Assessing the Environmentalists


Eco-Hysterics and the Technophobes, by Petr Beckmann, Boulder: The Golem Press, 1973, 216 pp., $6.95 (out of print).

Exploring New Ethics for Survival, by Garrett Hardin, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972, 273 pp., $1.45 (pb).

Population, Environment, and the Quality of Life, by Parker G. Marden and Dennis Hodgson (editors), New York: Halsted, 1975, 328 pp., $4.95 (pb).

Two Cheers for the Affluent Society, by Wilfred Beckerman, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974, 238 pp., $7.95.

In the past 10 years or so, boosting the growth of a movement, a wealth of literature has appeared on the subject of the environment and ecology. This review is not an attempt to survey the literature, but to reflect on its major claims, drawing largely upon the work of Beckerman and Beckmann. It is these two late arrivals on the scene which occasioned this review. As evident by their titles they are critical of much of what has gone on in the name of ecology and the environment—critical both of what has passed as information and of proposed solutions. Garrett Hardin's book is an expansion of his widely reprinted article "The Tragedy of the Commons" (Science, Dec. 13, 1968). And the third book is a recent collection of essays intended for classroom use.

Most generally the issue of the environment/ecology movement has been that human beings have abused and mismanaged their environment. This statement of its case undeniably does the movement a favor. Typically the popular and even scientific literature has been fraught with sensationalism, exaggeration, semi-fictionalized and computerized accounts of impending doom. This aspect of the movement has been refreshingly and competently debunked by both of our critics. But both agree with what is the core and most sensible statement of the concerns at issue—that the environment has been mismanaged.

Whether that is a problem only as it impinges on human comfort and survival or whether it is a problem in itself, how serious the situation is, what are its causes and which are primary, what the solutions could be, what would be their consequences and how they ought to be effected—these are the issues of intense debate. In the debate three areas have taken on central importance: population growth, economic growth, and limited resources. A fourth issue—the role of the political/economic structure in creating the problem at hand—has not, unfortunately, gained central importance.


Population growth has not only garnered the most attention, but is a fairly long-standing basis for predicting doom. As Beckmann notes, those who attribute our present and future ills to population growth are fond of quipping that Malthus is proved wrong and buried every year, only to be resurrected before year's end. He responds with "an equally impressive argument: Every year Malthus springs back to life—only to be proven wrong and buried again before the year is out." Of course, both sides can do better than this!

What are the arguments, then, of those who see the growth of population as a prime concern, and a cause for fear and trembling for the future? The case goes like this: 1) Population has been increasing exponentially and is likely to continue to do so. Some would stop here and charge that this is bad enough as an ecological imbalance: because of humans' improvements in feeding and doctoring themselves, natural controls—starvation and illness—which keep other species in check are no longer at work for the human race. Of course one cannot conclude that this is a deplorable state of affairs without another premise—that "ecological balance" means "things as they would be without man's knowledge or creative capacity." This is contended seriously in scientific circles; e.g., Ehrlich and Holdren maintain that "serious ecological harm has accompanied man's activities since the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago." In the face of this, why bother to halve present world population size, a far stronger measure than Ehrlich finds necessary? Does legitimate concern for the environment require even more than "going back to nature"? Back even further than the rise of agriculture—to the caves? As Beckmann titles one of his chapters, this view can be put quite simply: Man—an unfortunate creation of nature. The hidden premise is rarely made explicit, and it is doubtful that any coherent notion of ecological balance can exclude human beings as the kind of things they are, creative and productive entities. But perhaps coherence is not being aimed for.

In any case the argument usually proceeds to: 2) more people means more pollution and exploitation of the environment, perhaps fatally; or 3) given exponential growth, human beings in the not too distant future will be standing shoulder to shoulder, and/or 4) will be unable to provide for themselves the necessities let alone the amenities of life, since the resources of the earth are limited. Usually more than one of these is included in the arsenal, but each is sufficient cause for dread, if true.

