Green with Outrage
The April issue's coverage of the environment was a welcome early respite from the deluge of mainstream magazine coverage about to drown us all between now (mid-March) and Earth Day 1990.
Andrew Ferguson's less than reverent look back at the first Earth Day ("Apocalypse Whenever") will make him lots of friends within the movement, I'm sure. I loved it!
I'm a political junkie who during the past year discovered an interest in environmental issues. The extent of my activism so far has been a lot of letter writing. I'm still working out where I stand and how I feel about many environmental issues and about activism, as my subscriptions to Earth Island Journal, E, The Amicus Journal, and World Watch magazines indicate, but hey, I'm having fun and learning a lot to boot!
To discover the real purpose of environmentalism, one must ask the right question. Cui bono? Who benefits? When the children's crusade of ignorant housewives and unwashed college students assaulted the nuclear power industry, what was the result? The world was made safe for the coal mining corporations and the oil companies. When the construction of new factory buildings is blocked because of "endangered" lizards or because they might emit one molecule of a "toxic" substance, cui bono? Older factories (which killed their lizards many years ago) are protected from effective competition. When new apartment buildings and housing developments are blocked, cui bono? The owners of existing apartment buildings can jack up rents with impunity and the owners of existing homes sit back, do nothing, and watch the value of their property climb at double-digit rates. Capitalism and the "free market" take the blame.
So the true purpose of environmentalism is clear: protect the status quo and protect the value of stockholdings and mortgages on existing properties.
One day, only the politically connected elite will begin large, new developments of real estate. And on that day, an unctuous TV anchorperson will declare "a great victory for butterflies and the common man."
I have been a longtime subscriber to REASON and have just completed reading the April "special issue" focusing on "environmental hazards." Sadly, this has been a most disappointing experience. Virtually everything written about the environment in that issue was a put-down of the ideas and actions of environmentalists. A glaring omission, however, was the mention of exactly how a free-market approach would help to solve current environmental problems.
If we are to turn the debate toward solving problems as opposed to throwing money and regulation at them, we must be rational as opposed to merely emotional. This approach has been the general habit of REASON, and I hope that this most recent deviation is only temporary and that you will quickly return to the "high road."
Gerson N. Kaplan, M.D.
After reading REASON for several issues, I can honestly state that the clarity and penetrating insight in most articles are consistently persuasive. But the April articles on environmentalism fell short of the usual standard. There was plenty of valid criticism aimed at activist organizations. But where are the suggested solutions? How do we apply the principle of property rights to reduce air pollution? How shall we divide up the oceans? How do we apply economic considerations to a hole in the ozone layer? Shall we decimate the entire Amazon rain forest?
It is already obvious to most of your readers, I think, that the solutions of socialism will not work. We know that legislation is not the answer. Deindustrialization is a fairy tale. Technology is with us for the duration. So let's have some articles tackling these problems rationally. There are legitimate issues on environmental policy worthy of debate and presentation. This would be much more useful and influential material than attacks on activism, however eloquent the arguments may be.
Charles J. Phelan
Ideology is the death of ideas. Yet in presenting valuable critiques of the environmental ideology, many of the writers in your April issue display an ideological bigotry so pervasive that it discredits the legitimate critiques they offer.
Using the term environmentalist like racists use the term nigger; your writers categorize and condemn a whole universe of people, many of whom (including this writer) embrace free-market ideals, or might if you'd just stop kicking them in the face.
Andrew Ferguson writes like he's a boot camp commander juicing up the troops for battle. Environmentalists, he says, are "eco-pests," "morons," "Quasimodos," "whooper-uppers," "apocalyptics," "population-control freaks," and more. Does Ferguson think his analysis would fall apart if he didn't appeal to the worst instincts of his readers?
