A Pitch for Progress


The War against Progress, by Herbert E. Meyer, New York: Storm King Publishers, 1980, 195 pp., $11.95.

The war against progress, as Herbert E. Meyer describes it, is the war of a thousand cuts. It is a war being waged by the environmentalists, who are self-proclaimed good guys, against the alleged baddies who would despoil the national domain, poison the air, waste our energy, and kill off the creatures of the sea.

Mr. Meyer realizes that in taking on the serried ranks of the ecologists he will be accused of being against home, mother, decency, and apple pie. The 300 some environmental and conservation groups in the United States are fighting for some pretty unexceptionable things. Who could really want to nuke the whales? Who believes that the best use of California's redwoods would be to provide toothpicks for the boys at Lindy's? Who could oppose the Friends of the Sea Otter or Ducks Unlimited? And who wants to drink contaminated water or test his or her bronchial tubes against excessive car exhaust on the freeways?

The trouble, as Mr. Meyer sees it, is that environmentalists and conservationists keep forgetting that there are other values. Man too has an ecology. Where nature provides a porcupine with quills and a skunk with its scent, the unfortunately tribal human animal needs some fairly complex weapons to discourage his enemies. Bears can hibernate, but men and women, even in the temperate zones, must have heated houses and warm overcoats. Nothing is simple—and to support a lot of necessary things, oil and coal must be burned and metals dug from the ground.

So everything comes down to a sense of proportion and a willingness to think in terms of trade-offs. If you grant people the right to life, they must have the wherewithal to support life. This, for most people, means they must have jobs. And as populations increase, this means a continued search for what used to be called the bounties of nature.

Unlike the Club of Rome or the doomsday criers who have contributed to the previous administration's "Global 2000 Report," Mr. Meyer does not think these bounties are running out. There is such a thing as sustained-yield forestry. Strip-mined acres can be reclaimed for agriculture, parkland, and even golf courses. If oil is a wasting asset, there would seem to be enough coal for generations to come. Nuclear waste can be shrunk by 90 percent and turned into inert solids that can be imprisoned forever in insoluble borosilicate glass.

The partisans of congressional wilderness bills have one thing in their favor: they realize that man has an aesthetic side, which means that an unspoiled view of the Grand Tetons is a positive good. But there is really no great danger that our wilderness resources would be trampled on if our prospectors were to be turned loose to look for oil or shale or hard minerals in the wilderness.

Gen. Alton D. Slay, commander of the Air Force Systems Command, put things in perspective when he testified before the Industrial Readiness Panel of the House Armed Services Committee. Of the 2.3 billion acres of the US land mass, he said, only 6 million acres, or about one-quarter of one percent, are used for mining. Presumably the same ratio would hold if wilderness lands Were to be opened to "exploiters." It's a matter of common sense. The chances are infinitesimal that oil will be discovered on Mount McKinley or Mount Shasta or that cobalt lies under enough of Idaho to pose a problem for mountain sheep.

Mr. Meyer convicts the environmentalists of crying wolf all too often. They wept copious tears for the caribou when engineers were constructing the Alaska pipeline, a mere sliver of man-dictated alteration in an 800-mile-wide wilderness that is the despair of bush pilots looking for landmarks. When last photographed, hundreds of caribou were contentedly grazing under the pipeline. Nature adapts.

And, environmentalists to the contrary, nature has a formidable capacity to fight back. The Connecticut of my youth is reverting to forest; the deer invade what used to be farmland, and raccoons and opossums are everywhere. True, man can make deserts. But when fusion power comes (and there are those at Princeton, New Jersey, who say it is almost here), the commercial distillation of sea water for irrigation will come with it.

Mr. Meyer's major point is that it is wrong to sell the concept of progress short. Capitalism not only creates wealth, it creates the technology to correct mistakes. There is a difference between "no growth" and what might be termed "preened growth." Mr. Meyer makes an incontestable case for the latter.

John Chamberlain is a syndicated columnist and the author of The Enterprising Americans.