Doubt for sale

Secondhand smoke was just the beginning.

Secondhand smoke was just the beginning.

Another Earth Day—the 40th—has come and gone, and while cliché dictates that life begins at 40, Auntie Ruth can feel a tad jaded on that one day a year Sacramento pauses to head-scratch and collectively wonder, “Why is the air we breathe so crappy?” Still, Auntie has gotta note how much has changed: Recycling is a way of life for many, and the struggle for clean energy has come a long way, baby. Concerning the deepening commitment to a sustainable “relationship with the planet,” Grist founder Chip Giller noted, “It’s happening in Detroit, in Kansas City, in Milwaukee, in Louisville.” And—gee—Sacramento.

Then again, flip jadedness on its head and wonder, “How do the climate-change deniers still do it?” The scientific community has its consensus about the validity of climate change—even the Climategate folks at the University of East Anglia were exonerated of charges of bad science by a panel of their peers, found guilty instead of sloppy record keeping (and, Auntie Ruth assumes, the crime of jocular e-mailing, so rare in these parts), so how do the deniers still grab headlines?

Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, frames its title from an internal memo from Big Tobacco: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” Among other things, they trace the history of the deniers back to a group of scientists better known as the George C. Marshall Institute. Ideologically inclined to laissez-faire capitalism, the authors depict Fred Seitz, S. Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow as mustering significant scientific thrust on behalf of Big Tobacco (vs. secondhand smoke), the Reagan administration (vs. acid rain, on behalf of Star Wars) and then denying the hole in the ozone layer. In 2007, Newsweek called GMI “a central cog in the denial machine.”

Bill Clinton noted, “What we learned from Oklahoma City [bombings] is not that we should gag each other or … reduce our passion for positions we hold—but that the words we use really do matter, because … they fall on the serious and the delirious … the connected and the unhinged alike.” Amen. If we save the planet one recycled bottle at a time, perhaps we confront denial word by word. Party on, Wayne.