Remembering the Deep Heart of Dixy

THE things I remember most about Dixy Lee Ray are her brace of very large poodles and her tape recorder.

When I went to interview Ms. Ray at the Washington State capital back in the 1970s, her dogs had full run of the governor's offices she then occupied. They weren't exactly intimidating, but their presence made a point. And when I placed my reporter's tape recorder on her desk to make sure the quotes would be accurate, the governor politely but very firmly slapped down her own recorder as well.

Ray, who died last week, had little use for the press. She raised pigs at her rural home on Fox Island, naming the piglets (destined to become bacon) after her least-favorite reporters.

As a PhD and Phi Beta Kappa zoologist, the former University of Washington professor and Atomic Energy Commission chairman especially rankled at those who prophesied environmental doom based on what she felt was bad science.

In recent years, she published two books - ``Trashing the Planet'' and ``Environmental Overkill'' - in which she debunked just about every major environmental concern. Global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, pesticides, hazardous waste, nuclear power - she confronted them all and concluded either there wasn't a major problem or if there was, technology could handle it. As for nature itself, this lover of critters (whether they were at her feet or on her specimen slide) said ``a well-tended garden is better than a neglected woodlot.''

Environmentalists ground their teeth over her assertions, some of which indeed were based on shaky science. But Ray helped prompt a new wave in environmental thinking that is serving a useful purpose.

There are several elements to this ``ecorevisionism.'' Individual scientists and research organizations are starting to catch up to environmentalists and their scientific experts in terms of the contest for public opinion. They have been particularly effective on potential global problems that by their nature could take decades or even centuries to fully manifest themselves.

At the same time, the economic impact of environmental spending and regulation raises important questions about costs and benefits. These range from jobs lost to save a species that for many seems insignificant to billions spent with little result to clean up superfund toxic-waste sites.

Meanwhile, the press has been stung by criticisms that it too readily accepts the assertions of environmentalists. ``Even in countries where environmental reporting is most advanced, media coverage is often typified by superficiality and shock-horror stories of little depth,'' writes Claes Sjoberg, editor-in-chief of Tomorrow, an international environmental-business magazine published in Sweden.

In recent months, stories and series have appeared in major national publications running counter to generally accepted thinking on environmental problems like climate change. This can be seen as a welcome balance to earlier trends. Or as critics of such reporting charge, it may be a matter of too much ink and air time being given to a decidedly minority scientific view tainted by ideology.

In either case, it has set off considerable soul-searching and debate in the press while providing much grist for powerful media conservatives like Rush Limbaugh.

But there's another important element here. Concern for the environment and the movement that arose are very recent in historical terms. Rachel Carson's ``Silent Spring'' and then the first Earth Day in 1970 got it rolling. Serious environmental journalism is even younger. Just as the public is figuring out how to approach these issues, so too are scientists and the media.

The fact that there now is widespread environmental concern is indisputably a good thing. The scientific basis for that concern in many cases is legitimately arguable.

``In science, it is proven practice that new research be subjected to ruthless criticism and scrutiny,'' editor Sjoberg rightly observes. ``Environmentalism can only gain if those working on the issues are helped in making their choices.''

The last time I saw Dixy Lee Ray was at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, where she had gone to make sure her contrarian point of view was available to officials and the press. Provocative and interesting as usual.

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