Science Book a Day Interviews Julian Cribb + Review by Ian Lowe


Special thanks to Julian Cribb for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Poisoned Planet: How constant exposure to man-made chemicals is putting your life at risk

Julian Cribb is an author, journalist, editor and science communicator. He is principal of Julian Cribb & Associates who provide specialist consultancy in the communication of science, agriculture, food, mining, energy and the environment. His career includes appointments as newspaper editor, scientific editor for The Australian newspaper, director of national awareness for CSIRO, member of numerous scientific boards and advisory panels, and president of national professional bodies for agricultural journalism and science communication. – From The Drum

#1 – What was the impetus for Poisoned Planet?

Having worked for almost ten years with some of Australia’s leading contamination scientists, attended their conferences and read their papers, I became increasingly concerned at the sheer scale of the impact of all human chemical emissions on the biosphere. Also by the fact that this did not appear to be documented anywhere at a global scale, though there have been several good American books with a local focus published on it. As a science writer, I wanted to find out the truth as it applies to the whole world and all of humanity, so I began to check out the scientific literature.

I admit, I was shocked by what it revealed: that our chemical emissions impact is four times larger (in volume) than our climate impact. There are 143,000 registered chemicals, with 1000 new ones released every year, mostly untested for human safety. That toxic man-made chemicals are to be found from pole to pole, from the remotest atoll to the deep ocean, to the peak of Everest, to your blood and the genes of your children. That there are unexplained pandemics of disease increasingly attributed by science to chemical exposure. That this has all happened very fast – in the span of barely a single human lifetime or less. And that the world chemical industry is rapidly migrating to Asia where it is virtually unregulated and nothing can stop it polluting the whole planet…. nothing except us.

#2 – Your book talks about the dangers we face from man-made chemicals. Is your book a warning call? Or can it tell us how we can get ourselves out of danger?

In the view of several eminent scientists we are currently poisoning an entire generation of children. If that is not a matter for global concern, then I don’t know what is. And yes, absolutely yes, there is a way we can resolve this and make our children and our planet safe again. I deal with that in the two concluding chapters.

#3 – Why have we been so complacent about the toxins that surround us?

Rachel Carson warned us about it, in connection with pesticides especially, over 50 years ago. Since then we have increased our use of pesticides 30-fold, trading new, more potent substances like the neonics for ones that have proved risky or persistent, like DDT. The main reason is that it is very profitable to use chemicals – in food or anywhere else – and to externalise the ultimate costs, which are borne by millions of individuals, and by the welfare and health care systems. Also because chemistry has traded on its complexity to avoid public scrutiny and stigmatises its critics with disparaging terms like ‘chemophobe’. (Actually, a person who doesn’t to some extent fear something that can kill or maim them is probably in breach of Mr Darwin’s law.)

The other reason is that very few people have even a slight inkling of the massive expansion in human chemical release – intended and unintended – over the past 25 years. The real problem is that none of us acknowledge to ourselves that when we consume, we release chemicals – via the production process, transport, waste disposal etc. And these are now spreading worldwide in air, water, soil, food, wildlife, trade, in people and in their genes. And it isn’t just single chemicals but the huge toxic combinations of thousands of substances they are now forming. These substances and combinations are increasingly implicated in a growing number of health problems which were either low or else absent only a few decades ago. Don’t take my word for this, please. Read what the science is saying.

An important message in the  book is that we ought not to blame the chemical industry or regulators. It is we, the consumers of Earth, who have driven this thing with our endless demand for instant, cheap, convenient products, without regard to the consequences. If the problem is to be alleviated, then we need to take full responsibility for our actions and set about correcting them.

#4 –  With all the dangers in our environment, what is one simple thing we can do?

The answer here is science communication. Make the world community aware what the science says about the spread of toxicity in our world, encourage people to seek out products or activities that are clean, safe, healthy and sustainable (based on science, not ideology) – and they in turn will send the economic incentives to industry and the political commands to government to clean up the world. Don’t just gasp and say “Oh, that’s a big job!” – get out there and do it. Tens of thousands, millions maybe, of concerned consumers, parents, farmers, victims and environmentalists are already doing it, mainly via social media – our profession is behind them and needs to catch up. Fast.