Bigotry is a sure sign of ideological insecurity. But more than that, it turns libertarianism against its very principles. For example, in condemning their supposed "adversaries," your writers fall into the same ideological trap that many environmentalists do: They forget the relationship between free markets and environmental protection and implicitly accept the view that economic growth requires ever more waste, pollution, and destruction.
Take Charles Oliver ("Clearing the Air," Editorials). He dismisses the "eco-elite's…suggestion that we cut fossil fuel consumption by 50 percent. We just can't do this without eliminating the cars and planes and factories that burn fossil fuels," he concludes.
Where has he been for the past 15 years? Compared to 1974, we use one-third less oil today to produce a unit of GNP—and our economy is far healthier for it. In fact, today's relative energy efficiency saves 10 million barrels of oil a day-precisely the gap between Mideast capacity and consumption that maintains the oil glut and keeps prices down.
Why not take credit for the market response to the oil crisis, which has reduced consumption and pollution and accelerated economic growth?
The fact is, we do have to cut back fossil-fuel consumption. That is an economic, environmental, physical reality. But we have two choices as to how: We can let the market do it and substitute efficiencies and alternatives that will make our economy stronger. Or we can wait until it's too late and do it by force, curtailing economic freedoms and exacting a mighty economic and environmental toll. Your writers are inadvertent advocates of the latter approach.
Even Virginia Postrel ("The Green Road to Serfdom"), whose underlying analysis is quite insightful, can't help herself. She calls environmentalism "a full-fledged ideology…as powerful as Marxism, and every bit as dangerous." Who's being apocalyptic? Lighten up. Your addiction to the industrial past is as backward as the Luddite approach to plant modernization.
Personal attacks are cheap, easy, and fun. That's why they sell. But that's not why you publish REASON, nor why we read it.
Tell your writers to spend less time indulging their simple-minded prejudices, and more time applying market principles, and you'll find that what the environmentalists want and what you want are not only compatible—they're inseparable.
William K. Shireman
President, California Futures
The writers in your anti-environment issue start from such a biased position that their articles fail as serious arguments of the issues, and indeed become ludicrous. They have two failings: First, they can only approach an issue based on their own narrow ideology. And second, they fail to seriously address the very real environmental problems the planet faces and to offer any alternatives. These failings leave your writers with only the ability to attack the radicals in the environmental movement (who do, of course, exist). They concentrate on the radicals because that is what they are, and they completely miss the issues.
Your writers are ideologues. For them everything comes down to a few basic truths. The real world is not black and white, it's gray. However, an ideologue has no tools to deal with a gray world. They apply their Basic Truths, so convinced of their correctness that they cannot seriously consider issues. They simply react. The people who wrote these articles have never thought about the environment because they are incapable of thinking. There is no choice. Like a computer, they apply the Basic Truths, and voila, environmentalists become the bad guys. Applying the formula, they see that environmentalists are against just about everything they're for.
Mankind had better wake up and realize that there is a more basic truth than any of their hollow ideologies. The earth is the mother of life. In the vast void of space there is one shining miracle where all of the elements for life as we know it came together. In the past 100 years, all of our technological "advancement" has brought this miracle we live on to the brink of catastrophe.
Extinctions are occurring at the rate of over three per day. The fresh water table is falling over most of the planet, and it is increasingly polluted. Doctors warn healthy people to stay indoors on certain days because of poor air quality in most of our cities. Our protective ozone layer is disappearing and our life-giving sun is threatening to give us cancer and wipe out agriculture. Rain forests that provide the oxygen we breathe disappear at a prodigious rate every day, to be replaced by unsustainable agriculture for two or three seasons. Overpopulation threatens to overrun the planet's resources and its ability to regenerate, as well as producing untold human suffering. During several African famines this decade, people have starved to death at the rate of over 50,000 per day. Anti-environmentalist forces argue that the greenhouse effect has not been proven with evidence. It is so logical that only an imbecile would deny that eventually there could be hell to pay, current evidence or no. The water in the Great Lakes is laced with acid (don't drink it), the air in L.A. is laced with noxious gases (don't breathe it), the shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico are laced with toxins (don't eat them). America, the land of opportunity.
