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Fuzzy Math that Matters: The Right Wing Campaign against the Environment

By David Lytel

Watch how they do this: First a conservative flack comes out with a report filled with erroneous numbers. The major news media mostly ignore an attempt by credible people to set the record straight. Then the Republican leadership climbs aboard the rickety platform, using it as the foundation for public policy proposals that are unfounded, ill-considered and unwise.

And what do you get out of this dissembling and dishonesty? You get the very high potential for environmental disaster in one of America’s greatest natural treasures, the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, which at its peak production could only produce enough energy to meet the U.S. demand for energy for a matter of weeks.

Woah, did that go by too fast? OK, again, slower…

First Mark Mills in the Digital Power Report comes up with the provocative but erroneous statement that the Internet consumes 8% of U.S. energy. He gets his few minutes of fame, and almost no major news media report the analysis of his data by real scientists. The Department of Energy and the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions point out the fundamental errors of his analysis and the scientists then turn their attention back to making an honest living.

But right wing intellectuals like George Gilder pick up the phony numbers and repeat them in places like the Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal, always in need of new material in its campaign on behalf of business interests, is happy to oblige. This requires, however, that they ignore actual observable reality that shows that the commerical growth of the Internet has brought tremendous economic efficiencies that more than offset its demand for electricity.

In the last several years with a booming economy and low energy prices demand for electricity has remained flat. Why? Remarkable statistics published this fall by the Energy Department suggests a giant shift in the U.S. energy economy is already underway. The amount of energy consumed for every dollar of economic output fell 4 percent in 1997, and another 4 percent in 1998 and continues to decline, thanks to the new economy’s dynamic growth. Fundamentally, information subsitutes for energy, allowing lower inventories, less manufacturing of stuff people don't want and a host of other efficiencies.

But let not the truth intrude when there is campaigning to be done. To put this disinformation to good use, George W. Bush cites the erroneous figures to justify drilling for oil in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, as he did in a news story on National Public Radio two weeks ago. And for good measure he makes oil drilling in paradise into an urgent national priority.

You almost have to congratulate the Republican extremists for their mastery of the new rules of public opinion. There is little money to be made setting the record straight, so the commercial news media just lets all that stuff get past them. The only public accounting of how such stupidity can become public policy gets done after an environmental disaster has occurred, long after the presidential election but following it as a very direct consequence.