Above all, just because we work with scientists such as chemists, we should not fall into the trap of becoming an unquestioning cheer squad for science. If the science is bad – and has been shown as such by newer, better science – then it is our job to let the public know about this, as well as all the good things science delivers. It is the task of the science communicator to communicate truthfully and objectively, not just enthusiastically. If we don’t, we are guilty of propaganda.

Oh, and one other thing. In my research it became totally clear that chemistry is driven by men, who are born risk-takers. Ditto greenhouse pollution. Whereas many of the organisations seeking to reduce toxicity or climate change are led by women. So put the girls in charge of society (as well as chemistry) and we’ll will all have a much cleaner, safer, healthier and less warlike world. See:

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

Yes. I am exploring the question of whether Homo sapiens sapiens should be reclassified, as the name is no longer scientifically accurate. In essence a discussion of humanity’s prospects of long-term survival in the C21st and beyond – and what is necessary to achieve it. Cleaning up the planet, developing a new global diet, reversing the 6th extinction, disarmament and restoring climate equilibrium would all be good starts. I am collecting useful new thinking around all of these.

Julian has kindly provided an unpublished review by Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring blew the whistle on the problem of chemical pollution, raising the spectre of bird life being decimated by the compounds being carelessly released into our environment. Some significant actions resulted, like restricting the previously profligate use of pesticides like DDT. But since then the human population has doubled and the production of chemicals has increased even more. Now Richard Heinberg has said “We need a Silent Spring for the twenty-first century, and Julian Cribb has given us one”. I cannot think of a more concise summary of the significance of this book.

Change at any level requires four things. First there has to be discontent or concern, without which there is no motivation for change. Then there needs to be a vision of a better way; unless we have such a vision, change could well make things worse rather than better. Thirdly, there needs to be a viable path to get from where we are to where we want to be. Finally, there has to be a commitment to pursue that path. Just as the road to Hell is proverbially paved with good intentions, the road to serious environmental degradation is often paved with well-intentioned policies that are not implemented, or potentially effective laws that are not enforced.

There are literally thousands of books that aim to make us aware of environmental problems and generate the discontent that could motivate change. Some manage to sketch out a vision of a cleaner world in which our needs would be met at less cost to the natural systems of the planet. Very few describe a viable path to a better future. That is the critical issue. It is the only way to generate a commitment to bring about change on the scale needed to produce a sustainable future.

Julian Cribb’s book is a model of science communication, as we would expect from a distinguished science communicator with decades of experience. More importantly, it is also a passionate advocacy of a better way, with a credible plan for achieving fundamental change.

The scale of the problem is truly daunting. More than 140,000 chemicals are now produced and about 1000 new ones roll off the production line each year. Wherever you live, you cannot escape the pollution of the air, the water and the food chain. These chemicals are estimated to kill several million people every year, putting them in the top ten causes of human deaths, with millions more suffering various degrees of ill-health. While it is now possible to link a whole series of widespread ailments to the chemical pollution we all suffer, the new products being released are mostly untested for their impacts on human health or the natural environment.

As the old saying goes, if you are not outraged, you have not been paying attention. Cribb’s book provides so much disturbing information that it probably should come with a government health warning! But it is not a litany of disaster and an invitation for despair. Cribb is an optimist about the possibility of “thinking as a species” – the capacity that the internet has given us for the first time to transcend time and distance to form global communities of interest and drive change.

His critical conclusion is that “chemical contamination is an issue that can be overcome at the species level”, reinforced by a ten-step strategy for effecting change. So this book genuinely is “a Silent Spring for the twenty-first century” – a call to arms with a credible and practical strategy for cleaning up the world. More importantly, it recognises that most decision-makers are either scientifically illiterate or totally compromised by their ideological commitment to uncritical support of the corporate sector. So there is little hope of salvation from our politicians. The book provides the community with the tools to circumvent their governments and take effective action. It deserves to be widely read – not just by environmental activists, but by anyone who cares about their health and the wellbeing of their children.

Ian Lowe is emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University. He has just completed ten years as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.