do both, that we've got a solemn obligation to protect and preserve the environment and pass it on to our kids and grandkids in better shape than we've had it. But also, that if we're gonna have any kind of economic growth in this country and maintain the standard of living for our people, we have to have adequate supplies of energy. Now, you have to do both, and we can do both. We can do both at a safe and sane fashion at a price we can afford. But you need to get people to sort of calm down and engage on the substance, not start throwing grenades at one another, because that doesn't get us any place."