Environmentalists are calling for massive change in the way we live. Has there not been massive change from the way mankind lived 200, 100, or even 20 years ago? Change is inevitable—it's just a matter of what kind of change. Many of these writers worry about losing their standards of living. A rethinking of that phrase needs to be done. The Indians that lived in the Western Hemisphere lived in sustainable harmony with their environment, until "civilization" arrived. Were they happier than modern people? One telling statistic is that they had a great deal more leisure time than we do. They also lacked our drug and alcohol abuse problems. Could it be that we are trying to escape what we have created?
Anti-environmentalists have a problem with the word sustainable. Is it logical to base a society, an economy, a way of life on a finite, nonrenewable energy resource that pollutes the environment as it is used? What will we do when the oil is gone? Our current practices are unsustainable. In farming we burn an inordinate amount of the calories we collect as food using modern methods. We are also using toxic chemicals, lowering the water table through irrigation, and washing our top soil into the ocean. We are dumping more gases and pollutants into the atmosphere than it can assimilate. Clear-cutting forests faster than they can regenerate, leaving no home for other living beings. Generating trash that we can find no disposal site for. Generating human populations that exacerbate all of our problems, but on the simplest level cannot be fed without unsustainable farming methods. Transportation systems based on finite energy resources. Heating and electrical systems based on the same. Using pesticides that insects grow resistant to so that they become even more pernicious.
As these methods are unsustainable, they will be changed someday. If left, they will result in the deaths of millions of humans and other life forms, if not extinction. We can start now or we can make the planet uninhabitable. Then the religious fundamentalists will at least make heaven, but I'm afraid capitalism and individual liberty will be in the ash heap of history.
James R. Clark
Van Nuys, CA
As a libertarian environmentalist I struggle daily with the conflict between the two convictions. The right to exploit resources ends when natural areas are adversely impacted. Capitalism has already destroyed 90 percent of America's wetlands and most of the rest of the continent's natural areas in the quest for human convenience; we could erase in our lifetime what took millions of years to be created. The interconnectedness of all life ensures that their fate will eventually be ours.
This exploitation is outrageous because so much of the resource is wasted. Judicious use of the resources that we take would decrease our need for those resources by a factor of 10. Sustainability should be the goal of capitalist and environmentalist alike.
I also object to your assertion that land cannot own itself. Under the current system of property laws, land has been "owned" for only 200 years or so. Left to its own devices, a natural area produces oxygen, clean water, and an abundance of wildlife; cut down, paved over, and built upon, the land produces only heat, erosion, pollution, and, of course, commercial exchange.
Exchange, logic, and science are valid in the proper place. The issue is whether these systems have a right to replace all other types of existence. Many of us believe that "nature" has a right to exist in and of itself, and man may no more destroy that existence in the quest for natural resources than a mugger may kill his victim in the search for currency. Does your "right" to throwaway packaging, air conditioning, and pesticide outweigh the bald eagle's right to exist and my right to breathe clean air?
Virginia Postrel justifiably and expertly attacks the "back to nature" and Earth Day environmentalists. Their sophomoric attempts to return to a time that never was needs lots of exposure. However, your attacks on Paul Ehrlich and zero population growth are supported by nothing more than the fact that the apocalypse has not arrived yet.
If you have an argument to show that increasing population will not be a disaster, please publish it. We could all welcome the good news. If you have a libertarian solution for population growth, congestion, and pollution, then please start pushing it.
What seems more likely is that you can't conceive of any cure that allows each person to act out of complete self-interest, yet still fixes the problem. That suggests that the libertarian ideology is limited and can't be relied on for major problems. To stay with the ideology, you must deny the problem.
