by Rusty Pritchard
Creation care opponents have thrown caution to the wind. Emboldened by demagogues like Glenn Beck, they’re not averse to painting as “totalitarians” anyone even slightly concerned about pollution, resource conservation, biodiversity loss, or energy efficiency.
The Washington Times published a piece on May 19, 2011, by creation care critic Cal Beisner purporting to reveal the “hidden dangers” in the National Day of Prayer for Creation Care, which was sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). Among their “dangerous” prayer requests: reducing mercury pollution that passes from pregnant mothers to their unborn babies.
Aside from being a worthy cause in its own right, the campaign seemed to me to be good apologetics as well. Here were evangelical Christians claiming publicly that God’s call to compassion and wise dominion extends to stopping air pollution that affects our most vulnerable citizens, growing the credibility of the pro-life witness by linking it to more than fighting abortion (the frequency of which, we must all admit, remains our greatest current national travesty), and doing so with smart, well-documented research and policy recommendations. I personally know of formerly pro-choice environmentalists who have changed their positions on abortion because of encountering pro-life evangelical environmental advocates.
But the most visible anti-environmentalists never let concerns about the church’s witness in the world overcome their fundamental desire to fight even the suggestion that democratically elected governments might use their regulatory authority to protect the environment. The libertarian ends consistently trump the means, and evangelism tends to be the first casualty, with regard for truth a close second.
In Beisner’s critique, he constructed two straw-man claims that EEN’s materials didn’t make; and even the way he rebuts the fictitious claims reveals a lot about his commitments.
Beisner said EEN claimed “the main source of mercury pollution is dirty air released by coal-burning power plants” and that international sources are more important. Beisner apparently didn’t read the materials he was criticizing, because they didn’t say what he said they did. Apparently the Washington Times can’t afford fact-checkers. EEN gave a quite detailed explanation on the sources of mercury pollution, and the relative contribution of domestic and international sources, which varies from place to place (they even provided a map).
But the reason Beisner invented that red herring is that he sniffed out an attempt to strengthen regulation on emissions from coal-fired power plants. He challenged a fictitious version of EEN’s claims about sourcing, because he didn’t want to draw attention to their well-researched claims about the economic benefits from regulating mercury emissions (which predict $60-140 billion in total health benefits, or a return of $5-13 for every $1 invested in meeting the regulations).
It wouldn’t be surprising, when we look back from the future, if the costs of limiting mercury went down relative to predictions and the benefits went up. That’s been the case with other environmental regulations as well—something even those opposed to regulations at the time now admit. Since we enacted the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the economy has grown 64 percent while air pollution has gone down 41 percent, a puzzle to those who predict economic collapse in the face of strong environmental regulations.
Beisner goes on to accuse EEN of being a mouthpiece for the environmental lobby, repeating someone else’s suspect talking points about how bad mercury is for fetuses. But he ignored the peer-reviewed scientific literature the EEN documents clearly cite—again, he simply makes stuff up about EEN and its campaign to suit his own rhetorical purposes.
Beisner gives a drastically lower figure for unborn babies afflicted with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood—but he doesn’t say where he got his figures. So it turns out that Beisner committed the vice he (wrongly) accuses EEN of. EEN cited multiple studies that demonstrate not just how many infants are affected by mercury in utero but also to what degree, and (crucially) puts a dollar value on the health benefits of mercury pollution reductions.
I’m sympathetic to the problems of exaggeration and the nuances of weighing costs and benefits. I railed in the past about the irrational fears some parents have about the tiny amounts of mercury in vaccines, when the private and public health benefits from being vaccinated so far outweighs any negligible risk. Atmospheric mercury emissions are a different case—but it’s an empirical question, not an ideological question. Because Beisner is motivated chiefly by a libertarian worldview, he simply assumes that the costs of reducing mercury emissions will outweigh the direct and indirect benefits, when the best evidence shows that the reverse is actually true.
Beisner is certainly a devoted advocate. He is faithful to his ideology and political positions and tireless in their defense. There is indeed a strong case to be made for the free market and for capitalism; environmental policies for a flourishing economy would be much better if they reflected the concerns of economic conservatives. That case is not made stronger, however, by a sloppy critique that runs roughshod over facts or by deafness to reasonable counterarguments.
Beisner cites, without apparent sense of the irony, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (in reference to prophecies, the readers are told to “test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil”). Free market advocacy and creation care advocacy can be done with care, rigor, and honesty. When the lost world is watching the way we argue, it is a necessity.
A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the cofounder and president of Flourish (FlourishOnline.org), a national Christian ministry that serves Christians as they grow in environmental stewardship, healthy living, and radical discipleship.