April 3, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery
BP, a huge international oil company once known as British Petroleum, now says BP stands for “beyond petroleum.” It invested $200 million in solar energy development during the past year or so. But BP produces only enough solar electricity to light the city of Boise, Idaho. Meanwhile, BP is investing 75 times as much to drill deeper oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
That doesn’t make BP evil; just a little too clever about trying to take advantage of public concern over the much-hyped global warming. BP is a large, responsible oil company delivering energy that virtually everybody wants, at competitive prices.
Enron, the now-collapsed corporation which famously tried to rig energy markets—and cooked its books to fool investors and regulators—was praised for years by the eco-movement. They cheered because Enron advocated that the United States sign the Kyoto Treaty. It’s doubtful that Enron cared one way or the other about global warming, but the company saw itself doing billion-dollar trades in “emission rights” as First World industries were forced to meet draconian reductions in so-called greenhouse gases.
Doug Tompkins, the multimillionaire founder of the Esprit clothing empire, is a businessman with ecological aspirations. He bought a thousand square miles of remote Patagonia (at the tip of South America) to preserve it from development.
He also started the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which says the modern world’s ships and airplanes are bad for the environment. He also opposes the high-yield farming that feeds more people from less land. The Foundation for Deep Ecology says, “Modern industrial agriculture contributes to virtually every current social and ecological crisis, from extinction to globalization to overpopulation to biotechnology. . . . The much heralded Green Revolution has been a failure.”
What part of saving a billion people from starvation and preserving 12 million square miles of wildlands represents failure? If the Green Revolution hadn’t tripled the world’s crop yields after 1960, we’d already have planted grain on Tompkins’ Patagonian nature preserve—along with virtually all the world’s other wildlands.
Tompkins’ foundation also worries about soil erosion and blames modern farming while ignoring the fact that the traditional farms he prefers suffer a hundred times as much soil erosion per ton of food of food produced.
All this helps explain why modern societies don’t depend on corporations and businessmen to set public policy. We do that with public consensus, through elected officials.
We ask businessmen and corporations to respond to our needs and desires (expressed through dollars willingly spent) legally and responsibly.
We ask scientists to submit to peer review. They publish their best evidence, and other scientists get to test its validity. Our free press is even supposed to demand responsibility and accountability from our politicians.
So far, however, we haven’t demanded any standard of accountability from so-called “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs). With hundreds of NGOs spending billions of dollars in aggressive efforts to reshape public policy, the world is facing a new challenge to fairness in the public debate: accountability.
The Sierra Club, for example, told us for decades that the salmon population was declining in the Pacific Northwest because of logging. We closed the forests and it didn’t help. Suddenly, the salmon have returned—because of a 25-year ocean cycle that shifts salmon food (and thus salmon numbers) back and forth between the Pacific Northwest and the Gulf of Alaska. Has the Sierra Club apologized to the loggers they put out of work? Not a chance.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are telling college kids that milk is bad for their health, despite centuries of human experience to the contrary. (PETA complains that the cows are being “exploited.”) But our kids, especially girls, are short of calcium in their diets. Should we quietly allow activists to worsen women’s risk of osteoporosis?
Today, hundreds of NGOs fill the air with scary press releases and TV sound bites, composing a new challenge to constructive public debate worldwide. We have accounting laws for corporations, and peer review for scientists, but we have set no institutional standards for behavior of the nongovernmental “non-profit” organizations. Journalists don’t dig behind the press releases, because eco-scares mean front-page bylines.Shouldn’t everybody tell the truth—and marshal the evidence to back up their claims? It is time for the press to hold both corporations and nonprofit organizations equally to the highest standards of responsibility and accountability.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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