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Warwick Beacon
April 24, 1990

Earthly skepticism

Having survived the spectacle of Earth Day, we settled back to reflect on the part such a phenomenon plays in the long-term drama of managing the environment.

There are two aspects to that job — understanding environmental problems, and taking action to solve them. Action without understanding is reckless, and understanding without acting is idle.

Earth Day was action-oriented. Its programs informed, yes. But its primary purpose and effect were to concentrate our attention on environmental problems and motivate us, all of us, to get together and get busy.

But there are dangers in that. Clarion calls for environmental activism have the potential to set people in motion before they've understood where they're going, environmentally speaking. This tendency toward uninformed action is increasingly evident amid the public's growing concern with the environment. The antidote for this is a healthy sense of skepticism.

To illustrate, a scientific poll conducted by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal this month found that 74 percent of Americans favor a ban on disposable diapers. Pulling the plug on a $3.3 billion industry certainly would constitute action. And 74 percent is an overwhelming consensus about the perceived environmental benefits of that action.

But how well-informed is that consensus. Much of the evidence for the benefits of a ban on disposable diapers is roughly balanced by evidence to the contrary, and a good deal of what remains is open to serious question.

The principal complaint against disposable diapers is that they take up precious space in landfills, space that could be saved if people would use diaper services instead of disposables. How much landfill space disposables occupy is a crucial factor in deciding whether a ban would make sense.

Test your own knowledge on this: In the average sanitary landfill disposable diapers occupy a volume of about A) 30 percent, B) 25 percent, C) 2 percent. Answer: We have no earthly idea. Each of those answers comes from a credentialed "expert" and has been reported in reputable national magazines. Listen to debates about disposable diapers and you'll hear people solemnly quoting their favorite number as if had been hand-delivered by Moses.

Well, whatever the volume taken up by disposables, the things aren't biodegradable; they'll remain in landfills for hundreds of years. But if we banned them, everyone would switch to washable diapers, putting a stop to plastic diaper pollution. Right?

Well, yes, but a reasonably skeptical person will ask: At what environmental cost?

The (unknown) space saved in landfills would be paid for with an (unknown) increase in air pollution. How much fossil fuel such as coal would be burned to heat the water and produce the electricity needed to wash and dry those billions of cloth diapers each year? How much gasoline would be burned by the trucks that pick up and deliver them? How much secondary use of fossil fuels would be required to manufacture the diapers, the washing machines, the dryers and the delivery trucks?

Answer: We have no earthly idea. More to the point, neither do the 74 percent of Americans who, apparently, are confident that the trade-off would be environmentally profitable. That is what troubles us about major motivators like Earth Day. They tend to inspire action rather than skeptical inquiry about these complex problems.

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll also found that 84 percent of Americans would ban foam containers used by fast-food chains. What's behind such an overwhelming agreement about such a ban? Perhaps this: When asked what percentage of landfills are filled by fast-food packages, laymen typically estimate it at 20 to 30 percent.

An archeologist recently sought hard evidence. His team spent two years digging up tons of garbage in seven metropolitan landfills. They weighed, measured and classified every scrap of it. Fast-food containers made up about one-third of 1 percent of the volume. To put that figure in more visual terms, in a truckload of typical garbage from those landfills, there weren't enough fast-food containers to fill a milk crate.

Across the spectrum of environmental issues, from garbage to the "greenhouse effect," you will find wildly conflicting assumptions, estimates, predictions and claims of fact — many proffered by "experts" and reported in highly reputable publications.

Against that backdrop of confusion and misinformation, it is startling to see sweeping popular majorities endorse such bold steps as a ban on disposable diapers or on fast-food containers. Informed debate on these issues is desirable. Uninformed action that would foreclose debate is not.

What we need is more skepticism, which would encourage the former and help prevent the latter.

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