Nature's Nature


A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, by Gregg Easterbrook, New York: Viking, 745 pages, $27.95

In the minds of certain environmentalists, the environment is a grand term, which encompasses the entire universe. Except for man. In "the environment," species can prey on others and gain at other species' expense. Only man is judged by a different standard. "The environment" is peopled with intelligent-seeming creatures, such as dolphins, monkeys, and beavers, which use tools, build structures, and have some understanding of the world around them. Man alone is denied this dignity. True, there are reactionaries in human society who believe that man, by virtue of being a rational being, has certain inalienable rights, and that people should be able to keep what they produce and associate with others for mutual benefit. But the environmental movement scoffs at such notions. Only "the environment," which has no values, has rights—and those are inviolable.

As Gregg Easterbrook points out in A Moment on the Earth, mystical notions of the environmental movement do no good, either to ourselves or to the earth. What we need, he says, is a healthy dose of "ecorealism." "The core principles of ecorealism," he tells us, "are these: that logic, not sentiment, is the best tool for safeguarding nature; that accurate understanding of the actual state of the environment will serve the Earth better than expressions of panic; that in order to form a constructive alliance with nature, men and women must learn to think like nature."

Former EPA chief William Reilly has called A Moment on the Earth "the most influential book since Silent Spring," the Rachel Carson work that launched the apocalypse-mongering environmental movement. Given the sort of press Moment has been getting, Reilly's encomium may be correct.

Easterbrook, a contributing editor of Newsweek and frequent presence in The Atlantic Monthly, is a prominent neo-liberal who has distinguished himself by, among other things, being the only major writer to vocally praise the Canadian health care system. With this book, though, he sets himself apart from the mainstream environmentalist movement, which has gotten bogged down in Chicken Little tactics and divorced from most Americans' vision of environmental protection. Yet he has no kind words for conservative anti-environmentalists (whom he calls "unviros"). Accordingly, the book is guaranteed to be either praised or panned by every TV show, newspaper, and magazine worth its salt—and sometimes both praised and panned simultaneously. (See, for instance, this article.)

The first myths Easterbrook takes on are the easiest to attack—claims that are factually false. The environments of Western countries have been getting cleaner at the same time that most people think they've been getting more polluted. Judging from current trends, pollution in the Western world will end within our lifetimes. Most people think that developed countries are the environmental rogues, but in fact they're much cleaner than developing nations. Runaway global warming almost certainly won't happen. Same goes for scary ozone depletion scenarios and most other feared catastrophes. American forests are expanding. Technological progress is a good thing: Most new technologies are more efficient, use fewer resources, produce less waste, and cause less ecological disruption than old ones.

Myths based on bad facts can only be countered with good ones, of which Easterbrook has plenty. Asbestos, Alar, DDT, and PCBs—poisons of man—are no more dangerous than arsenic, cadmium, and lead—poisons of nature. We've got 128 million more acres of forests today than we did in 1920, and paper-company-owned-and-managed forests have more biodiversity than the revered old-growth forests. Factories are more sustainable than subsistence agriculture. There's no clear relationship between how close you are to toxic wastes and whether or not you'll get cancer. Air quality in major urban areas is getting better, not worse; ozone (the bad kind), a major air pollutant, has gone down 40 percent since 1970 in Los Angeles, even as the car population has tripled.

Then there are the subtler myths about the nature of the environment and the relationship between man and nature. The most pervasive one is that nature is fragile. It isn't: "Were the environment fragile it would have expired many eons before the advent of the industrial affronts of the dreaming ape. Human assaults on the environment, though mischievous, are pinpricks compared to forces of the magnitude nature is accustomed to resisting," writes Easterbrook.

Two corollaries to this myth are the "environmental correctness" and the "stop-in-place" myths: the idea that there is a correct environment and that if only we preserved nature, it would stay that way forever. But there's no such thing as the "correct" environment; "every environment and habitat comes into existence fated to end," Easterbrook reminds us.

