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Politics Is the Enemy of Science

Three decades ago, John Holdren of UC Berkeley worried aloud about overpopulation. Now, the right-wing talk machine is trying to make him the next Van Jones.



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The meme went viral from there. Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin denounced Holdren as an environmental wacko. Sean Hannity went on his prime-time Fox News show and said, "We know, for example, there's John Holdren, the science and technology advisor, who has advocated compulsory abortion." Investors Business Daily published an editorial that declared, "Our new science czar, John Holdren, once backed compulsory sterilization and forced abortion as part of a government population-control program. The only thing missing was the Soylent Green recipe."

Weirdly, this subject had already come and gone during Holdren's confirmation process months earlier. Louisiana Senator David Vitter explicitly asked him about it, and Holdren definitively stated that he thought that the government should never be involved in any population-control measures. But such is the nature of mass media that suddenly, everyone rediscovered the issue and raised hell all over again. Even now, every few days a different news organ will be shocked to discover Ecoscience and publish a story brimming with outrage.

Holdren's press representative Rick Weiss refused to discuss the matter, clearly exasperated by the fact that he has to talk about it yet again. But he forwarded a recent public statement from Holdren, in which he says that this was just a theoretical discussion in an academic textbook that was published thirty freakin' years ago. In addition, Holdren's office pointed out that he and Ehrlich clearly rejected such schemes in the same textbook, citing "obvious moral objections."

In fact, most of the tone of book was fairly bloodless when discussing such ideas. And if you talk to Ehrlich today, he still thinks that overpopulation is a serious problem. While he doesn't advocate putting sterilization drugs in drinking water, he doesn't exactly reject that strategy, either. "If it were possible, safely, biologically to give everybody something ... before they had a child, that would in my view be the most ethically positive thing we can do," he said in a recent interview. "So, of course, I don't reject it with moral horror. "

Nevertheless, Ehrlich notes that his and Holdren's book ultimately rejected coercive population-control mechanisms. "Toward the end, we say the only thing we advocate is gentle government pressure, plus access to contraception," Ehrlich said. And the field of population studies has advanced tremendously since then, he notes. "John and I wouldn't write what we wrote in 1977," he said. "Things change."

If anyone interested in learning more about Holdren's views had bothered to call Ehrlich, the latter said he would gladly have offered this nuanced perspective, teasing out the truth from the hyperactive rhetoric and context-free textbook excerpts. But despite all the ink spilled on the subject — all the television and radio segments that have discussed Ecoscience and Holdren — exactly one reporter has ever tried to discuss this matter with Ehrlich. After all, all the journalists and pundits needed was a few words floating in a vacuum.

Just like with Van Jones.

The experience of Jones is relevant not just because he's from the East Bay, and his situation so perfectly parallels that of Holdren's. He matters because when the right-wing attack dogs went after Jones as a communist, the ammunition they used came from right here, the pages of the East Bay Express.

In fact, the snippet that ultimately doomed Van Jones was written by my wife, the reporter Eliza Strickland. I remember watching Eliza struggle over the profile of Jones, striving to capture the complexities of a fascinating, occasionally troubling, man. The portrait of Jones that emerged was one of a man who was charismatic, thoughtful, and passionate, but also sometimes manipulative and calculating, capable of hiding his real agenda and betraying his friends if he had to. The story tracked his slow growth from a youthful radical into a more mature and contemplative adult, the same process we all naturally undergo.

After publishing the article in 2005, Eliza watched as Jones' career suddenly went into overdrive. All at once, the national media positively fell in love with him, and with the idea of a charismatic black leader reframing environmentalism as a matter of civil rights and the empowerment of impoverished urban neighborhoods. That he can also be ruthless or political never made it into, say, Elizabeth Kolbert's profile of Jones in The New Yorker.

"It was certainly disconcerting to see him being characterized as the embodiment of all we want in society," Eliza recalled recently. "The article I wrote certainly praised his skills, but also questioned his methods. But that didn't matter, because he had become an icon. It was a little frustrating to see his character reduced to that."

But that was nothing compared to what came next. Once Jones made it into the White House, the right-wing media and blogosphere stumbled across Strickland's story. Out of a 6,100-word article, they seized on one snippet, in which Jones was briefly radicalized when the cops busted him at a Rodney King demonstration and he met some interesting radicals in jail. Suddenly, the right-wing media had a narrative: One of Obama's czars wasn't a complicated human being, but a cartoon communist.

For a brief moment, my wife's story was among the world's most famous news articles. You couldn't read The Wall Street Journal or listen to talk radio without some reference to it. "According to the East Bay Express, yadda yadda yadda." What had been a nuanced portrait of the man was now just a bullet aimed straight at his heart. One of Jones' supporters even wrote this paper, calling on the editors to repudiate the character assassination — since, after all, we were indirectly responsible for it.

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