On the origin of specious(ness)

A recent study of environmentally sceptical books gives a fascinating glimpse behind the wall of denial that has been constructed in these publications. Peter Jacques, Riley Dunlap and Mark Freeman, the authors of the study, characterise this environmental scepticism as:

– the denial of the significance and even the authenticity of environmental problems

– the questioning of environmentally protective policies and a promotion of anti-regulatory policies

– the suggestion that environmental protection threatens western ‘progress’.

Compiled on the basis of these criteria, the “sceptics’ reading list” comprises 141 books published in English and appearing between 1972 and 2005.

Studying this array of literature, Jacques and his colleagues discover the rather curious fact that 130 of these books (92.2%) were either written by individuals with publicly stated affiliations with conservative think tanks (62 books), were published by such think tanks (5 books), or both (63 books).

In other words, environmental scepticism is not the apolitical product of rational and disinterested scientific criticism – it largely stems from a coherent, well-funded political campaign originating in the halls of neoliberalism.

You may not be entirely surprised by this discovery.

The mode of attack is also worth analysing, and Jacques and his colleagues provide some useful insights. They show firstly that conservatives have learned the lessons of their past mistakes on environmental issues. Anti-environmentalists in the US in the early 1980s directly attacked existing legislation and regulatory powers, and faced a significant public backlash as a consequence. Anti-environmentalism now takes a different tack, challenging the ideas and the people behind existing regulations and new policy proposals by denying the seriousness of environmental problems and portraying environmentalists and environmental scientists as radicals.

The role of these (mostly US-based) conservative think tanks in the broader “war of ideas” is certainly a quite extraordinary one. Jacques et al regard the endless flow of books, editorial articles, media releases, reports and policy briefs as a central tactic in an ongoing campaign intended to overwhelm public debate with a torrent of anti-environmental, anti-progressive, pro-libertarian, pro-free market, pro-neoliberal literature and views.

Furthermore, the authors of this material are often presented in the media as legitimate experts whose opinions provide the media with a spurious ‘balance’ on topics such as the effects of pollution, the significance of biodiversity loss, or the existence, origins and consequences of global warming.

In this way, not just appropriate policy responses but the very issues themselves are presented as ‘debateable’.

Peter Jacques, Riley Dunlap and Mark Freeman (2008 ) The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism. Environmental Politics 17(3), 349-385.



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