What of these claims? Even within the ecology/environment movement there is a long-standing disagreement about (2). (Several rounds of this debate are aired in the Marden & Hodgson book.) Barry Commoner and others, using U.S. data from 1946-68, find no significant correlation between increasing population and pollution. Ehrlich and Holdren dispute the scope and interpretation of the data. But the proposition that population increase means pollution increase does not hang, fundamentally, on the disputed statistics. There may or may not be a correlation between the two to date, but pollution can be and is being curbed. Beckmann even makes the point that a decrease in population could just as well mean more pollution since less human resources would be available for cleaning up. The point is that there is no necessary connection.

Besides, the seriousness of present pollution levels is questionable. Both Beckmann and Beckerman argue that many of the scares of recent vintage—lead, mercury, DDT, asbestos, etc.—have simply been exaggerated. Furthermore they decry a lack of perspective. Rarely is there rejoicing, e.g., that sewage and horse droppings—features of the not too distant past—no longer pollute city streets.


What of the third claim, that we are in for serious standing room trouble if the present rate of population growth continues? On this issue Beckmann does a job of sorting through the assumptions and data. There is, first, a pervasive problem in the literature: aggregate statistics are used to show and project an exponential growth rate of world population, then recommendations are filed pointing to the desperate need to cut U.S. population growth. But, summarizing Beckmann's analysis (pp. 31-63): for the U.S., a) population growth cannot be fitted by an exponential curve at all; b) professional demographers are very careful about projecting population growth (care is a requirement for any statistical projection), do so only a few decades into the future, and often have to revise their projections as, for instance, in the last two decades; and c) all indicators of the rate of growth have been on the downswing for at least a decade. Beckmann is careful; he does not conclude that there will be no population explosion. Given the caution spoken of, no one knows for sure what the future profile will be, but there is no evidence of the sensationally prophesied explosions.

What of the less developed countries, most of which do have rapidly increasing populations? Is it reasonable to expect stabilization as they industrialize? The Club of Rome analysis, embodied in the much touted book The Limits to Growth (N.Y.: Universe Books, 1972), offers a definite "no." This study purports a correlation between rising per capita gross national product (GNP) and population. But here Beckmann, rightfully outraged, shows that not only is the interpretation of the data suspect, but the data itself was manipulated to achieve the result. He counters that

in all cases without exception, the birth rate in industrialized countries went through a drastic reduction.…The per capita GNP is a poor measure of industrialization (as the case of Libya shows), but even so, it cannot obliterate this basic tendency.…(p. 157)

In his best debunking tone he comments that population growth in the underdeveloped countries

will be stopped by the same forces that are stopping it in industrialized countries. Not by collapse and catastrophe, much less by the puerile proposals of coercive legislation, but by the social, economic, perhaps even psychological circumstances in which people find themselves in advanced society. In the industrialized countries, people no more yearn for 15 children than they yearn for a sword and shield. (p. 75)

It is worth noting, however, anticipating the "economic growth is our problem" school, that if economic growth is significantly slowed or halted in the developing countries (as it might well be given current political trends) or in the West (because of the dependence of developing countries on developed), then indeed overpopulation may come into its own as a serious problem for the future.


Finally we come to the cry that, anyhow, resources are limited. We will run out, and will do so sooner the faster population increases. This contention has immediate appeal. "The earth is finite" (undeniably), and more people, if they have any wits about them, will consume more resources. But buying this, must one also swallow imminent or eventual exhaustion? Several considerations would bode otherwise. The first is technological. For example, Beckmann disabuses the catchword "nonrenewable" of its "irreplaceable" connotation, the point being that if we do run out of oil or copper or whatever, it does not mean that we need be without power or telephone lines or whatever, since the capacity for and history of technological substitution is vast. Even without, or before, substitution there have been and will continue to be improvements in methods of extraction, utilization, and recycling.

