Carbon-Free Sugar, Science-Free Environmentalism

by Robert Tracinski  10 September 2012

I was at the grocery store the other day when I noticed that Domino is now advertising its five-pound bags of sugar as “certified carbon-free.”

This is the sort of thing that requires photographic evidence, so here it is.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a chemistry class, but at least I have been in a chemistry class once, so I knew there was something deeply wrong with this advertisement. I pulled out my smartphone and refreshed my memory on the chemical formula for sugar: C6H12O6. In case it’s been even longer since you’ve been in a chemistry class, the “C” stands for “carbon.” So carbon is one of the basic natural atomic components of sugar, which is no more “carbon-free” than a charcoal briquette.

I know that what they mean by “carbon-free” is that the sugar was produced in a way that does not create industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and therefore—according to the claims of environmentalists—does not contribute to man-made global warming. At least, they claim that their operation is “carbon neutral,” which means that they probably do emit carbon dioxide but they buy some kind of dubious “offset” to “greenwash” their operation.

But what struck me is that no one on the staff of a company that makes sugar was aware that it contains carbon, or at least no one thought that any member of the public would be aware of it. No one thought that they might be setting themselves up for ridicule by trying to sell us “carbon-free” C6H12O6. And that is symptomatic of how environmental dogmas are sold to the public.

For all of their bluster about how environmentalists have science on their side, they frequently appeal to a total ignorance of science in the minds of their audience.

In this case, the “carbon-free” pitch is part of a larger shift I’ve seen over the past ten years. Somewhere along the line, some PR flack for the global warmists figured out that to the scientifically ignorant, “carbon” sounds scary. It sounds dirty, it sounds toxic, it sounds unsafe. So the environmentalists all stopped referring to “carbon dioxide” and just started saying “carbon.” That’s how we get the terms “carbon footprint,” “carbon-free,” “carbon neutral.” I even remember seeing the New York Times refer to carbon dioxide as emissions of “carbon gas.” Run for your lives, everyone, it’s carbon gas!

“Carbon-free” is a turn of phrase that is closely related to “chemical-free.” Of course, what people mean when they say this is that something is free of “artificial” chemicals, though the distinction can be a bit, well, artificial. But the way the phrase is used will often give pain to the scientifically literate. Take the sign I recently saw at a cleaner around the corner from my kids’ school. They advertise the fact that their “pure organic cleaning” will use only “chemical-free H2O.” Again, this requires photographic evidence, so here it is.

If they had said “chemical-free water,” it wouldn’t have been so bad (except for the fact that they want to charge me to clean my clothes without using soap). But they had to proclaim their water to be “chemical-free” while using the chemical symbol for water.

Then there is the fact that all of this is supposed to be “organic.” In scientific terms, there are several meanings for the word “organic.” Two of them are the most relevant here. In biology, it means: pertaining to or containing living beings. As one of my Facebook friends quipped, “When water is ‘organic,’ it’s time to boil it before drinking.”

In chemistry, “organic” means: pertaining to chemical compounds that contain carbon. Note that in neither of these meanings is H2O “organic.” But there’s a bigger irony. We’re all supposed to be instilled with such an unnatural fear of carbon that we have to proclaim our sugar to be “carbon-free”—yet the same people tell us that the best kind of food is “organic,” a word that means “carbon-containing.”

This fast-and-loose borrowing of scientific terms has real consequences. Consider a recent study which looked at the health effects of “organic” foods versus food grown in the usual manner. It found, unsurprisingly, that “organic” foods are no more or less organic than any other kind of food. They are chemically and nutritionally indistinguishable. “Organic,” in this case, has long since ceased to be a scientific term and has just become a meaningless marketing label used to bilk consumers.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, when it comes to the scientific ignorance that environmentalists rely on even as they claim the mantle of science. They tell us to drive electric cars that don’t emit CO2, without bothering to tell us that the electricity is generated in power plants that probably burn coal or natural gas, which does emit CO2. And remember how they changed the name of their theory from “global warming” to “climate change,” so that they could claim any weather phenomenon—including snowstorms—as evidence to back them up? They are relying on the public’s ignorance of the actual history of the climate, which is constantly changing and over geologic time has swung wildly between hot and cold periods as part of its normal, natural variation.

All of this reminds me of the “logic” courses I took as a philosophy major in college. This was not good, old-fashioned logic; we never cracked a syllogism, nor did we study the classical logical fallacies (leaving us free to commit them willy-nilly). No, this was modern “symbolical logic,” a pseudo-science invented at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. I found that the class gave me no end of difficulty, and I eventually realized why. At the same time, I was studying a legitimate science, advanced mathematics, and I found that my logic class was using all of the same symbols—but it was using them in totally different ways. The humanities types have always been jealous of science and mathematics, with their reputation for rigor and accuracy—not to mention for producing actual, usable results. So they just stole the terminology of science and mathematics, using it as public-relations window dressing, with no regard for its actual scientific meaning.

The environmentalist movement is attempting a similar con. They are stealing the terminology of science to provide cover for an irrational, unscientific fear of industry and technology. And so while they loudly claim to be the tribunes of science, they actually play to and rely on the public’s ignorance of science.

That is how we ended up living in a world of carbon-free sugar, chemical-free H2O, and science-free environmentalism.

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