Straight Dope on "Our Stolen Future" Needed

I’m reading this book and it’s scaring me badly. It’s Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, John Peterson Myers, and Dianne Dumanoski. Halfway through it and I’ve been overcome by a constant feeling of decay and destruction.

The thesis of the book is that the world is flooded with man-made chemicals, most of them less than a hundred years old, which disrupt the delicate balance of hormones of most organisms. Humans in particular.

What’s especially frightening about this is that, unlike previous environmental scares I’ve heard of, there is no escape. Researchers, according to this book, have found enormous concentrations of toxic chemicals in the bodies of animals living about as far from civilization as it’s possible to live. In other words, there is no pristine wilderness anywhere on Earth.

One thing the book says, too, is that perhaps the lowered birthrate of industrialized countries – which I’ve long thought, like Bucky Fuller, is a result of a higher standard of living – might actually be because of a higher concentration of these hormone disruptors, which are affecting our fertility as a species.

So I’m scared and I don’t usually frighten easily. But here’s the thing: The book claims it’s something of a follow-up to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. And Cecil already pointed out that Silent Spring was somewhat overblown and alarmist.

Also, the introduction to the book is by Al Gore. So you can imagine I’m uncertain as to how seriously I should take this book.

But I’m lacking in knowledge in this area. I can read scientific and medical papers, somewhat, and I know enough biochemistry to know that what they say in this book is plausible. And, hey, I’m suffering from a hormonal disorder myself, so I can believe in a visceral way that humankind has seriously screwed itself. But I’m ignorant of a lot of details.

What I’d like to see, then, is word from someone who knows about these things, who also read Our Stolen Future, who can speak on the topic with more authority than I can. Should I be scared? Are my visions of doom justified?

I mean, bad enough I can’t sleep because I’m waiting for another September 11th, and if not that I’m expecting nuclear war at any time, and if not that my wife’s watching “America’s Next Top Model” and making me think we deserve to be destroyed in favor of the cockroach civilization. Do I have to worry about hormone disruptors, too?

– Chris.

Read the chapter on this subject in The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. A lot of people hate him; but, even his critics have admitted to the accuracy of his facts.

There’s a few points here that are Debatable.

1/ Lower birth rates in industrialised countries are probably more to do with lower rates of infant mortaility and lesser need for manual labour. People are having less children because they don’t need them so much. Conseqently a larger family is a drain on income rather than an asset.

2/ The further we go, the more we find things to worry about.

Consider asteroids. Were people worrying about collisions from rocks from space 30 years ago? No. Despite them being just as likely as they are today, people were more concerned about nuclear war. Yet as soon as we have sufficient technology to scan the skys suddenly it becomes a concern.

Were people in the ‘pristine wilderness’ 500 years ago worried about toxics? No, despite the fact they sat around fires every evening burning who knows what cancerogenics, they were more concerned about living through the next winter. Yet as soon as we can measure toxic levels to tiny degrees suddenly it becomes a concern.

Or even carcinogenics. :rolleyes:

It’s sounds like you are the exact target audience that the author is shooting at – the kind of person that scares very easily.

I was going to add a few other comments, but since I haven’t actually read the book, I’ll refrain from doing so.

Instead, I’ll just point out that the human race has the ability to overcome almost any problem. When any problem becomes big enough, we address it. While it’s a minor problem, we ignore it.

First of all, I don’t scare easily, nor am I especially credulous. I like to think I’m a very skeptical person. I do read the Straight Dope, after all, and have seen enough things debunked, marked down, and disproved to have a good handle on myself and my reactions.

Even so, this book scares me. Not the same way that September 11th did. Just in a “what did we get ourselves into now?” sort of way.

I generally feel the way you do about humans and problem solving. I went to an engineering school. I’m a computer programmer. My whole life is solving problems. So I know where you’re coming from.

I also understand the Asteroid Theory – we only worry about whatever we notice. That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? But it is true.

The difference is, though, that we don’t have a lot of control over asteroids. But as a species, we do have some control over what we create and let loose. Also – and I shouldn’t need to point this out – humans sitting around a fire in the woods didn’t worry about carcinogens in the smoke because they all died of something else, usually young, usually not very quickly, and usually unpleasantly. I, for one, am glad we started worrying about things like tetanus, polio, and being eaten by mountain lions.

The trouble with this problem, the one with the hormone-disrupting chemicals, is a. it’s potentially huge and affects just about every living thing on Earth and b. it could work fast enough that we can’t solve it in time. It’s not going to kill everything in a year or anything. But we could be looking at a relatively short period of dwindling, and then 65 million years from now highly evolved sentient roaches looking at the fossil record and wondering what wiped out the Thinking Apes.

On the other hand, maybe we will work it out. I can imagine bacteria which eat PCBs, and I just bet someone somewhere is working on just that.

I may just check out that skeptical environmentalist thing, though.

– Chris.

It’s also only part of the story. We are perfectly willing to worry about shit we just plain made up and that isn’t true. You might call it the Satanic Child Abuse Cult Theory, the echoes of which are still sounding around us after the hysterical peak of a few years ago.

Not saying the book is a fabrication or an exaggeration; I have no direct knowledge of it. But I do know something about human psychology, which puts things like that into some context.

Ah, but I’ve read my Robert Anton Wilson, and am not as susceptible to such things as many.

We have been able to “scan the skies” rather effectively for over 400 years. The great concern over asteroid impacts has only been around for just over a decade.