A common reply of the doomsayer is that such improvements are nowhere in sight. And here economic considerations are ignored. They are nowhere in sight because current prices do not justify the costs of development—to all people in the know prices are a much more reliable indicator of relative scarcity than doomsayers' computer printouts! As Beckerman observes, the claim that resources are limited often amounts to the proposition that supplies will not meet rising demand at present prices—not a surprise, really. Sixty years ago officials were predicting that given the "known reserves" of oil, industry, let alone the automobile, would not long survive. An erroneous interpretation left those predictions impotent, but fails to phase their contemporary counterparts: known reserves "never represent true reserves in the sense of being all that can ever be found, irrespective of the demand and the price…Known reserves represent the reserves that have been worth finding, given the price and the prospects of demand and the costs of exploration" (Beckerman, p. 174). It is thus no great revelation that computers grind the world to a halt after being fed data on increasing population, told that this means increasing demand, then given more data on "known reserves" which depends on fixed demand/prices.

But perhaps the most curious and fatal flaw of the limited resources thesis is its ignoring of human resources in counting them up: "man's capacity to acquire and expand the frontiers of his knowledge appears to be inexhaustible.…And it is this unbounded human ability…that the doomsday school of thought has completely overlooked" (Beckerman, p. 47). One may surmise that this neglect is self-referential. As Beckmann again observes so incisively, "I know next to nothing about Franz Carl Achard, the man who developed the sugar beet. But this much is certain about him: He did not whine about doomsday." (p. 77)


Enough said of population and resources. Another issue which the ecology/environment movement has centered on is economic growth—increasing production and consumption. Objections are that 1) economic growth doesn't make us any happier, in fact it worsens the quality of life; or 2) it cannot continue in the face of exhaustible resources and/or accumulating pollution—we will either starve or perish in our own mire. As Beckerman observes, "Those who believe that growth is bad for us should, of course, be relieved to learn that we cannot have it much longer anyway, but they do not usually seem to be." In any case there are two anti-growth positions—it is undesirable or it is impossible—and Beckerman deals with both in great detail. In considering the first he provides an excellent discussion of GNP (the common indicator of growth), which can only be hinted at here. First, GNP has never been intended as a measure of total welfare, but only of economic welfare. Thus the oft-alleged contrast between the "coarse materialism" of the progrowth school and the "exquisitely refined sensibilities" of the anti-growth, has no basis. Second, economists have generally assumed that increasing economic welfare corresponds to increasing total welfare. However, in reply to those who object that growth has brought with it bad effects which are not included in GNP (thus invalidating that assumption), Beckerman points out that if GNP (and emphasis on its rate of increase) is to be so criticized, it must also be recognized, and he gives a number of examples, that GNP fails to include many increases in welfare. The clincher is that it is only as material well-being has advanced that people have been freed of more basic worries and turned their attention to the fouling of beaches, noise pollution, etc.

The second anti-growth position is similar to some of the claims considered above in connection with population growth. Again it will not do to pin the blame for environmental mismanagement on technology or production per se, even if there is a statistical correlation between increases in the two. "Clean production" is technologically possible. And on economic grounds, as Beckerman notes, it is important to point out that there is no more conflict between growth and the environment than between growth and food consumption or growth and clothing. Economic growth has to do with the pattern of consumption over time (consuming less now—saving—and more later, or vice versa), while how much resources are devoted to environmental concerns is a question of the pattern of consumption (including a better environment) at any moment in time. Zero growth would not prevent the allocation of too few resources to environmental projects.

Finally there is a fourth, although relatively undiscussed issue: the role of political/economic structure in environmental mismanagement. Of course capitalism has often been indicted as the root of this evil (too), but the charge is dismissable out of hand—extensive pollution is well-documented in the Soviet countries; the forests of the Balkans were depleted during three centuries of Turkish occupation. "Big business" has also been called to task. In this respect it is reasonable to ask whether certain forms of environmental abuse are the responsibility of product users rather than businesses, not indirectly in that what is produced with polluting techniques is eventually consumed, but directly: detergent users, not soap makers; aerosal can users, not deodorant makers. When these sorts of things, along with cars, along with pollution from government managed industries, are added up, "big business" may not be the big villain after all!


