Sunday, June 4, 2006

A Convenient Fabrication?

I heard about this yesterday on the NPR show "Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!", and looked it up online today. Here is the full story, as it appears on the Washington Post website, with the source given as
Greenpeace Just Kidding About Armageddon
Friday, June 2, 2006; Page A17
The environmental activist group Greenpeace wanted to be prepared to counter President Bush's visit last week to Pennsylvania to promote his nuclear energy policy.

"This volatile and dangerous source of energy" is no answer to the country's energy needs, shouted a Greenpeace fact sheet, decrying the "threat" posed by the reactors Bush visited in Limerick.

But after that assertion, the Greenpeace authors were apparently stumped while searching for the ideal menacing metaphor.

"In the twenty years since the Chernobyl tragedy, the world's worst nuclear accident, there have been nearly [FILL IN ALARMIST AND ARMAGEDDONIST FACTOID HERE]," the sheet said.

The Greenpeace spokesman who issued the memo, Steve Smith, told the Web site that a colleague was making a joke in a draft that was then mistakenly released.

The final version did not mention Armageddon; instead it warned of plane crashes and reactor meltdowns.

This is unfortunate on a number of levels. I can see how the Greenpeace activist might have been joking around in private, poking fun at him- or herself and at the rhetorical tendencies of Greenpeace activists. It is a pity that the joke went public, inviting the scorn of those who are already too willing to dismiss all environmental activism as alarmist.

At the same time, it's unfortunate for the same reason it's funny - because it gets at an uncomfortable truth. Those who oppose an entrenched status quo, who are frustrated at their own marginalization, may be tempted to ramp up their rhetoric, to threaten and cajole, to exaggerate the dangers, hoping that fear will motivate people to join the cause. The resulting factoids may not be mere convenient fabrications, but they are certainly not the unvarnished truth.

When that tactic doesn't work, as I've written before, activists may even be tempted to hope for the apocalypse - an instructive apocalypse that'll teach those bastards a lesson.

Now, in all fairness, there is lots of distortion at the other extreme, as well. Think of the rhetoric of some anti-environmentalists: Environmental protection will destroy the economy, they shout. Since Earth Day, there have been nearly [FILL IN ALARMIST ECONOMIC MUMBO-JUMBO HERE].

Also, in all fairness, it is important to note that there is a lot to be concerned about, perhaps even alarmed about, without politically-motivated risk inflation. I have not yet seen Al Gore's movie, but I look forward to seeing how alarming - and how motivating - a scholarly, even pedantic presentation of the current state of scientific knowledge (uncertainties and all) can be.

By all accounts, it's electrifying.

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