Health News Digest

November 14, 2005

Environmental Myths—Old And NewAthena--the mythical goddess

By  Michael D. Shaw

Now that some voices of reason are finally clamoring to bring DDT back, to save millions from malaria, we should cast the same critical eye on other environmental myths and outrages.

In the early 1970’s, much media coverage was given to the notion that our Native American brethren were the proto-Greens, only to be displaced by evil Euro marauders, whose greatest mission in life was to despoil the environment. This trend would continue unabated, until the Disney film Pocahontas (1995) portrayed this storyline in such PC terms that it became a parody of itself.

To be sure, the Indians, being primitive non-technological hunter-gatherers, WERE close to the land. And, never developing means to master their environment, were subject to all the cruel whims of Mother Nature as well, including famine, disease, and the natural bellicosity of their equally deprived neighboring tribes.

But, beyond the occasionally prudent use of limited resources—such as all the parts of bison—nothing in the actual historical record matches the hype.

Explorers Lewis and Clark recorded that Indians in the Rocky Mountains would set trees alight “as after-dinner entertainment; the huge trees would explode like Roman candles in the night.” Of course, large stands of trees were of no use to the natives, as they simply impeded hunting. Think of it as an early version of clearing the land to improve human habitats.

And, there is little doubt that the disappearance of so-called mega fauna of North America, including such normally resilient mammals as the saber-toothed tiger, woolly mammoth, giant beaver, and dire wolf was caused largely because the Indians hunted these species to extinction. Attempts to apply such theories as survival of the fittest or climate to explain this come up short.

Further lack of stewardship is witnessed in ceremonial dresses of the Crow tribe that required the death of 350 elk to provide 700 (very specific) teeth each. Nor is this native profligacy limited to the mainland: Historical feather capes exist in Hawaii that used feathers from 80,000 birds.

Our goal here is not to attack aboriginal peoples. Rather, it is to indicate that foolish and destructive environmental actions are not limited to our era. Which brings us to Corporate Fuel Economy Ratings, better known as CAFE standards. In essence, these standards apply over an auto manufacturer’s entire product line, and there are different criteria for cars and light trucks/SUV’s. The big trend toward SUV’s was a result of the public’s desire for bigger vehicles, and the CAFE-driven movement of size to the SUV sector (that had easier standards to meet than cars).

Owing to the laws of physics, bigger vehicles are safer than smaller ones, despite misleading slicing and dicing of accident data to the contrary. To meet CAFE standards on cars, manufacturers had to downsize the vehicles, replace steel with plastic, and reduce the interior space—all of which reduce safety.

However, physical attributes of the vehicles were not all that was affected. Sports car enthusiasts will remember that the manual transmission 1995 Corvette was equipped with a “feature” called “one to four,” whereby at a certain RPM, it was not possible to shift from first to second gear. Instead, the hapless driver was forced to shift from first to fourth gear, and this was quite dangerous, as the particular RPM that would trigger this mechanism often occurred when going uphill. Not surprisingly, the simple disconnect of this feature became the most requested service item for this model.

Study after study, from varied sources, has shown that CAFE standards have increased highway deaths, yet this is apparently acceptable. Fair enough, I suppose, but how can we square that with other “environmental” hysteria that would shutdown products and entire industries based on HYPOTHETICAL and largely unproven risks to, at best, tiny sectors of the population?

The fact is, we can’t. And, until we remove mythology from environmentalism, there will be many more such contradictions.