At any rate the political/economic structure enters the analysis when (and if) the question is put: Why is it that more people, advancing technology, more and better production and consumption, have been accompanied, more or less, by mismanagement of the environment? Rarely is this question asked within the environment/ecology movement. Garrett Hardin is an exception. In a brief attack of insight he identifies environmental problems as stemming from the system of the commons, from common ownership but private use of the resources of the environment, an ownership/use structure which historically and detrimentally characterized grazing land in England and the U.S. (A good example of the results of private vs. common ownership: compare the litter found in people's backyards to that in "their" public parks.) With this structure, air polluters, e.g., need not pay for using up a scarce resource—clean air—for everyone, the user included, owns it. We thus have what are called "external costs" or "externalities": while using up clean air has its costs—the air is not as nice to look at or breathe, house paint peels, etc.—the user does not pay; the costs of use are external to him.

If appropriate solutions are to be found to reverse the environmental mismanagement which has prevailed, it is vital to consider its fundamental source. Unfortunately, even Hardin does not carry his analysis through consistently. He calls business' failure to account for the external costs of production "larceny". But clean air and water could not be stolen unless private property rights to the same were identified.

Nor are Hardin's recommendations consistent with his identification of the problem. His insight was indeed short-lived. At least those in the movement who have seen technology as the problem have advocated de-technologization; critics of economic growth have called for slowing it; and so on. For all his emphasis on "principled thinking", Hardin does not propose doing away with the commons, instituting private property in all realms. This could stem from his concern with population growth; given this narrow issue, he is as consistent as the rest—the solution to overpopulation is to control "breeding."

It often goes unrecognized that finding appropriate solutions to problems involves asking two questions: What can be done? What should be done? The first has received the most emphasis when it comes to the environment. Can electrostatic precipitators do the job? Can taconite filings be filtered out? Can nonpolluting technology be developed to solve pollution? These are problems for scientists to tackle, including ecologists. (In spite of all the emotional baggage it has acquired, the word "ecology" refers to a branch of science!)

Beckerman, e.g., would also take account of certain political realities when considering what can be done:

even if…it could be demonstrated that economic growth does not lead to any rise in welfare…[O]nly an altogether unparalleled optimism can lead one to believe that the vast mass of the population will voluntarily accept an abandonment of the goal of economic growth.…(p. 91)

He fails to see that voluntary acceptance is no criterion for the religious zealots in the movement. The crucial issue is what should be done. Thus Hardin's "new ethics for survival."

But we can look in vain for Hardin's "new ethics". Early in his book he speaks of the necessity of "repudiating certain ethical beliefs." Later he drops a reference to "the system of ethics to which we were officially committed", and psychologistically identifies ethics as mental sets adopted to "justify" past actions. There are scattered discussions of situation vs. absolutist ethics (which were "we" officially committed to?). Only very late in the book does it become clear that when he speaks of "converting from one set of ethical standards to another" he means "the transition from a voluntary to a coercive system." So it is not a new ethics he is after at all, but a political solution, and one which is certainly not new! Nevertheless, he is after what should be done.


But how does he get from his identification of the root problem, to coercion as the solution? The system of the commons leads to abuse because, except insofar as everyone bears (some of) the cost, he who uses does not pay. Responsibility for action is thus effectively negated. Hardin then considers two alternative ownership/use arrangements: a) private enterprise (private ownership/private use), where responsibility rests solely with the actor, and b) socialism (common ownership/social use), where the decision maker bears no responsibility and which thus depends on "mechanisms of contrived responsibility—e.g., rewards for good management and penalties for poor." He quickly rejects (a) because reversion to private ownership "would require some sort of fences, real or figurative.…[but] it is difficult to put fences in the atmosphere or in streams, lakes, and oceans." He concludes that "we" must adopt socialism in our concern with the environmental outcome of a system of the commons.

Having gotten as far as socialism, there are two ways to "contrive responsibility"—by an appeal to conscience ("you ought to act responsibly"), or by coercion ("you'd better act responsibly, or else"). The first will not work because the conscienceless are rewarded—get away with using without paying. Conclusion: coercion is the only viable alternative. This is Hardin's route from the system of the commons to coercion.