Ideology and religion constrain our already limited reasoning powers by forcing us to accept conclusions and ethics that were perhaps appropriate in a distant past. In science, when you fall in love with your own theory, you will fight bitterly to deny the validity of any experimental result that doesn't fit the theory.
I would suggest that REASON could be more true to its name if it squarely faced the major problem of population growth and began contributing reasoned, mature ideas towards its solution.
Long Beach, CA
Well said, Virginia Postrel. Your article correctly points out the danger of following the extremists in the environmental movement. They are fanatic indeed. Like fanatics in any movement, they have their heads in the clouds and seem to live in a dream world. Thanks for keeping us in the real world.
However, we must remember that not all environmental problems are imaginary. If one thinks carefully about the problems, it becomes obvious that the basic problem is—too many of us. We now number 5 billion, and will double in 30 years to 10 billion! What to do?
More contraception seems to be the answer, yet nothing seems to be working now. The population continues to soar. Recognition of a problem is the first step to its solution. Perhaps if we recognize that overpopulation is the basic problem, and concentrate our efforts on that, a solution will follow.
Something must give. If we don't stop population growth, there will be more poverty, starvation, and human misery of all kinds. We must act soon.
In reading Virginia Postrel's article, I became irritated, and a little insulted. I am not a green. I'm just upset when an article is professed to be serious, yet is mere ridicule.
I subscribe to Utne Reader, where I discovered this magazine (ironically). I don't agree with all of the views expressed there, but I have the good sense not to make a fool of myself by mocking those views and their forum.
I agree with Ms. Postrel's analysis of the current antiscience leanings, and I, too, am alarmed. I'm concerned that our lifestyles will backslide if the greens have their way. Nevertheless, I submit that they will resist a more rational way of thinking if they are berated by reactionary extremists.
I am absolutely sick of hearing sniveling like that of Ms. Postrel. The polarized views of the environment (drugs, porno, etc.) are bleated louder each day by lobbyists for the warring factions. I'm tired of allowing the debate on my future to be carried on via political warfare. It's reminiscent of the political rule: He who has the most money (or media access) will drag the talk down to the lowest possible level (and win).
I feel we would all be helped by rational people voicing the advantages of personal responsibility and freedom. The rational voices of years gone by have been stilled by time, but their deeds live on. Let's not tarnish their legacy, nor waste our breath whining.
Fred E. Valenzano
Ms. Postrel replies: Judging from the onslaught of hostile letters, REASON's April issue obviously hit a nerve. The criticisms fall into three broad categories: How dare we criticize conventional environmentalism without offering alternatives. How dare we be ideological. And how dare we question some particular environmentalist wisdom—most commonly, that overpopulation is a major threat.
If you can't say anything nice, Dr. Kaplan and Mr. Phelan tell us, don't say anything at all. While this principle may be a valuable rule for getting along with individuals you don't like, it is a poor guide to policymaking. There is indeed a great body of work applying ideas of private property and markets to environmental problems. Many of the brightest, most innovative people in academia and think tanks (including the Reason Foundation) are working on just such issues. REASON has featured and will continue to feature articles on these ideas.
But it is profoundly naive to think that "environmentalists" who are ideologically committed to dismantling industrial civilization will have any interest in discussing the application of property rights to the ocean or market incentives to controlling auto emissions. We have to be realistic about whom we can talk to.
Nor should we simply accept the environmentalist agenda—which is far more influenced by the extremists than many environmentalists like to acknowledge—and work to come up with slightly less interventionist ways of achieving it. Environmental issues involve not only means—usually cast as market/private property vs. command-and-control—but also ends. If your goal is to reduce air pollution to a level that doesn't significantly damage human health, you might set up an emissions trading scheme designed to achieve that (rather moderate) level. By contrast, if your goal is to rid the earth of automobiles, your idea of using "market incentives" may be to levy a $5,000 annual tax on every privately owned car.
