The Pedigree of Preservationists


Progress and Privilege: America in the Age of Environmentalism, by William Tucker, Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982, 314 pp., $17.95.

When a chapter of William Tucker's Progress and Privilege appeared in Harper's last year, charging that "Wildernesses…are essentially parks for the upper middle class," the response was—predictably—special pleading. "The urban poor could, if they were so moved, buy all the [backpacking] equipment that is needed for the price of a boom box and a few cassettes," simpered one reader. Tucker struck a nerve.

Tucker seeks, in his book, "to save environmentalism from the environmentalists…to understand environmentalism at its social roots, and how it has been related to privilege…[and] to reaffirm technology." He begins by asking, "What eventually sours people on progress?"

In part one of the book, "Environmentalism: The Conservatism of the Liberals," Tucker answers: privilege, in two senses. First, many people reach a degree of affluence that makes them "ripe for the idea that 'things have gone far enough,' and that it is time to start 'preserving what we have,' rather than 'always trying to accumulate more.'" Second, these (now upper-middle-class) people find their status threatened, because "too many people [are] becoming middle class," and those people are moving into houses built over the beautiful field next door. Suddenly the suburbs lose their cachet and become "ticky-tacky"—"with a strong suggestion that the people who lived in them were 'ticky-tacky' too." In response, affluent people align themselves with what passes for an American aristocracy, "old wealth," in the hope that "if further progress will only lead to disaster, then perhaps the status quo will harden and remain forever."

Part two, "Main Currents in Environmentalist Thought," ranges over the sources of this hope. The provocative chapter on wilderness forms the core of Tucker's argument. Preservationists have evolved a doctrine of wilderness, holding that "land and wildlife can only be conserved by leaving them in their natural state, consciously eliminating all human presence." Today, environmentalism is preservationism, and wilderness is the central icon of the environmentalist religion.

"Wildernesses are…areas in which evidence of human activity is excluded." Popular recreation—that is, use by the lower classes—is to be discouraged. Access is to be rationed by inconvenience: no tables, benches, access roads, or designated scenic routes; no off-road vehicles; above all, don't use anything not carried in your backpack.

All wilderness resource use is to be prohibited as part of an across-the-board no-growth philosophy. Perhaps this is best demonstrated by reference to something Tucker doesn't discuss: the use of extraterrestrial resources, far beyond any American wilderness. Astronomer William Hartmann was asked to write on the subject for Progress As If Survival Mattered, a book brought out by Friends of the Earth, a prominent environmental group. Hartmann's chapter was rejected.

"To one of the editors," he wrote in the September 1982 Smithsonian, "the idea of going after materials and energy in space, even if it would reduce environmental pressures on Earth, sounded too much like what he called a 'disposable Earth policy': rip through what we've got here and then start despoiling the rest of the universe. The usual solution suggested is that we should reduce consumption and learn to live within the limits of the finite Earth." That sounds great—if one is both ignorant of economics and living well to begin with (as the immense majority of self-styled environmentalists are). Try telling it to the urban kid with the boom box, whose future is being stifled by, among other things, the 20th-century equivalent of enclosures.

Tucker also examines in part two the problems of overpopulation (solved before we knew it existed), politicized ecology, endangered species (reduced to a rationalization for blocking development anywhere), and the prophetic pretensions of environmentalist computer jockeys (the Club of Rome used "a mathematical model of the world's future that was programmed for disaster"). Especially enjoyable and illuminating is the trouncing given the new school of entropic ecological eschatology.

Part three, "The Revolt Against Science," traces the pedigree of today's antitechnological environmentalists. Throughout the past, aristocratic opinion has opposed progress. In many cases this is the result of excessive caution (brought about by "experts" who said, for example, that travel at 20 miles per hour would burst human blood vessels). But this caution often simply masks a presumption against mass progress and mobility. Tucker shows how today's intellectual aristocrats have used bureaucracy as well as pseudoscience to block progress, using as an example recent efforts to prevent experimentation with recombinant DNA.

Tucker is an unabashed advocate of the market. He is not, however, an uncompromising advocate. He never even considers privatization and full protection of property rights in the environment; rather, he advocates "the Conservation ethic as it was originally intended…the restrained hand of an active government playing a moderate role in the 'wise use of resources'"—the concept of stewardship.

Tellingly, though, Tucker's example of wise stewardship is not an instance of "active government" but of cooperation between private parties: the Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary, about which John Baden and Richard Stroup have written in REASON ("Saving the Wilderness: A Radical Proposal," July 1981). The sanctuary earns substantial royalties for its owner, the National Audubon Society, from several gas wells in the midst of the wildlife that it also takes pains to protect. Tucker asserts that if "wildlife preservation and resource development [can be] made compatible" at Rainey, "it can certainly be done in the great Federal wilderness areas as well."

But Baden and Stroup's point is that precisely and only private ownership makes such compatibility possible; political arrangements cannot do it. In their words: "Under [conditions of private ownership of wilderness], as opposed to public ownership, the [landowning] wilderness groups would be forced by self-interest to consider the opportunity costs of total nondevelopment. Further, rather than resolutely opposing the extraction of any commercially valuable resources from the land, they would focus on obtaining these resources while maintaining to the optimum degree the wilderness character of the area. Different incentives lead to different behavior." Better, contra Tucker, to trust the invisible hand than the "restrained hand."

Still, Progress and Privilege is a joy to read. It marshals a comprehensive battery of facts and arguments against the ideology and pseudoscience of environmentalist orthodoxy, and Tucker's prose is clear, succinct, and brisk. Environmentalism has put politicians, opinion leaders, and the public at large in the grips of a doomsday mentality and an economic and ecological stranglehold. Tucker does not show us the best way to escape that stranglehold. But he does give us an excellent account of its social and pseudoscientific sources and of the grounds for a guarded optimism for the future.

David M. Stewart is a free-lance writer and editor of a libertarian newsletter in southeast Michigan.