In the latest American Prospect magazine, I've got a review of a fascinating new book called The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment, by Benjamin Ross and Stephen Amter. What's important about this book, as I write, is that it's a history of "the American struggle for environmental protection before the triumphal 1970s, when Congress passed the Clean Air Act and many other landmark environmental laws." If you think corporations behave badly today when it comes to seeking to avoid regulation...well, you have no idea how far we've come, and what model citizens they are compared to, say, what they were the 1920s. That's the invaluable historical perspective that The Polluters provides. But as I write, while things have changed, they've also stayed the same:
...polluters have continued to use the same basic techniques to undermine regulation. Ross and Amter label the most effective strategy "spill, study, and stall": If you don't want to stop polluting, just insist that the science is uncertain and there's no basis for action. Cook up a few questionable studies that reanalyze the data, divert attention to other possible culprits, or call for new research. The tobacco industry didn't invent these gambits; as Ross and Amter show, the chemical industry used the same techniques to fight the regulation of tetraethyl lead in the early 20th century and the regulation of air pollution in the 1940s. The agenda is the same in the current climate debate.
In sum, we have nearly a century of evidence that the same science game is played over and over and over again. Isn't that enough evidence to warrant concerted steps to stop it? I end my review thusly:
There's no doubt from this saga that we still need strong government regulation: 100 years of experience shows that companies cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. But we can go further. We probably also need more explicit sanctions to prevent science from being cynically used to stall public policy -- the research equivalent of filing frivolous motions in a courtroom. The prostitution of science is much too easy. It happens far too often. And at this point, the evidence is overwhelming that it's a systematic strategy that industry will continue to employ unless there are penalties to be paid.
You can read the full review here
, and order Ross and Amter's The Polluters here