He is, surprisingly, quite aware of the problems with this strategy. First, people do not like coercion. But he has a number of tricks up his sleeve. Blame it on language: "Rhetoric stands in the way of reason: 'freedom' sounds so good, 'coercion' so bad"; or "The word 'coercion' is itself coercive." Equivocate:

No one wants to be coerced into doing something. But, in a crowded world, each of us wants to keep others from doing certain things. (I don't want to be kept from robbing banks myself; but I do want to keep all others from doing so.) Seeing the counterproductive results of voluntary compliance with guidelines, we finally admit the necessity of coercion for all—mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon. (pp. 129-30)

Argue from authority (Hegel): "Freedom is the recognition of necessity." And use this to come full circle: coercion is necessary, recognition of necessity is freedom; therefore coercion is freedom. Notice that Hardin can only get away with this once he has accepted socialism and thus set up conscience and coercion as the alternatives. It is only in this context that coercion is necessary.


Assuming, however, that all this inspires people to like coercion, he recognizes a second problem: how are the coercers themselves to be held responsible? Hardin does not, understandably, have an answer, but begs off with the solemn prognostication that finding a solution will be "a major political problem of our lives." "Social inventors will please step forward!" Why weren't inventors called forth to solve the problem of "fencing" the oceans and atmosphere? Hardin didn't say it was impossible, only difficult. Now it becomes clear that his light dismissal of a private ownership solution to the commons will not do. And indeed technical difficulty is not his grounds for dismissal at all.

Example: "'Property' refers not to things owned but to the rights granted by society; they must be periodically re-examined in the light of social justice." Is "social justice" ever spelled out? No.

Example: He notes that historically parental responsibility for feeding, educating, and generally caring for offspring controlled population size. But this "system" was rejected out of humanitarian concern for innocent children of profligate parents. Although the historical expression of this concern was philanthropy, he contends that philanthropy cannot be a permanent solution but must evolve into socialism, i.e., the welfare state. (Main argument: it has so evolved; no analysis of the role of taxation in strangling philanthropy.) But the welfare state "has a fatal flaw as concerns population control in that it separates power and responsibility"; the family has the power to produce, the state ultimate responsibility for child care—a classic case of the commons, for everyone owns the resources for child care. The solution? "We could go back—to the private enterprise system.…[but w]e got rid of that system of population control for what seemed, and seem, good humanitarian reasons."

In the end, for Hardin and for most people, a solution to environmental mismanagement does not hang on what can be done—can property boundaries in the environment be established; can the controllers be controlled? The crucial question remaining once those are answered is still, what should be done? That Hardin's book is so revealing of this fact and of the prevailing answer to the question is the reason for its inclusion in this review.

Of course space has not permitted discussion of a number of interesting points. Many problems await solution by good entrepreneurs (not "social inventors"). Others are theoretical in nature: how would a system of property rights in the environment, enforced via the courts, compare with the usual solution—legislation enforced via a bureaucracy?

For the interested reader's benefit, the books reviewed here may be appraised as follows. If you can get your hands on Beckmann's book, it is the most refreshing; a good debunking of the excesses of the movement, coupled with a realization of the importance of scientific inventiveness if one is serious about environmental problems. For a combination of scholarly work and mild advocacy on the economic front, turn to Beckerman. Although he is squarely within the welfare-state tradition when it comes to externalities and public goods, he has a healthy respect for the pricing system and a healthy disrespect for those who want to run other people's lives. Hardin should only be read in order to familiarize yourself with the mish-mash of "arguments" which confront those genuinely concerned with the environment but unwilling to accept statist solutions. Finally, the collection of essays is no surprise. The debate between Ehrlich and Commoner is interesting, but that is the extent of any debate of the issues. For example, no alternatives to government control are considered. The economists' essays are the most sensible of the lot, but don't add anything to Beckerman.

Marty Zupan is currently on leave of absence from the Ph.D. program in economics at the Grad. School of Management, U. of Rochester. She is REASON's Book Review Editor, and does free lance writing, editing, and indexing.