Posted by: Dan | October 15, 2007

Interview with Seymour Garte, Author of Where We Stand

Medium ImageRecently I was given the chance to review a copy Where We Stand, including an email interview (10 Q’s) with the book’s author. Great book, offering a great perspective. If you’re at all interested in science, the environment, and perceptions of the state of both in society at large, this is a great book.

Dan Rhoads:
Dr. Seymour Garte,

Thank you for the chance to ask you a few questions relating to your new book, Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet. To be honest, upon reading through it, I had some mixed reactions. Factually it is well-argued, and demonstrates the power with which evidence-based approaches to environmental, economic and political problems can improve our world. You present a status report of sorts, at a time when most environmental and health concerns have been largely solved, and new a couple new threats dominate discussions of politics and science. And you truly take up the banner for optimism on environmental and health issues.

At the same time, I think that we have slightly differing political views. So while we probably agree on more than we disagree, I hope you don’t mind it I try to tackle a couple items that you bring up in your book, which I thought provocative.

seymour garteSeymour Garte:
Thank you very much for taking the time to read the book, and to pose these interesting and thoughtful questions. This is exactly the sort of dialogue that I was hoping to stimulate by writing the book. I will do my best to answer your questions, but please feel free to continue the discussion if you think I have not sufficiently addressed any point you raise, or to ask others.

Dan Rhoads: Now, you characterize pessimism as a liberal or progressive trait, while optimism is a conservative trait. I’m curious – what would you say to the number of conservatives who tend to distrust the advocacy of scientists on such issues as climate change, endangered species protection, and other pressing concerns that we face today?

Seymour Garte: I have made a number of appearances on radio shows with conservative hosts, and have had to deal with this matter. I tell them that the pressing environmental issues of the day, including global warming, protection of species etc. should not be seen in terms of political debate, but as universal problems for humanity to deal with. My experience so far is that they are generally comfortable with that (an exception being religion, see below). I also remind them that in many cases, the science is not complete, but when a scientific consensus is reached (I usually mention the ozone layer and CFCs, phosphates in detergents, lead in gasoline), everyone should get on board and work to correct the problem.

Dan Rhoads: Are you afraid that your emphasis on the accomplishments of science in environmental regulation will encourage complacency, and that support of watchdog groups may wane with a public sense that the task is largely complete?

Seymour Garte: I stress this point in both the preface and throughout the book. The goal is not to encourage complacency but to re-stimulate activism, which I think has suffered due to an overwhelming sense of futility and hopelessness. An army which thinks it is losing every battle, does not do as well as one that feel victorious. I try to make it very clear, that there are plenty of problems still to be faced (The Bad News sections at the end of each chapter), but that we should feel confident that we can succeed, based on the past record.

Dan Rhoads: Or, perhaps putting it another way, do you think that you’re trying to re-label retrospective and forward-looking as optimistic and pessimistic, respectively? I say ‘re-label,’ because my impression is that many liberal environmental activists do recognize the accomplishments that they’ve fostered, but are focused on the problems that still lie ahead (focused on continuing progress, if you will). But of course, now I’m the one injecting political perspective into the discussion. Your thoughts?

Seymour Garte: You are right in the sense that I am sure most activists are aware of the progress and victories they have made. The problem is the message that is conveyed to the public. My favorite example is Pete Seeger. I am sure he is aware of the tremendous impact his efforts with the sloop Clearwater made on cleaning up the Hudson River. Yet in an interview, when asked if the Hudson is now clean and free of pollution (which it is) he said after hesitating a bit, “its half way there”.

Furthermore, I think the environmental movement is guilty of ignoring its own historical (“retrospective”) success, which I believe would greatly help in pushing its forward-looking agenda, and significantly reduce the “gloom and doom” label that has been successfully applied to the movement by its opponents.

Dan Rhoads: One of the public interest groups that you tout noticeably is the Worldwatch Institute. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s not one that I was familiar with it. Could you tell us a bit about it, it’s history, and your role with this organization?

Seymour Garte: Their web site is: http://www.worldwatch.org. This group was founded by legendary environmental activist Lester Brown, and it publishes the series State of the World, and other books and documents. It is a scholarly, very active environmental organization, with a great data base. I have no role with the organization, but I did use a good deal of their data, (if not their political tone, which is the essence of doom and gloom).

