The Magazine


Jun 24, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 40 • By VINCENT CARROLL
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Lester Brown and his Worldwatch Institute rarely miss an angle when describing the coming global calamity, the one that is unfolding right before our blinkered eyes. Even the behavior of mosquitoes is worth a melodramatic pause in World-watch's annual book-long jeremiad, the State of the World.

"Rising temperatures also decrease the time between meals, so the mosquitoes bite humans more frequently," State of the World 1996 solemnly warns. And lest anyone suppose that ravenous mosquitoes are merely a specter of a far-off era, please be advised: "We are already feeling the early effects of an altered climate."

Despite such heavy breathing -- or perhaps because of it Worldwatch is one of the environmental movement's most oft-quoted think tanks, with many hundreds of references in Nexis in the past two years alone. But then hyperbolic rhetoric on behalf of the environment has rarely been a deterrent to serious consideration by the mainstream press, a fact conservatives have rediscovered during the past year to their dismay. Not only are they on the defensive on environmental issues -- some might say in chaotic retreat -- but a growing number of Republican officeholders seem inclined to concede to green activists on a whole range of issues in order to mute the charge that they are out to trash and burn nature. It is an understandable election-year impulse, but it can only postpone the inevitable brawls.

In truth, there is no way to accommodate leading environmentalists on many issues short of abandoning good science and economic freedom. Lester Brown, for example, is a utopian of the old school. He seeks to change human nature so we will not want what humans have wanted since time immemorial: to improve our material well-being and that of our descendants. Of course, you too might be pining for a new monastic ethic if you believed that "the effort now needed to reverse the environmental degradation of the planet and ensure a sustainable future for the next generation will require mobilization on a scale comparable to World War II." This is what Brown himself writes in the current State of the World.

This apocalyptic vision, repeated like a mantra at every opportunity, distorts Worldwatch's handling of almost every issue. In their eagerness to detect climate change, for example, Brown and his co-authors breathlessly chronicle an ominous assault of hurricanes and typhoons in recent years, which have inflicted "unprecedented damage." The southeastern United States has been pummeled repeatedly, they say, "after two decades of relative calm," and 1995 was "the most active Atlantic hurricane season since the thirties." Yet as anyone who checks the actual climatological record will discover, the 1990s have been anything but a sensational period for Atlantic hurricanes. Last year was indeed a bruiser, but then so were 1916, 1933, and 1969, to mention but three other rough years. One stormy season hardly establishes a trend. As it happens, the years prior to 1995 were not just unusually mild. According to William M. Gray, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, 1991 through 1994 were the "most inactive" consecutive four years since hurricane records have been kept.

For that matter, even the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly concedes that climate models "give no consistent indication whether tropical storms will increase or decrease in frequency or intensity as climate changes; neither is there any evidence that this has occurred over the past few decades."

Given such easily obtainable data, the wonder is that Worldwatch would dare to raise the issue of hurricanes at all, particularly when its writers admit, in one of their typically muted and passing disclaimers, that "hurricane severity is not definitively linked to climate warming." But that is the modus operandi of Worldwatch: Seize a few indisputable facts, ignore or downplay the larger context, and skillfully spin out a drama of impending calamity. Has the world seen the reemergence of a few old diseases like malaria and the appearance of a few relatively new ones like AIDS? Why, yes. Well then, humanity must be "experiencing an epidemic of epidemics" and a " growing burden of infectious diseases," all brought about, one is led to understand, by ecological disruption. How lengthening lifespans in most places on the globe jibe with this melodrama is never quite made clear. For that matter, the likelihood that cultural problems, as opposed to environmental degradation, largely explain the appalling health crises in such places as sub-Saharan Africa is essentially overlooked.