Can you tell the difference between eco fact and eco fiction? With the green movement growing in momentum, we frequently come across any number of statements repeatedly presented as conventional eco-wisdom, statements we often do not question. Sometimes there is a ring of intuitive truth to these statements, which turns out to be false upon further examination. Other times, after a public debate, one aspect of an issue wins out over other equally important aspects--or the nuance gets lost. Then there is the guerrilla marketing approach: a particular industry simply puts out a message with such frequency that eventually it becomes accepted, regardless of truth.
Whatever the cause, some of these statements are powerful enough to rise to the level of green myths, and the line between fact and fiction gets blurred. These five in particular are causing tremendous global harm, but there are many more out there. We encourage readers to add to this list in the comments.
Green Myth #1: Genetically Modified Crops Have Higher Crop Yields and Help Reduce Poverty
While Prince Charles' statement that expanding the use of genetically modified crops will be the "biggest environmental disaster of all time" does have a touch of hyperbole in it, nonetheless the benefits of genetically modified crops have been exaggerated, to say the least. In terms of having higher crop yields, and reducing hunger or poverty the evidence simply doesn't support the claimed benefits of GM crops.
In terms of food crops the following statement from a 2008 Friends of the Earth report, Who Benefits From GM Crops [PDF], sums it up well:
"The majority of GM crops are not destined for hungry people in developing countries, but are used to feed animals, generate biofuels, and produce highly processed food products—-mainly for consumption in rich countries. GM crops have not increased food security for the world's poor. None of the GM crops on the market are modified for increased yield potential and research continues to focus on new pesticide-promoting varieties that tolerate application of one or more herbicides."
Citing Monsanto's Roundup Ready soya as an example--a good one considering it's the most widely planted GM crop in the world--FOE points out on average it has "5-10% lower yields than conventional soya, as well as reduced uptake of essential nutrients." (Friends of the Earth [PDF] )
In short, hunger and poverty have much more do with lack of access to land, water shortages, lack of access to credit and education, and poor infrastructure (some of which are exacerbated by industrial agriculture) than it does with the poor quality of conventional crops. GM crops may benefit the companies who make them, but that's about it.
Even if you take carbon emissions out of the equation, other pollution (such as acid rain) and mercury remains an issue with coal. photo: Keli
Green Myth #2: Clean Coal Technology Will Solve the Coal Pollution Problem
This is an instance of one issue taking center stage while arguably more important ones are forced to wait in the wings. The potentially devastating effects of climate change are undoubtedly a huge issue, and radically reducing carbon dioxide emissions is a key factor in mitigating those effects. Therefore it's no surprise that when people talk about 'clean coal technologies' they are talking primarily about ways to reduce carbon emissions and permanently store the CO2 which is released. But even if this was possible, there are other pollution and environmental problems with burning coal which have a much more immediate effect on the environment.
Even if all greenhouse gases could be sequestered from burning coal (a big if...) mercury, sulfer dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide emissions would still be a huge environmental problem. After a coal mine closes, an area is just as likely to feel the loss of financial capital as the effects of pollution, water poisoning, and habitat destruction years after the fact.
And then there is, as fellow TreeHugger John Laumer has pointed out in several posts, the problem with fly ash. Here's just part of the problem:
"Historically, coal combustion wastes rarely exhibit the characteristics of hazardous waste. However, if coal burning utilities and the so-called "clean coal plants" were required to meet air emissions standards protective of human health, fly ash produced by them could be regulated as hazardous waste due to the elevated levels of mercury that would result. We might suppose that any fly ash with hazardous characteristics due to heavy metal content would have to be sent to special and expensive waste fills or be treated at great cost."
No matter how you frame the discussion with coal, from an environmental perspective, nothing good comes from it. Even as the longer term climate change problems with burning coal are increasingly being recognized by the public at large, the more immediate environmental problems of coal are still significant.