Rape of the forest

Not that I want to add to the cynicism in this country, but have you noticed that eco-pornography is becoming more brazen than ever?

You dedicated watchers of public-affairs programming may have noticed a recent spate of commercials from the Indonesian Forestry Association, and perhaps you are somewhat puzzled as to why you are being treated to all this gorgeous footage of rain forests, waterfalls, and the happy news that 1 million acres of Indonesian forest are protected for bio-diversity.

Because, of course, the rape of the Indonesian forests is one of the most devastating, ongoing environmental tragedies on Earth.

In one of those pluperfect, let's-stand-the-argument-on-its-head arguments, one of the ads solemnly outlines the need for bio-diversity ("these forests are full of medicines"), and then blithely assures us that all these future wonder drugs are now safe.

The Indonesian forestry group, by the way, does not consist of Indonesians; many and familiar are the corporate names therein.

Equally familiar are their squalid records. This is not about clear-cutting second-growth forest--this is about destroying forever priceless and irreplaceable resources, a process that has been fully documented not just by environmental organizations but by major news organizations around the world.

Another old favorite, Union Carbide, is back to tell us how it favors "cleaner air, purer water, less waste." Union Carbide felt the need to polish its environmental image after, you may recall, causing one of the two greatest industrial disasters in history in Bhopal, India, an event rivaled only by Chernobyl. The December 12 issue of The Nation documents just how shallow Union Carbide's post-Bhopal commitment to the environment has proved to be.

But lest you fear that our public servants are being misled by corporate eco-porn, let me pass along some gladsome tidings.

The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University traditionally holds an issues forum for incoming members of Congress. However, the new Republican members of Congress felt they did not need to be educated any further on the issues, at least not by anything connected with Harvard, and so they repaired instead this very weekend to a forum put on by the Heritage Foundation. A featured speaker was Rush Limbaugh, the talk-radio host who holds himself out as an authority on the environment.

The problem with Limbaugh, the environmental expert, is that he's wrong. So wrong so often that the Environmental Defense Fund, a group so Establishment that even Limbaugh would have difficulty describing them as "environmental wackos," has finally created a booklet refuting some of his more inane claims. It makes for depressing reading in that it is so reflective of political debate in our time.

The book quotes some resounding but utterly false claims made by Limbaugh and then slowly, painstakingly presents the real scientific evidence. It's almost like a case study of propaganda compared with the patient, careful accumulation of fact that leads to the colorless, nuanced, always tentative conclusions of science (always tentative because science is always ready to consider new facts).

Sweeping denunciations and generalizations are always sexier than the "let's look at the facts" approach. And it always takes a long, long time for the truth to catch up with the lie.

The EDF sorts most of Limbaugh's environmental misinformation into three categories: ozone depletion, climate change, and old-growth forests. Some examples:

Limbaugh: "Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed forth more than 1,000 times the amount of ozone-depleting chemicals in one eruption than all the fluorocarbons manufactured by wicked, diabolical, and insensitive corporations in history."

Fact: Cumulatively, Mount Pinatubo's impact on the ozone layer is about 50 times less than that of CFCs. Volcanoes emit two sorts of ozone-depleting compounds: hydrochloric acid (amounts measured in the stratosphere were largely unchanged by the Pinatubo eruption) and sulfur dioxide (converted in the stratosphere into tiny particles that act in combination with chlorine from manmade CFCs; this temporarily increased the rate of ozone depletions by several percentage points during 1992 and 1993).

Nearly all the chemicals emitted by Pinatubo have already wasted out of the stratosphere, unlike CFCs, which remain for as long as a century.

Limbaugh: "Prophets of doom" have exaggerated the problem of ozone depletion. He declares that the phenomenon has been limited to "occasional reduced levels of ozone over Antarctica."

Fact: Substantially reduced levels of ozone have been measured over most of the globe, including North America, Europe, and elsewhere. Scientists have observed a thinning of the ozone layer at all latitudes outside the tropics. By 1991, the depletion over North America averaged nearly 5 percent. Since 1991, ozone depletion has further intensified.

The most recent World Meteorological Organization assessment confirms that "the weight of scientific evidence" points to CFCs and related compounds as the chief cause of global depletion.

Limbaugh: "A fact you never hear the environmentalist wacko crowd acknowledge is that 96 percent of the so-called 'greenhouse gases' are not created by man but by nature."

Fact: The greenhouse effect is, by and large, a natural phenomenon produced by gases in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor that have warmed the earth for eons, enabling its climate to support life.

However, in nature, these gases usually remain in balance, leading to a stable climate, while the greenhouse gases added by humans over the last 200 years have accumulated to the point that the amount of CO2 and other gases caused by human activity will alter the climate substantially, warming the globe by 3 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.

And so on, and so on.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1994 Creators Syndicate, Inc.


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