Dan Rhoads: And in a related question, what advice would you give to environmental activists trying to tread the line between pessimism or so-called ‘alarmism’ and political advocacy of sound science? Is it not difficult to get the public’s attention without sometimes dramaticizing the environmental situation?

Seymour Garte: Of course the alarmist approach was totally appropriate in 1970, and the years that followed. And the fact is that it worked. Do you know anyone who is now against re-cycling? Who thinks we should repeal the Clean Air Act or the EPA (Reagan tried in 1982, and it didn’t work.) The truth is that we have won the war against the polluters, and the problem is, no one knows it.

My advice is stress the positive! Tell people that passing regulations works, and we have the proof. Show how many species have been recovered thanks to the Endangered Species Act, how much better the Great Lakes are now than they were before the Clean Water (and numerous other) acts, how the Clean Air Act has led to an 80% decrease in SO2 emissions, how our efforts have led to fewer toxic emission from cars etc. First step, read my book!!

Dan Rhoads: What do you think of bringing back the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), and about its dissolution in 1994?

Seymour Garte: I am completely in favor of bringing back the OTA, and I think it was a grave mistake to dissolve it.

Dan Rhoads: You speak out a good deal on the perils of unrestricted free market forces and corporate opposition to reasonable environmental regulations. Kudos! Some suggest that in recent years the media has on multiple issues played part in misrepresenting the issues, helping to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. In such a situation, the media might stall the democratic process in instituting regulations. How concerned do you think this should make us?

Seymour Garte: The media has indeed sometimes gotten it wrong, or at least not presented a balanced view. It used to drive me crazy when I saw a debate on TV regarding the smoking and cancer issue, and on one side there were any number of professors, physicians, scientists from all over the academic world, and on the other some hack from the Tobacco Institute. This was not balance.

But on the whole, I think the media is trying its best to get it right. We scientists have an obligation to help them, and to be more proactive in this regard. I’m afraid that not all of my colleagues agree with me, and some would rather not get involved at all in public debate. Clearly that is not the case for me.

Dan Rhoads: Also (this relates to my first question), you suggest that the anti-technology world view is a leftover from the cultural atmosphere of the 1960s (p. 244). What is your impression of the generally anti-technology or anti-science views espoused by religious conservatives? Why has ‘evangelical environmentalism’ taken so long to catch on, do you think?

Seymour Garte: I do discuss this in the book. I equate the imposition of religious views on scientific matters (for example on evolution) to the Soviet imposition of Lysenkoism on biology and genetics. In fact I have been taken to task for this on an evangelical ecologist blog. I agree with the late SJ Gould, and many others that religious matters belong to a separate magisterium of Faith, from scientific issues, and no crossover should take place.
(DR: That’s true, I missed that. My apologies.)

Dan Rhoads: Your comments on rising literacy rates throughout the world over the past century also resonated with me. I tend to take that a step further, and have in some of my blog posts suggested that we extend that to a campaign for rising scientific literacy to the forefront. Was this a conscious objective of yours, in writing this book, as well?

Seymour Garte: Yes, absolutely. One of my favorite passages in the book, is the section in which I show that proving that Paul is dead by assembling a host of supportive facts is not science. I think it is important for people to be able to judge scientific statements, at least to some degree.

Dan Rhoads: On optimistic outlooks regarding the state of the planet, I think your take-home message appears to be that scientific truth and democratic processes win out in the end. Is there anything that you’d like to add to or change with that?

Seymour Garte: Well said. I certainly hope that is true. I believe that historical trends point in that direction. I would just like to add that I am a student of history, and I think we neglect history in the internet age. It is not easy to be able to find much historical information online. Most people seem to be interested primarily in what is going on right now. That is perfectly natural, but as has been said, we ignore history at our peril.

Dan Rhoads: Thanks again, Dr. Garte — for the book, the interview, and above all for helping to stimulate discussion on how we portray scientific progress to the public! Now, with any luck, there’ll be a few people out there who’d like to comment. Have at it.


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