A slight bone to pick with Freakonomics

James McWilliams cited this piece, which I wrote for Conservation Magazine, in his Freakonomics blogpost today on the NYT website. McWilliams was making the point that environmentalists often turn each environmental disaster into a cautionary parable (about some form of human folly) long before it’s clear that the disaster was caused by said folly.

“…when an environmental problem has been identified, no matter how complex the underlying ecological factors, it’s often packaged as a morality lesson highlighting the impact of a single, human-driven environmental sin.”

I totally agree. But it seems unfair to limit this critique to environmental groups. Every think tank (liberal or conservative) seems to fire off a volley of facile conclusions when something happens that touches their issues. Food and medical companies are quick to trumpet any shred of junk science supporting their products. It’s how people work: We to try to make meaning from the seemingly random events occurring around us, to make theories about how the world functions, and then look for evidence (for, and even against if we’re smart) in everything that comes up. And, it’s worth noting, it’s exactly what McWilliams did in his blog post.

In building his case that environmentalists are at the pinnacle of shrill-alarmist mountain, McWilliams notes that the environmental movement has decreed that pesticides are responsible for the global pollinator crisis, despite evidence that there are other more likely causes and – in fact – that there is no global pollinator crisis. To prove that “the environmental movement” has blamed pesticides he cites a bunch of pull quotes. These turn out to be from either: A. measured thoughtful pieces that actually leap to no conclusions, or in his strongest case B. a random post on a lefty forum. There’s nothing from the NRDC, or the Sierra Club, or any of the main organs of the actual movement. (Even PAN only raises the possibility of a causal relationship between bee death and pesticides cautiously.)

In fact, I’ve found that environmentalists tend to be more well informed, and more self policing than most. In my story, the scientists offering evidence that there really was no global pollinator crisis were self-proclaimed environmentalists. From my story – Jaboury Ghazoul was the bona fide treehugger who first questioned the reality of the crisis:

Ghazoul’s purpose was not to defend big agriculture but to protect the credibility of conservationists. Big-picture claims should be evaluated using big-picture data, he wrote, “lest we overplay our hand in demanding conservation action for the wrong reasons.”

So McWilliams is using the research generated by the cautious, self-policing impulse among environmentalists to  prove his point that environmentalists are not cautious or self-policing enough. I actually really like McWilliams’ work generally. He provides a reality check against conventional wisdom. But dude, if you are going to criticize people for making claims before checking their fact, it would be prudent to check your facts before making that particular claim.

Incidentally these scientists – Ghazoul, Aizen, Harder – are all deeply worried about the pollinator shortage in the U.S., and warned that industrial agriculture in the developing world was likely to cause similar problems:

The fact that yields have increased despite the disparity between bees and flowers could indicate that wild pollinators are supporting farmers. But Aizen and Harder warn that, as more land is devoted to luxury crops and as small, diverse fields are converted to vast, high-tech monocultures, farmers could wipe out native bees—effectively knocking down the prop holding them up. Furthermore, if farmers in Africa turn to the likes of Eric Olson to ship in domestic honeybees, it could compound the problem. “Don’t forget,” Harder told me, “honeybees are an invasive species in most places.” They don’t always contribute to the relationships that have evolved between local species over the eons. They take pollen from native plants but often don’t fertilize them as well as the local bees. This means fewer seeds, fewer native flowers, and fewer wild pollinators.

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