Nearly a decade ago, I heard Donella Meadows predict that the information sphere would become the most polluted area of our lives. A professor at Dartmouth College, Ms. Meadows is also a syndicated columnist, one of the authors of The Limits to Growth and an organic farmer. Her lecture was part of a series at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where noted experts addressed global environmental problems.
In that context, it was somewhat startling to hear Ms. Meadows talk about information pollution. However, she made a strong case for its destructive environmental effects in a system or society that depends on individual decisions. Widespread misinformation inhibits rational problem-solving.
Recently, I've run across three clear examples of what Ms. Meadows predicted nearly ten years ago. Each one is a situation where a polluting industry doesn't want citizens to know the truth, and has intentionally spread erroneous information.
As part of the Food Quality Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was charged with printing and distributing a brochure about pesticides to food consumers.Recently, The New York Times reported that the brochure was delayed because seven food, farm and pesticide industry groups brought pressure last August for changes in the draft document. According to the Times, these changes involved putting less emphasis on the health risks of pesticides and eliminating the mention of organic food.
The section called "Tips to Reduce Pesticides on Foods" was changed to "Healthy, Sensible Food Practices." The name of the brochure was changed from "Pesticides on Food" to "Pesticides and Food." Agricultural and chemical interests would rather not have us think about the large quantities of dangerous pesticides that they spray on fruits, vegetables and grains, or know that an organic solution even exists.
Of course, what goes in, must come out. Sewage treatment plants produce vast amounts of sewage sludge. Unfortunately, many things besides human wastes wind up in municipal sewers, including industrial wastes and many of the dangerous materials we've created. The sludge that's left after removing water can contain toxic heavy metals, asbestos, radioactive wastes, PCBs and DDT, as well as human pathogens, viruses and parasites. Naturally, such stuff is hard to get rid of, so the sewage industry arranged an Orwellian name change. With money from the EPA, it funded a public relations campaign to rename sludge "biosolids." Last November, Harper's magazine featured an article which detailed how this campaign resulted in the word "biosolid" appearing as a new entry in the 1998 edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The sewage-industry-influenced definition excludes the word sludge entirely and includes words such as organic and fertilizer. The industry thinks a better name will encourage the use of sludge as fertilizer on our food. The government even suggested last year that sludge (excuse me, biosolids) might be used for growing organic food.
This greenwashing keeps us ignorant about the true nature of, and the real problems with, our sewage systems. Citizens are not likely to press for exclusion of industrial wastes from sewers if they don't know these wastes are a problem.
Perhaps the most dangerous disinformation campaign, however, is the deliberate deception propagated by organizations and PR firms funded by the oil, coal, chemical and automotive industries. It is made worse because conservative political interests use these distortions to confuse the public and influence legislation.
Ross Gelbspan's book The Heat is On, details this expensive and well organized effort by the industry most responsible for changing the climate. He describes how conservative "think-tanks" present political opinion as scientific fact - and, how that right-wing dogma is accepted as science by sympathetic conservative leaders in Congress, who then accuse respected scientists of practicing religion.
As long as we don't know about the problems with toxic pesticides, polluted sludge, or climate change, we are not likely to discover the multiple benefits of growing organic food, safely recycling human wastes (separate from poisons), or using solar energy.
Yet, as fewer citizens know how to grow food without chemicals, heat their homes with the sun or deal creatively with human wastes, more people are susceptible to polluted information.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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