The Green BS-ometer Checklist: 5 red flags to watch for

My latest Green Chain column for the Lake County Record-Bee:

Do you think that what commercials want to sell you and people promoting a “green” lifestyle are miles apart? They are not as far apart as you might think.

Commercials sell a fantasy world; the message is usually: “If you buy this, you will be sexually desirable.” Commercials come from advertisers whose job it is tell you a story to suspend your disbelief and imagine that you could be cool.

There are also messages targeted by those in the green community: “If you do [this], you will be green” or, more frequently, “People who do [this] are not green—stop them before they do more harm!”

“Slogans and sound bites masquerade as scientific fact,” is what Tom Knudsen wrote in a 2001 Sacramento Bee Special Report titled “Environment, Inc.” Inoculating yourself against bogus bromides requires that you be aware and learn the facts.

A green lifestyle means that you support the wise and sustainable use of our earth’s resources. So, frugality is the ultimate goal and wasting anything–land, wood, paper, minerals, time, energy–is not, by definition, “green.” If you want to “live simply, so that others can simply live,” do not waste your time or treasure on quack products.

Here is a list of some red flags for you to watch for:

1. Claims couched in scientific gibberish

Quacks and charlatans have long used highfalutin gibberish to make a useless product sound legitimate. The Iraqi government bought, to the tune of $40,000 each, 150 “ADE-651” bomb detection devices. Each ADE-651 consisted of a telescoping antenna that swiveled on a palm-sized plastic box with a plastic RFID chip inside. The manufacturer claimed it used “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction” to locate bombs. These worthless pieces of plastic and metal do not do anything and so have meant hundred of deaths and injuries due to bombs going through checkpoints undetected.

2. The product sounds scientific

During the 1940s, Dr. William Koch, a Detroit physician and homeopathic practitioner, claimed that he had synthesized a substance he called glyoxylide. Glyoxylide was an antidote to the “toxins,” that caused ailments including diabetes and cancer. This miracle drug worked even at the minute level of one part per trillion. Glyoxylide was merely distilled water.

3. The product claims to rid the body of toxins

Ridding our bodies of toxic substances are the jobs of our livers and kidneys, and if they are healthy, they do just fine. We send most bad things into a toilet. And, no, it is not possible not to put toxic substances in your body. As examples: honey contains benzyl acetate; chocolate contains an alkaloid, theobromine; brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, collard greens, and horseradishes contain allyl isothiocyanate; and neochlorogenic acid lurks in apples, apricots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cherries, coffee, kale, peaches, and pears. These are but a few examples; the list includes all food. (Ames, 1990)

Everything has a toxic dose and everything has a non-toxic dose. Let me repeat that last statement because it is critical to our understanding the world. EVERYTHING we come in contact with can be toxic and harm us, including water and oxygen. Paracelsus, the father of modern toxicology, put it this way: “Sola dosis facit venenum (only the dose makes the poison).”

4. Anecdotes and testimonials alone support the claims

Stories have power. We believe stories. That is why commercials work. Vice-President Dan Quayle supposedly said, “We should develop anti-satellite weapons because we could not have prevailed [against the Soviet Union] without them in ‘Red Storm Rising’.” While a number of my friends, rightfully, knock Quayle here for his naïveté, they see no irony to reference Huxley’s “Brave New World” when explaining their worries over genetic engineering.

Stories alone without numbers to back them up are misleading. The next time you see a diet commercial, check the small print below the celebrity spokesperson: “Results not typical.”

5. Attacks and name calling

When a group or product attacks critics as being in the employ of Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Oil, or Big Bogeyman, you should wonder about the people making the accusations. Name-calling is a way of ducking an issue and muddying the message without addressing the facts. The meme that big industries are evil is just too trite. You know, the world is not as simple as that.

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These are but a few of the red flags to watch for. Your time, money, or talent should not be wasted. After all, being wasteful is not green.