In today's battle over control of environmental policymaking, no effort is spared in marshaling forces and developing media war chests. It is interesting to note the techniques used to get the message out.
Some organizations rely solely on scientific research to convey their message. While not very exciting, this approach is honest and objective. However, other groups have turned to alternative tools to get their message across and, hence, to build their membership.For instance, among the most effective tools used by environmental groups to raise money and change public policy are doom and gloom environmental predictions. The aim is simple - to make the reader angry or scared enough so they immediately write a check to solve the crisis at hand.
One of the most common themes is deforestation and the loss of rain forests. Rain-forest loss is an excellent illustration of how environmentalists use wild exaggeration and hyperbole to create a crisis.
What are environmental groups saying about deforestation?
From a Sierra Club promotional piece for its "Earth Care Annual":
"After all, the entire planet is in danger of overheating. There are growing mountains of garbage to contend with. Dwindling natural resources. An immense tear in the ozone layer. Rain forests falling at the rate of 50 acres a minute."
From a 1993 Conservation International fund-raising letter:
"Every half-hour, (four square miles) of land is destroyed to make way for logging, ranching and farming. It is slashed, burned, chain sawed and flooded into oblivion."
From pages 117-118 of the book "Earth in the Balance," by Vice President Al Gore:
"Wherever rain forests are found, they are under siege. They are being burned to clear land for pasture; they are being clear-cut with chain saws for lumber; they are being flooded by hydroelectric dams to generate power. They are disappearing from the face of the earth at the rate of 11/2 acres a second, night and day, every day, all year round."
From a 1993 National Arbor Day Foundation fund-raising letter:
"Wooded areas equal in size to a football field are being ripped from our planet each and every second."
The rate at which the planet is losing rain forests is a common theme. The fact that Gore has weighed in on the issue raises its credibility and exposure. But, are any of these claims true?
Let's use a little simple math. According to the Sierra Club, 50 acres fall every minute, or 3,000 every hour, 72,000 every day and 26,280,000 every year.
Conservation International claims that four square miles are cleared every half hour, which equals 2,560 acres. That translates into 5,120 acres every hour, 122,880 acres every day and 44,851,200 acres every year.
Gore believes rain forests are disappearing at the rate of 1.5 acres every second, or 90 acres every minute, 5,400 every hour, 129,600 every day and 47,304,000 acres every year. Finally, the National Arbor Day Foundation says areas equal in size to a football field are eliminated each and every second. A football field is 30 yards wide by 120 yards long (including end zones) or 32,400 square feet, roughly three quarters of an acre. This calculates to 45 acres per minute, 2,700 every hour, 64,800 every day and 23,652,000 acres every year.
The first conclusion we can draw with certainty from all this is that at least three of these claims are wrong and fund-raising pleas based on this data can only be described as misleading and unethical. What about all four being wrong? Let's look at the feasibility of clearing that much land in a single year.
Take Gore's example first. The entire state of Illinois has a land area of 55,646 square miles or 35.6 million acres. If all of Illinois were a rain forest, we could clear the entire state in a year along with the entire state of Massachusetts, which has 5 million acres, Connecticut at 3.1 million acres and Rhode Island at 675,000 acres, and still have 3 million acres left over.
California has just over 100 million acres. Vice President Gore believes that if the entire state of California were a rain forest, we could bulldoze just under half of it in one year. We could almost bulldoze the Carolinas - we would come up 3 million acres short, but we would finish those acres off in just 23 additional days.
Gore wrote his book in 1991 and published it in 1992. Since the vice president has not declared an end to rain-forest loss, that means that between 1991 and the end of this year, we will have bulldozed 236,520,000 acres or the entire states of Texas and Arizona. Is this an impossible task, or not?
Assuming it takes five minutes to either bulldoze or chain-saw a tree and also assuming that there are about 100 trees per acre of rain forest, then how many bulldozers or chain sawers would it take to clear 47.3 million acres of rain forest per year? Using these assumptions, 100 bulldozers could clear one acre of rain forest in five minutes, 12 acres per hour, 288 acres per day and 105,120 acres per year - assuming they worked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
At this rate, you would need 45,000 bulldozers to clear 47.3 million acres in a year. Please keep in mind that these are extremely conservative assumptions. It once took me two hours to dig around and push out an old apple tree. However, it was a small bulldozer.
This is being very generous toward the vice president. You wouldn't expect bulldozers to run in the dark, nor people to fell trees at 3 a.m. with chain saws. If you factor in working just 12 hours a day, 365 days per year, you then need 90,000 bulldozers or chainsaw operators or any combination thereof to clear 47 million acres.
What is the real number? After examining NASA satellite photos of the Amazon, David Skole, an ecologist at the University of New Hampshire, and Compton Tucker of NASA concluded that average rain- forest loss in the Amazon is 3 million acres per year.
The Amazon region is believed to account for half of the world's deforestation, so total world deforestation is probably closer to 6 million acres. The most conservative environmental group says that losses are four times higher.
These estimates also assume that this land is lost forever when, in fact, most of the acres that are cleared for wood are allowed to regrow. Slash-and- burn agricultural acres also recover as farmers move to new land every two or three years and let the abandoned land regrow.
What does all this mean to the rest of us? Obviously, we need to recognize environmentalists' "facts" for what they are - messages designed to create fear and anger, raise money and, ultimately, influence public policy. We also need to realize what environmental groups have known for a long time, that is, most environmental issues are driven by messages, rather than science. But there is a price.
Ignoring scientifically proven truths in the name of hyperbole is a lot like the boy who cried wolf too many times. As the public grows weary of claims of impending doom, a new crisis or disaster must be manufactured to keep the anger level high and those mem-bership dollars coming in. Inevitably, truth will win out. But this comes after billions of dollars are spent implementing policies and regulations that force people off the land and families into ruin.
Utahns are tired of the misinformation, and the messages sound all too hollow. Balance in environmental policy is about to be restored. Despite the bleatings of the spin doctors, it's just a matter of time.