Thirty years ago, there were still a number of theories as to what could have caused the extinction of the dinosuars. It was the discovery of a buried asteroid crater in the Yucutan peninsula that convinced the bulk of the scientific community that indeed it was an asteroid collision that brought about enough of a change in climate for long enough to destroy the bulk of the species then living on earth. There has even been some noise more recently of another buried crater that coincides with the much more devastating Pre-Cambrian extinction, raising the possibility that it could happen again any old time.

500 years ago they didn’t have synthetic polymers that contain estrogen-mimicking agents, which have been shown to alter reproductive health in a number of species, and no one has ruled out that a similar effect could take place in humans.

Alarmism is one negative extreme, willful complacent denial is another

Many scientists are highly skeptical of Lomborg. Saying that they “have admitted to the accuracy of his facts” is extremely disingenuous.

From CSICOP/Skeptical Inquirer:

In reply to the OP, I would say that there is certainly cause for concern regarding the increased presence of hormones and hormone-like substances in the environment. There are good reasons to think they may be having a serious effect. However, from your account of “Our Stolen Future,” (I have not read it myself), it sounds to me that it may be overstating the case, at least on the basis of present knowledge.

This report appears to me (I have just skimmed it so far) to present a more balanced view than either the alarmism of “Our Stolen Future” or Lomborg’s pollyanna-ism.

It is only recently that we have been able to spot a tiny rock in a vast expanse of space and plot a possible collision course with Earth before it gets here. Previously all these rocks sailed by us with us blithely unaware. Many still do.

500 years ago we had plenty of things we could have worry about, had we known at the time. And 100 years from now we’re bound to have another thing to worry about that we are happily unaware of currently.

I’m certainly not saying the concerns are unfounded. But my point is that it’s often played up that all these terrible things are rapidly coming to a head. When many of these dangers, or others like them, have always been there and all that’s happening is we’re becoming more aware of them.

Actually, that article could be a summary of Our Stolen Future (as far as I’ve read it, which is about halfway). Our Stolen Future does bring up opposing views and it argues against them much the same as that article. The book itself is not exactly alarmist: The authors state that what’s going on is a huge experiment, and we don’t know what will happen.

I’m alarmed, but the book is not alarmist. The book is fairly balanced, although the authors are clearly angry at the corporations which release these man-made chemicals (they state there are over 100,000 currently on the market, whatever that may mean) and the fact that there’s approximately zero oversight of this. They also note that testing all of these as assiduously as one might like is pretty much impossible. They’re also pretty solid on the positive sides of these chemicals (which got lost in the DDT debate). Although one might question how much we need, for example, artificial fragrances.

So I’m still alarmed. That article didn’t help.

– Chris.

I also haven’t read the book, but if the authors are genuinely claiming this -

then they are neither balanced nor accurate.

To say that there is “zero oversight” of corporations releasing chemicals into the environment is an overstatement of the case, to say the least.

Do a quick Google on “Alar”, read, and learn.

Alarmism is an overreaction, but it sells books like hotcakes. And nobody ever got a fat government grant, or was hired as a consultant by a law firm in a class action suit, because they published a book saying, “This is probably not much of an issue, so don’t worry”.


I said the book claimed there was approximately zero oversight. We’re not talking entirely pesticides and fungicides, anyway, for which there is some oversight. We’re talking about things like electrical insulation, for which the only oversight is generally a. will this harm people in the factories where it’s manufactured and b. will this in fact do what it claims to do (in the case of, for example, electrical insulation, does it insulate)? Who’s checking to make sure that, once this insulation has done its job, it doesn’t degrade into a chemical with estrogenic effects which will decrease the herring gull population?

Consider motor oil. Contaminated motor oil runs off of parking lots during every rain. Under whose oversight is that? I’m sure there’s some vague American government regulation to make sure the oil as manufactured doesn’t contain anything wildly toxic or radioactive, and I’m sure anyone wanting to put in a parking lot has to file some statement of enviornmental impact or something similar, but I’m pretty sure that’s about it. And then what agency oversees you when you wash your own driveway?

Hell. I personally know of two people paying to illegally keep their cars from having catalytic converters in them. And they’re not, say, Monsanto, they’re just guys from the Bronx who want to drive fast cars.

This whole discussion proves my point about wanting the Straight Dope on this topic. If I wanted someone to tell me “Oh, there’s always something new to worry about, forget it,” I’d talk to my mom, who, while a wonderful womain in many ways, is not the person you want setting your political agenda. And if I wanted someone to tell me the sky is falling, well, I’d join a cult or something.

No. What I want are some facts from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Hence, the Straight Dope.

– Chris.

Here’s a satirical look at the book:

I think that’s a pretty fair statement of the situation. My own knowledge of this is based on my reading peer-reviewed articles in professional scientific journals, rather than the media, and I would say there is cause for very serious concern. Certainly more research is necessary.

That “Junk Science” site, ironically enough, purports to debunk what it considers to be junk science while promulgating junk science of its own, much like Lomborg does.

That’s pretty funny. I’d almost go along with the satire, but this passage made me sad:

Having read three of William Greider’s books by now, I know the American government is run based on “real science” churned out by public relations firms, all of which is commissioned and paid for by the highest bidder.

Balancing costs and benefits – that’s a hilarious notion, especially when it involves putting a price tag on human life.

Are you seriously saying that no expense should be spared to save human life?

I assumed that crywalt was referring all human life, rather than a single human.

But, if he was talking about a single life, what price would gazpacho put on one?