Good News, Bad News

Earth Report 2000, edited by Ronald Bailey, New York: McGraw-Hill, 362 pages, $19.95

State of the World 2000, by Lester R. Brown et al., New York: W.W. Norton, 276 pages, $14.95

You can get a quick handle on these two new books about Earth's environmental health by imagining them as science fiction movies. Earth Report 2000, edited by REASON Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey for the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, would be a Star Trek film: The collection presents an essentially rosy future with problems that human ingenuity eventually solves. State of the World 2000, put together by Lester Brown and the Worldwatch Institute, would be Blade Runner: It imagines a dark, dreary world where it's always raining and the sidewalks are so crowded that you have to walk on cars to get anywhere.

Yet pairing these books is appropriate, since Earth Report 2000 and its predecessor, The True State of the Planet (1995), were written as a foil to Worldwatch's yearly tidings of gloom. Bailey's book asks, contra Worldwatch, Can things be all that bad? He and his colleagues find that a brighter environmental future is possible if fresh ideas and free markets are permitted to take their course.

The philosophy Bailey and his writers espouse is known as free market environmentalism--the belief that private markets and property-rights enforcement are a more certain and less costly means of preserving the ecosystem than central government control. Thus, if everybody "owns" African elephants, then nobody really does and nobody has a special incentive to protect them. Grant ownership of the elephants to a tribe and they will protect them as fiercely as a farmer protects his hogs or chickens. It's growing not just as an intellectual movement but in application, and has even been given a bit of a nod by a few major green groups.

Bailey's own essay, "The Progress Explosion: Permanently Escaping the Malthusian Trap," is one of the best ripostes to Malthusian theory around. Thomas Malthus, writing in the 18th century, predicted that population would inevitably outstrip food supply, because he believed the former grows exponentially while the latter grows only arithmetically. "Two centuries after Malthus," notes Bailey, "it is now clear that the exponential growth of knowledge, not population, is the real key to understanding the future of humanity and the earth."

Malthus' prediction is simply wrong. Neo-Malthusians, smart enough to see that reality has made a mockery of Malthus' dark fantasy, have fallen back on a different but equally glum contention: Forget that part about food supplies, they say; growing population will instead outstrip our supply of all other natural resources. Much of Earth Report 2000 duels with the neo-Malthusians on these grounds. A clear look at the current record suggests many reasons for optimism.

One especially positive chapter is about garbage, of all things. Written by Reason Public Policy Institute Executive Director Lynn Scarlett, "Doing More with Less" shows how packagers keep finding ingenious ways to "dematerialize" products--to do the same, or more, using less material. Scarlett writes, "A basket of typical U.S. grocery items fell from over 2,750 pounds of packaging per gross production unit in 1989 to approximately 2,100 pounds in 1993-1994." Thus packaging becomes less of a disposal dilemma each year.

What drives this dematerialization? Neither command-and-control environmental dictates nor corporate good-heartedness. The real motive is the classic one of economizing. Use less material, and you save money on transportation and warehousing, on the cost of the material itself, and on the energy cost of making the product. Scarlett describes an elegantly interdependent business venture in Scandanavia, one that conserves resources precisely because it boosts productivity.

"In Kalundbor, Denmark, in the 1980s, Asnaes, a large coal-fired electricity-generating plant, began providing process steam to a refinery and a pharmaceutical plant located nearby," she writes. "The refinery, in turn, provides cooling water and purified wastewater to Asnaes. A wallboard producer, Gyproc, had long been buying surplus gas from the refinery; Asnaes joined in the purchase of surplus gas in 1991, absorbing all the refinery's surpluses and reducing its need for coal by 30,000 tons per year. Purchase of the surplus gas by Asnaes became possible when the refinery began removing excess sulfur in the gas. The `waste' sulfur was, in turn, sold to a sulfuric acid plant. Asnaes also uses surplus heat to warm a seawater fish farm, which produces trout and turbot primarily for French markets. Sludge generated at the fish farm becomes fertilizer for local farmers."

Could the best and brightest at our Environmental Protection Agency or Denmark's equivalent bureaucracy have thought of something so intricate and yet so efficient? It's highly unlikely.

As in Star Trek, despite the generally sunny and positive outlook on the future, a crisis-producing menace threatens. The Borg Collective of Bailey & Co.'s free market environmental vision goes by the name of Government Regulations. Nowhere is this more evident than in Michael De Alessi's chapter, "Fishing for Solutions." De Alessi, director of the Center for Private Conservation, discusses one of the Worldwatch Institute's bogeymen, overfishing. He discovers that, although it's not the crisis Worldwatch thinks, overfishing is indeed worrisome in some areas. But De Alessi finds that property rights, when allowed to work, have proven the most efficient means of coping with overfishing.

Maryland, for example, tries to limit oyster catches by allowing fishermen to use only decades-old sailing ships, making it America's most backward fishing industry. Yet overfishing of oysters continues to the point where harvests are at 1 percent of historic levels. Similarly, Alaska tried to impose limits on halibut catches by progressively shortening the fishing season, all the way down to a mere two days. That didn't stop industrious fishermen from making a season's haul in 48 frantic, dangerous hours.

Conversely, where waters and beds have been allocated to private parties, as in Washington state, harvests have exploded, with the haul doubling since heavy-handed regulations enacted in the 1970s were lifted. New Zealand began using transferable quotas (legal allocations, which can be bought and sold, of certain numbers of fish that can be caught) in 1986 and saw its total marine catch go from fewer than 180,000 metric tons that year to a net-ripping 452,000 by 1995.

A favorite mantra of the free market environmentalist is that "wealth equals health." Indur Goklany, a researcher at the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Policy Analysis, takes that argument further in his chapter "Richer Is More Resilient." He argues that a wealthy country isn't just a healthier country but also a cleaner one--and also more able to deal with adversity such as natural disasters.

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