Preservation Instincts

Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists: A Conservative Manifesto, by Peter Huber, New York: Basic Books, 208 pages, $25.00

This manifesto for a "conservative" environmentalism by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Peter Huber is being promoted as an answer to Albert Gore's 1992 alarmist tract, Earth in the Balance. Huber, a Forbes magazine columnist and the author of Liability: The Legal Revolution and Its Consequences (1988) and Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom (1991), is an excellent writer and provocative thinker. He begins his analysis in this book by making a useful distinction between Soft Green and Hard Green.

"Soft Green is the realm of huge populations (molecules, particles) paired with very weak (low-probability) or slow (long time frame) effects," Huber writes. "Soft Green is the Green of the invisible, the Green of the highly dispersed or the far future. To believe in Soft Green you must either be a savant or put a great deal of trust in one. To the Soft Green, the model is everything."

Soft Greens worry about largely invisible threats, such as parts per billion pesticide residues in food, or about dangers that are distant and vague, such as global warming or exhaustion of resources. Huber argues that Soft Greens can justify intervening in any human activity on the basis of their all-seeing computer models. Soft Green environmentalism doesn't need tangible evidence of harm. The most notorious Soft Greens are Rachel Carson, the Limits to Growth crowd, Paul Ehrlich, and Al Gore.

"Hard Green was and remains traditional conservation," writes Huber. "To believe in Hard Green we merely have to love the outdoors, the unspoiled wilderness, forest, river, and shore. It takes no special expertise, no extraordinary discernment, and not much science. It requires no big model of the far future. All it takes is an eye for natural beauty, a reverence for life, a sense of awe for the boundless grandeur of creation."

Hard Greens aim to ameliorate environmental problems that are clearly visible, easy to touch and smell, and are in the here and now. They want to do things like preserve forests, protect landscapes, and abate noxious pollution. Hard Greens embrace the tradition of wilderness conservation championed by Teddy Roosevelt.

Soft Greens rely on what Huber calls "sandpile theory." In sandpiles, each additional grain of sand causes little change until at last one hits the pile at a critical point and the pile collapses in a catastrophic avalanche. No one can be sure which additional grain of sand (environmental stressor) will cause the catastrophe, so Soft Greens conclude that we should be very careful about adding any stresses at all. "The sandpile theory--self-organized criticality--is irresistible as a metaphor," enthuses Soft Green presidential candidate Al Gore.

"The truth is, sandpiles are too inherently complex for theories about them to yield any practical green advice at all," responds Huber. "Most of the time, there is simply no way to know in advance whether a nuke, a swamp, or a Buick has the behavioral characteristics of a sandpile or glob of honey. We can confidently label something a `sandpile' only after we've seen the collapse."

The Soft Greens' sandpile theory underlies their worrisome faith in the so-called precautionary principle, which demands the impossible requirement that every human activity be proved safe before it is allowed to go forward. By subscribing to sandpile theory, Soft Greens can simply dismiss arguments that are based on past evidence and experience. If the facts don't fit the theory, that's just too bad for the facts. In the Soft Green view, naively insisting on evidence merely gives us hapless humans a false sense of security--the collapse is coming, but we have no way of knowing when.

Nothing is beyond the scope of Soft Green environmentalism because anything, as the computer models can be made to show, could be a sandpile. Sandpile theory justifies regulating everything from backyard barbecues and toilet tanks to nuclear power plants and the global atmosphere.

Hard Greens eschew complicated computer models and the speculative harms they generate for concrete things like pea soup smog and sludge-filled rivers. Hard Greens, according to Huber, want the government to define property rights over such pollution and then let private markets solve the problem. While Huber admits that the details of such schemes would be complicated, he argues that the principle is simple.

For example, governments could issue emission permits for all cars currently on the road. Car owners would possess the permits free and clear, and the permits would cover whatever level of pollution each car currently emits. When an owner goes to buy a new car, however, he will also have to buy the right to emit from someone who currently holds a permit. The result: "The market cannot create more permits. But it can create direct competitive substitutes: pollution abatement technology, procedures, and strategies. And so it does, driving the price of pollution abatement down steadily. On an ongoing basis, for new cars, pollution costs are fully internalized." Huber points to the current market in sulfur dioxide emission permits as evidence that similar schemes would work and insists that "many quite elusive externalities, from sewage to whales, can be internalized in this general way."

Huber points out that Soft Greens fear modern technology as both brittle (a sandpile) and overwhelming. Consequently they counsel humanity to cut back on the "overconsumption" that technology makes possible because it is supposedly unsustainable and destructive of nature. In their view, material poverty is good because it means that people are consuming less of nature.

Huber clearly demonstrates that the Soft Green fear of technology and economic growth is in fact profoundly anti-environmental in effect and leads directly to the destruction of nature. For example, many Soft Greens favor organic farming and producing energy by converting biomass or using windmills. These low-tech prescriptions would be disastrous for the natural world. By boosting farm productivity, modern, high-tech, chemically based agriculture has literally saved hundreds of millions of acres of land for nature; inefficient organic farming would have doomed millions of acres. The Soft Green energy prescription is especially destructive, since growing combustible biomass and building windmill farms would mean the clearing of millions more acres of land. Our modern energy system uses fuels--oil, gas, coal, and uranium--that are not derived from the biosphere, and thus it harms the natural world less.

Huber is clearly right when he points out that poverty causes environmental damage while wealth protects the natural world. "The rich, not the poor, are the ones actively committed to conserving wildlife, forest, seashore and ocean," he writes. "The charge that the rich are the despoilers, the exhausters, the expropriators of the planet's biological wealth is simply false. Rich people did not invent slavery, they ended it. Rich people did not invent the oppression of women, they ended it. Rich people did not invent environmental destruction. The rich are ending it."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.