PR trumps science

“Diseases often seem to come out of nowhere. Pathologists know better.”

Almost every industry faces environmental controversies. The green industry arguably has more than its share. According to our critics, we are creating too much noise and dust, polluting the water, poisoning our children, destroying natural habitats … the list goes on. And — horrors! — we're doing it for aesthetic reasons. That's why many activists hold disdain for what you do, not simply how you do it. So don't expect the controversies to go away anytime soon.

Environmental activism has taken on a sort of spiritual quality. It's become a religion of sorts … a Holy War. The result is, among other things, an end-justifies-the-means mentality. No sacrifice is too great for The Cause.

What's been sacrificed? Scientific truth.

Many of the controversies affecting the green industry require answers that only sound science can provide. And more often than not, science does not provide the answers that environmentalists would like to hear. In fact, environmentalists have consistently lost the scientific debate on many key issues.

But losing the scientific battle does not mean losing the war. In fact, activists seem to be winning. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, activists have done a fair job of convincing Americans that we're in an environmental/health crisis brought on by living in a toxic wasteland.

Would it surprise you to know that, by most measures, our air and water is cleaner now than 30 years ago? Or that overall cancer rates are flat or declining? In fact, we live longer now than we ever have. And most of the health problems that Americans face are self-inflicted, resulting from lack of exercise, poor diets, smoking and drug and alcohol abuse.

So how have activists been so successful? Public relations. For example, almost every time a new environmental regulation is proposed, it's “to protect our children.” It's repeated so often, you might get the impression that activists love your children more than you do. The intent, of course, is to tie their message to one of the strongest and noblest of emotions: our love for our children. This would seem to put activists' motivations above questioning, as well as disarm their opponents. Who would dare to oppose them knowing that doing so will be portrayed as not caring for children?

So what are activists cooking up now? It's a relatively new concept called the Precautionary Principle. It's the latest strategy of the environmental movement and threatens a complete end-run around science.

The Precautionary Principle has been defined this way: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” If this doesn't scare you, take a closer look.

Proponents call this a “Better safer than sorry” approach. Undoubtedly, the common-sense sound of it will make it a powerful public-relations tool. But I have a different take on it. It sounds to me more like “Regulate first, ask questions later.” It is an appeal to ignorance.

The problems this could create are enormous. With no burden of proof, it's carte blanche for regulators to do as they please. Activists already are gearing up their efforts to make the Precautionary Principle the foundation for environmental regulations in the United States. For example, groups currently are lobbying for this to be the basis of all state policy in Massachusetts. Be assured, such efforts will spread to many other parts of the United States.

Don't confuse my aversion to the tactics of environmentalists with opposition to good stewardship. On the contrary, accusations against our industry only make it more imperative that every one of us act responsibly. More than ever, we must show we care about keeping the effects of our maintenance activities where they belong: in the landscape.

But we must also be vigilant in asserting the truth about what we do. Many activists think “artificial” landscapes have no place in the world. Actually, carefully tended landscapes and golf courses are an asset both to the environment and to our quality of life. Be proud of your contribution to that.

Whether turf is part of the problem or part of the solution is a question that's been hotly debated in the context of water pollution. With Total Maximum Daily Load regulations on the horizon, this is a topic that will get only more contentious. This month's cover feature tackles this tough issue by looking at turf's contributions to non-point-source pollution, beginning on page 12.

It may sound mundane, but sprinkler zoning can have a significant impact on the problem of runoff and water pollution. The University of Arizona's Jeffrey Gilbert discusses how to put, and keep, irrigation water where it belongs in “In the zone,” on page 28.

The essence of environmental stewardship can be summed up in that admonishment we've all heard a thousand times: Don't litter! As applicators, properly disposing of a certain kind of litter — empty pesticide containers — is a key part of your job. Learn more about this in this month's “How To: Dispose of Pesticide Containers” on page 40.

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