Mr. Shireman represents exactly the kind of environmentalist with whom we can talk. But he is far too eager to lump himself in with the extremists. Rather than attack us for making fun of them (as Andrew Ferguson did), questioning their calls for immediate and drastic actions (as Charles Oliver did), or examining their underlying ideology (as I did), he ought to be distancing his own legitimate concerns from those of the people-hating stasis mongers. I do believe they're dangerous. (Sorry to be so grim, but Mr. Shireman didn't care for Andy Ferguson's lighthearted, optimistic approach either.) In my own article, I strove to differentiate the stasis-exalting "greens" from people who are simply concerned with a cleaner world. It's not an easy task, however, since almost no self-identified environmentalists will make the same distinction.
Mr. Shireman also raises an important point: Are we just nostalgic for an industrial past? To the contrary, my greatest concern is for industries yet unborn. Environmental extremism poses a far lesser threat to dirty, established industries than it does to new technologies. Partly this is a matter of political power—Robert Byrd speaks for West Virginia coal miners, but biotechnology has no senator—and partly it is a matter of goals. If you're out to impose stasis, you start by stopping innovation—whether it's biotechnology in West Germany or nuclear power here.
Like Mr. Shireman, Mr. Clark attacks us for being ideologues. We are. Our view of the political good is founded on the ideal of individual liberty. One of the major classical-liberal arguments for that political ideal is that individual liberty is essential to the pursuit of truth—making that pursuit, at least in my own hierarchy of values, primary. To suggest that we ignore truth to pursue ideology is to disregard the essence of that ideology.
But, of course, ideology does have some influence on one's perceptions—as is evident by Mr. Clark's litany of green truisms. His ideal society is that of the American Indians before the coming of the Europeans—a life of subsistence agriculture or hunting and gathering. His recital of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods—too lengthy to rebut point by point—serves merely to reinforce the notion that we ought to return to this imagined Eden, before industry, medicine, literacy, or any other modem evils. With Mr. Shireman, one can discuss technocratic solutions to environmental problems. With Mr. Clark, one can't.
Mr. Turnage holds similar views, though he apparently doesn't realize it. We like bald eagles, too, and I, for one, would pay quite a bit of money to see them preserved. But to grant "'nature' a right to exist in and of itself' and to declare that "man may no more destroy that existence in the quest for natural resources than a mugger may kill his victim in the search for currency" is to philosophically force us back into caves. If this is true, what gives us the right to cut down trees or dig up clay to build houses? To enslave cotton or sheep to make clothing? To eat anything that hasn't already fallen off a tree? This is nonsense and, translated into political action, it is dangerous nonsense.
Mr. Teasley and Mr. Tracy criticize us for failing to jump on the population-control bandwagon. We do, indeed, believe that people are the earth's most valuable resource, not a cancer to be wiped out.
But there is nonetheless a "cure" for population growth, and it works every time. It is prosperity. For whatever reason, people have far fewer children when they have more wealth. It happens in every country, including Catholic ones. So insofar as they hamper economic progress, green prescriptions make rapid population growth more, not less, likely.
Finally, I think the Utne Reader is a fine magazine, full of well-written, interesting articles. I just happen to disagree with most of them.
Who Paid the Bills?
In "The Green Road to Serfdom," you wrote: "Research for [Brandon] Mitchener's article, which was published in the environmentalist magazine, E, was funded by the reputedly conservative Reader's Digest Foundation."
Reader's Digest Foundation has not provided funding to Mr. Mitchener or E magazine, nor do we have any record showing they ever requested funding.
The DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest fund, which is a separate charitable foundation, apparently received a request for funds from Doug Moss, publisher of E—but his request was denied in November of 1988.
J. Edward Hall
Reader's Digest Foundation
E magazine itself reported that the article was supported by the Reader's Digest Foundation. After further investigation, the foundation has determined that Mr. Mitchener received an indirect grant through his journalism school. We regret passing along incomplete information. —Eds.