Crying Whale

Environmental groups sent out a worldwide call to save the gray whale from a Mexican salt plant. They got millions of dollars and thousands of new members. But scientists found no threat to the whales.

Corporations tend to be in a hurry to build or produce things, and prefer to look at short-term proofs that their plans will cause no major damage. The mindset of environmentalists, he says, is nearly the opposite, and is motivated by what is known as the "precautionary principle." This principle says that "we are pretty sure this development is bad, or we don't know for sure that it's safe, so we are going to tell you there are problems even if we don't have data and we are going to play it safe and wait as long as needed for that data."

Vitek points to the use of lead in gasoline for decades to control the pinging in engines as the classic example that shapes environmentalists' heavily precautionary nature.

"A lot of people said we know lead is bad, but Ethyl Corporation and Standard Oil said society needed lead in its gas," says Vitek. "So they went out and studied garage mechanics who worked around leaded gas every day and said, 'Look, they are fine.' But the truth was, lead's effects were cumulative and eventually profound. Now we have lead even in deep snow in the Arctic, and you could make the argument no pristine places are left because of leaded gas."

Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
courtsey of IFAW/S. Cook
Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.
Don Lewis
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.

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In this issue, four New Times writers examine the truth behind a controversial proposed salt plant near the calving lagoons of Baja and how a misguided campaign to save the whales benefited two of the world's largest environmental groups. While government and academic whale researchers struggled to raise the few hundred thousand dollars needed to investigate central problems with the grays' Arctic food supply, green groups raised and spent $15 million to fight the salt plant, even though a panel of leading whale experts found the plant would not harm the whales.

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal.

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Environmentalists argue that they have been forced to lie or mislead because they are fighting corporations that have been shown to lie and obfuscate in order to sway public opinion.

Brian Smith, West Coast media spokeman for Earthjustice and a veteran of battles to save forests in California and elsewhere, points out how the timber companies claimed the economy of the Northwest would be crippled if old-growth forests where the spotted owl lives could not be logged. But, Smith says, "Nothing of the sort has happened." In fact, a new study, "The Sky Did Not Fall," by a Eugene, Oregon, economic consulting firm, argues that the region responded to the job losses by creating a healthier and more diversified job base.

"Do environmentalists use politics to win public debates? Yes," says Smith. "Do we sometimes overstate the case? Yes. Did we invent hyperbole? Hardly. And, in a media system controlled by for-profit companies, sometimes we have to scream to be heard."

But ethicists say that justification is not only bad ethics, it's bad for society. Robert Lawry, a law professor and director of the Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University, says, "You often hear the argument that we don't know for sure if this plan will damage the environment, but the other side doesn't know, either, and if we don't take steps to stop it now, it will be too late once we find out."

That kind of argument is stronger if "you have a little bit of science on your side." But, Lawry says, "to say that industry must be brought up short because maybe in the future some problem will erupt -- that's just crazy. Think how crazy that is. How do you know when you have a particular set of conditions that make a project a bad one? If you have no factual, solid basis for your list of fears, then any set of conditions can be created and industry can be stopped from doing almost anything."

Lawry believes environmentalists can jeopardize their goodwill with the public, many of whom are on the fence when it comes to environmental battles.

"There's a vast audience out there of potential votes and citizens who want to know enough to exercise their vote properly," he says. "Any group who is playing fast and loose with the truth, if it gets out, they are not going to win that great, vast middle group. And that's whether we are talking about oil drilling in Alaska or the whales or whatever."

These issues are coming back to haunt the salt plant victors.

Some of Mexico's leading environmental reformers are severely critical that NRDC and IFAW forced their "precautionary principle" environmental views on San Ignacio before Mexico itself could flex strict new laws that protected the area against most development.

Had congressional hearings on the salt plant gone forth in Mexico City in 2000, Mexico's very tough 1995 environmental laws would have been tested for the first time. Many Mexican environmentalists have been hoping for a major, public test of the laws in order to cement them in a country not known for protecting the environment.

"They stole that chance from us, to make the right decision with our own laws," says Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, president of a Mexican marine mammals society and a member of Mexico's delegation to the International Whaling Commission. "They would not wait for answers that our process, here in Mexico, I strongly believe would have produced."

Privately, a handful of the 34 eminent scientists have expressed regret for decrying the "unacceptable risk" to gray whales in newspaper ads. But other scientists named in the ad pooh-pooh the complaints that they somehow interfered in Mexico's self-determination, or that they helped create the impression that science had proved a risk to the whales.

"Many of us who signed are not environmental scientists, and we had no data at all, and we did not have to prove it was worse for whales, because we were saying this is just a bad idea politically," says prize-winning biologist Masakazu Konishi, a professor at Cal Tech. He argues that such projects are the right of any citizen -- whether a resident of Mexico or not -- to try to stop.

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