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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Conservatism

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood interviews conservative political fundraiser turned environmental activist and author Gordon Durnil. Durnil believes there is a consensus that scientists, businessmen and politicians agree upon behind closed doors: our environment is in trouble. Durnil is now using his influence among conservatives to try to help improve environmental problems.


CURWOOD: Whether it's a question of the safety of our milk supply or the health risks from industrial chemicals, we turn to science for answers. And according to Gordon Durnil, a conservative
Republican party activist, many of the scientific debates in the area of environmental health are not serving us well. Durnil came to that belief when he was chairman of the International Joint Commission of the US and Canada, which oversees water quality issues for the Great Lakes. During his 5-year stint at the IJC, Durnil saw convincing evidence that even tiny amounts of chlorine and the persistent toxic chemicals made from it can damage the hormone systems of the children of people exposed to them. These chemicals include dioxin and pesticides. And they've been linked to such things as lowered sperm counts, weakened immune systems, and impaired intelligence. Durnil became frustrated with attempts by industry to dismiss this evidence. And under his leadership, the IJC ultimately rejected those attempts and called for the complete phase-out of the industrial use of chlorine. Gordon Durnil has recently completed a new book. It's called, The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist. And it documents the startling transformation of a pro-business conservative and the former chair of the Indiana Republican party.

DURNIL: Here in Indiana, I've raised more political funds than anyone in history, a little over $32 million. You know, obviously for the party as party chairman for 8 years, state party chairman. For Senator Dick Lugar, for Dan Quayle, Senator Coates. I've been involved in a lot of presidential campaigns here in Indiana, and a few times in some other states. So.

CURWOOD: Which presidential campaigns?

DURNIL: Well, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush.

CURWOOD: According to your book, you joined the IJC from really a pro-industry background. At what point do you feel that you became more of an environmental activist?

DURNIL: I was sitting in a variety of meetings with scientists who knew that they were there in their personal capacities, that they weren't responsible back to their employers, and that they weren't going to be quoted. In that environment, whether the scientists were from the pulp and paper industry or one of the chemical manufacturers or government or Greenpeace or Sierra Club, they would come to consensus that some of the things we're doing might affect the ability of our grandchildren, born or unborn, to perform as well as they should. And after hearing that, those people from such diverse backgrounds, it's hard not to become convinced that at least there's enough information out there that we should exercise some precautions.

CURWOOD: Big argument here is cost. That cleaning up chlorine can be expensive and disruptive to the economy. But you say that we don't have to disrupt our economy.

DURNIL: That's right. You can do it, as long as you have an orderly process. If we keep going the way we're going, at some point the fact is going to be clear about the dangers of chlorinated substances, and there's going to be some pronouncement or some law or something that chlorine is banned almost immediately. And when that happens there will be great economic and social upheaval. So that's the irresponsible way to go about it. We should get rid of the line in the sand between industry and environmentalist and so forth and start having real, active communication between all the players. And get some real science on the table.

CURWOOD: As things have turned around scientific questions, do you think that we as a society are really misusing the scientific information that we get? Do we have a flawed decision-making process here?

DURNIL: Yes. Yes. The demand for 100% certainty is certainly a flawed decision making process because I don't know of any situation where you can have 100% certainty. And the good science/bad science argument is just one of those dilatory things that people in the environmental world or the scientific world have learned to use, because scientists become very nervous when somebody says they have bad science. And they'll go back and do it all over again. But "

CURWOOD: You're saying that "

DURNIL: A lot of wasted time is spent with the good science/bad science argument. And whenever a new story is run, and the reporter gets all the information they can get from the scientific community, they then call for it or the factory infers that those people have bad science. So an equal balance part of the story is the words "bad science," which means the story has no impact.

CURWOOD: For example, the EPA recently came out with an extensive study on dioxin, which was pretty devastating if you believed it. It was attacked as bad science: oh, we don't have to worry about dioxin.

DURNIL: Of course. That's right. And dioxin's one of the things that I'm most worried about. I'm much more worried about dioxin than I am some of the other things that normally get the media attention.

CURWOOD: And so do you think that the attack on the dioxin report was misuse?

DURNIL: It was a tactical, yes, the people who got themselves placed on some of the review panels was almost totally lobbyist-controlled. So yes, that was very much a lobbyist activity.

CURWOOD: Now, your basic complaint about industry is that they really aren't acting responsibly towards the environment, and it's costing us socially. I mean, we're poisoning our children. But in the free market system, the basic notion is they should be acting for their own profit. How do you reconcile the free market with environmental protection?

DURNIL: Well, the attitude of the free market is, let's put the information out there and let people make their own decision. You know, so it's taken a long time with tobacco, with the warnings and whatever, and we're saying let's let people make their own decision. And as long as it's a voluntary risk, that works. So we're putting the information out on tobacco, we're putting information out on some things. But we're not putting information out on the most onerous of things that can affect our ability to reproduce and so forth.

CURWOOD: And it's not a voluntary situation, either. I mean, you can choose, although it's highly addictive, tobacco, but there's at least nominally some choice to use tobacco. But there's no choice if there, if an industrial firm is poisoning the air or the water. You don't know it's there.

DURNIL: Yeah. And dioxin is the best example of that. If every human in the world has a loading, then we're affecting the entire world.

CURWOOD: So should we allow the free market to create dioxin?

DURNIL: Well, I don't know any businessperson, I was with a group of business leaders last night, large business leaders. And having these discussion, because my book's attracting a lot of attention and a lot of them have read my book. They agree with a great deal of what I'm saying, and they're wondering why they don't know the information. Either I'm way off base, or the people that are advising them, that they're relying on, are giving them bad information. They're curious now; they're getting more curious, the ones that I, you know, have personal contact with, and trying to find out more information. When that happens, the problem will start resolving itself.

CURWOOD: Industry is just going to say okay, we'll sunset the chemical?

DURNIL: You know, I think the answer to that is yes. You have environmentalists who think that everyone in industry is bad and dedicated to harming children. You have people in industry who think all of the people in the environmental movements, organized environmental movements, are just trying to promote their socialist views or something. We need to get through that. I mean, it was easy enough for me to get through that when I met with both sides separately and found out that both sides, in their own bailiwick, are saying the same things. Once you get beyond that and you get the direct communication, I think we're on the say to solving the problem.

CURWOOD: Could you look in your crystal ball and tell me if you see any likely environmental leaders emerging from the Republican party?

DURNIL: Yeah; you're going to be surprised when I say this, but Newt Gingrich is one. His staff has been dealing pretty closely, again, with some of the scientists like Dr. Theo Coburn and so forth. Coming up to speed on what's now known about the endocrine disrupters. Bob Dole has read my book and had a staff member call me and tell me he appreciated having it and he's got his staff doing research on it. Senator Dick Lugar is one, has one of the best environmental records in Congress, and no one knows that. Yeah, there are, there are environmental leaders in the Republican Conservative movement in Congress.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much. Gordon Durnil authored the book The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist.

DURNIL: Thank you.



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