Magazines: Eco-logic


In many ways, the world view of the environmentalist resembles that of the anticommunist of the 1950s. Both see the world dominated by a twilight struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Both contend that a defeat for our side, however remote the location (the South China Sea, the harbors of Alaska), moves the world one step closer to global apocalypse. Both believe in the Manichean notion that those who aren't with us are against us.

But most Americans aren't Manicheans. Most of us are too busy making a living and raising a family to worry about the fate of the earth. In many ways, environmentalism is a luxury for those with enough time and wealth to be green. The only poor environmentalists are those who freely choose to live with low incomes.

Most of the major environmental questions on the ballots last November failed because environmentalists forgot their roots. Most environmental organizations are based in New York, Washington, and San Francisco and are staffed by people who moved to those cities to flee their past. The green groups forgot that most voters are primarily concerned with issues that directly affect their lives. The Republicans were able to use the Willie Horton case to their advantage in 1988, for example, not because voters are dupes easily swayed by a slick media campaign, but because violent, random crime is a problem that most Americans worry about.

But the environmental movement, instead of focusing on concerns that are of immediate consequence to most families (safe neighborhoods, good schools, taxes), stresses risks that are increasingly small and disasters that, if they occur, will happen in the distant future. Most voters will support actions that result in higher prices and a reduced selection of goods only if these actions produce substantial benefits. Moreover, few voters will voluntarily support tax increases. The only Americans who complain about being under-taxed are those, such as the heads of environmental organizations and columnist George Will, who have six-figure salaries and can easily afford reductions in disposable income.

But environmentalists, faced with their defeats, haven't criticized themselves. Instead, they tend to blame malign, uncontrollable forces.

Thus Merritt Clifton, in the January/February Animals' Agenda, surveys the November elections and concludes that the voters who rejected "Big Green" in California and tossed out similar referenda in New York, Washington, Oregon, Missouri, and elsewhere did so because of "the spending power of polluting and exploitative industries."

Clifton searches for capitalist plots with a misguided vigor similar to that of an earlier generation of fanatics who hunted for communist plots. For example, the voters of Telluride, Colorado, resoundingly defeated a proposal to ban fur. The bill lost, says Clifton, because "of massive opposition from the fur trade, whose mailings portrayed it as an attack upon Constitutional rights (even though the U.S. Constitution does not in any way guarantee freedom of commerce)."

One wonders if Clifton has ever heard of the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Ninth Amendment, or the Contract Clause. Perhaps he believes the U.S. Constitution, like the Soviet one, is founded on the rule that everything not permitted is forbidden. But his argument shows one of the many annoying tendencies of environmentalists—a hostility to capitalism and free trade.

An article by David Morris in the March-April Utne Reader reflects that hostility. Morris argues that to save the planet, environmentalists should embrace protectionism.

Morris says free trade in recent years has been replaced by "a radical reinterpretation…laissez faire economics on a global scale, and the abolition of virtually any government regulatory or planning authority." Free traders, he believes, are tools of "planetary corporations," which "pledge allegiance to no flag." "Would it be too provincial to call these people 'free traitors'?" he asks.

Morris's antitrade case is weak and unconvincing. He attacks American efforts to force Japan to repeal its law prohibiting grocery stores from forming chains or expanding beyond the size of a 7-Eleven. Japan is right to ban the supermarket, says Morris, because this measure protects "neighborhood stores from ruination by shopping malls." European efforts to use environmental standards as trade barriers, such as Denmark's requirement that all liquids be sold in refillable bottles (a decision overturned by the European Court of Justice as anticompetitive), are, in Morris's eyes, sound and necessary ways to combat corporate globalism.

Imagine if we adopted Morris's standards. Suppose the Environmental Protection Agency decided to ban all supermarkets and insisted that products made in other countries either meet American environmental regulations or be subject to high tariffs. This thought experiment is remarkably easy to conduct, because areas resembling Morris's dream already exist. They are America's ghettos.

No, the rich wouldn't have to worry in the brave new world of the ecological protectionist; as David Frum points out in the February American Spectator, the major losers in any protectionist scheme aren't the wealthy but the poor, who are forced to pay brutally high prices for the necessities of life. If ecologists want to use trade as a tool to make the world green, they should fight farm subsidies, which not only encourage farmers to plant millions of acres that, in a free market, would be left in their natural state, but also give billions of dollars, francs, marks, and ECUs to corporate fat cats.

But instead of reducing government, most greens would rather expand it. The same is true of reporters. In the January/February Quill, syndicated columnist Warren T. Brookes examines why the press is so fascinated with the "statist quo." In a sweeping article, Brookes determines that most cries of ecodoom echoed in the news media are shallow and scientifically inaccurate. Some examples:

  • America's forests aren't shrinking—they're growing. In 1952, the United States had 664 million acres of forests; in 1987, 728 million acres. Most of this growth has come in privately owned forest lands east of the Mississippi.
  • The McDonald's switch from polystyrene containers to paper ones does a good deal of harm to the environment. Coated paperboard takes 50 percent more energy to produce than plastic; producing a paperboard carton results in three times as much air pollution as—and 70 percent more water pollution than—producing an equivalent polystyrene carton.
  • The Congressional Research Service found that most oil spills, including the Santa Barbara spills of the 1960s and the Amoco Cadiz disaster of 1978, are "relatively modest, and…of relatively short duration." Fishermen caught more salmon in Prince William Sound after the Exxon-Valdez spill than before.

Why weren't these facts reported? Because it is in the interest of the press, Brookes argues, for government to be as big as possible. More regulation, he says, equals more Washington news and more jobs for reporters. Reporters covering the environment, he says, should be "endlessly skeptical" of statements from industry, the EPA, or environmental lobbies.

While Brookes's solution for environmental reporting is correct, it is likely that "green" stories in the press and on the networks favor environmental lobbies and the government simply because of laziness. Most reporters are liberal-arts majors, uncomfortable with the math-laden nuances of risk analysis. It's much easier to take the reliability of one's sources for granted (as "60 Minutes" apparently did with the Alar story) than to acquire the skills needed to show that these sources are right or wrong. Moreover, most environmental organizations are more responsive to the press than either industry or scientific institutions. If industry flacks were as competent as their counterparts in the National Audubon Society or Greenpeace, coverage would probably be more balanced.

Some environmentalists are beginning to question the need to divide the world into right-thinking people like us and troglodytic tools of industry. "We have a hard time trying to find unbiased writers," says Garbage editor Patricia Poore in her January/February issue, "or information untainted by a political posture." For example, Poore fired one journalist because she extensively quoted environmentalists and bureaucrats but refused to talk to manufacturers because "I know what they'd say anyway."

The "screech" of environmental zealots, says Poore, "is beginning to wear on me like the car horns in New York. Stop honking, for God's sake, and listen up."

Poore's comments are refreshing and on the money. The greens should do three things if they are ever to replace political correctness with solid accomplishment. They should stop wearing hairshirts, cease the endless preaching of eco-Armageddon, and, above all, question authority. All authorities.

Martin Morse Wooster is Washington editor of REASON.