Another widespread myth is that nature is benign. It isn't, and is certainly worse than people. "Flooding land to make the James Bay power reservoirs unquestionably kills a tiny percentage of the plants and animals of subarctic Quebec; the Laurentide ice sheet once killed 100 percent of the surface creatures that lived there," says Easterbrook. As mothers go, Mother Nature has more in common with Joan Crawford than Donna Reed.

The worst myth, though, is that there's a conflict between the artificial and the natural. There isn't. Artificial chemicals are made of the same stuff as natural chemicals. To condemn a substance, we have to know what it does. Whether it comes from a forest or a factory is immaterial. And there's no inherent conflict between man and nature. "To reject the human presence as unnatural evinces fundamental misreading of the character of the living world," Easterbrook charges. "Humankind springs from the natural scheme just as does any beast or plant."

Easterbrook is right on target here in his enviro-bashing. The news on all of the traditional environmental problems is almost uniformly good, and yet environmentalists talk as if we're doomed. "Is everybody talking about the same world?" he asks.

But Easterbrook often misses the mark. For instance, he has an incomplete understanding of the notion of trade-offs. In reality, you can't always get what you want; policies have unintended consequences and plans designed to help can end up hurting. Sometimes, Easterbrook knows this: "Certainly it is possible to become oversensitive to environmental protection and spend more than necessary, given society's other needs….Asbestos regulation costs up to $49 million per premature death avoided. This sum adds a hypothetical few years to the ends of a few people's lives, when the money might be invested in education, health care, crime prevention, or other social needs with much better paybacks."

At other times, though, Easterbrook talks like this: "Toxics cannot possibly be good for us or the ecology. That's all we really need to know to justify a goal of zero toxic discharge." Easterbrook qualifies himself with phrases like "wherever practical," which are always correct and usually unhelpful. He never tells us how we figure out when something is practical (or why government knows better than individuals when something is practical). He doesn't tell us why toxics aren't good for us. It seems to need no proof, but it does, mainly because it's not true—everything is dangerous at some dose and harmless at another. And while Easterbrook recognizes that there's no inherent difference between natural and synthetic chemicals, I can't imagine him advocating "zero natural chemical production."

In economics and the environment, Easterbrook likes the "reasonable"—that which is "attainable politically and bearable economically." Reasonable and bearable are more words that mean less than they seem; they don't even tell us whether we're moving in the right direction.

And Easterbrook is only selectively pro-moderation. With acid rain, Easterbrook defends the EPA for seeking only moderate air emissions reductions. But he whistles a different tune on the pesticide Alar. He concedes that the case against Alar was based on shoddy science. But "society is better off without Alar" because "Alar was used mainly to make apples extra red instead of only sorta red, and who really cares about that?"

Well, apple buyers seem to care about that, and so do apple growers. I'm more likely to buy a bright red apple than a dull red apple. Alar also inhibited the growth of some bad apple fungi, which are worse for your health. So eliminating Alar may have actually harmed the public health by giving us fewer and more dangerous apples. But you wouldn't know it from this book. Easterbrook also likes that the Alar flap made the EPA more responsive to the public. Not a word on whether it's a good thing for agencies to be more responsive to public hysteria over nonexistent threats.

Easterbrook grants that scientists don't know what causes cancer or whether a 1-in-10,000 risk is better than a 1-in-1,000,000 risk. But since toxics are obviously bad, the question is merely: "How much protection can we afford?" In other words, it's always good to eliminate even the most hypothetical threat, as long as it doesn't plunge us into a depression. No talk of what's a negligible risk; no talk of balancing costs and benefits; no talk of whether growers have a right to use pesticides and let those who don't like it buy organic. Moderate? Reasonable? Hardly.

There's a deeper flaw here. Easterbrook can't answer a basic environmental question: "How do you know when something is bad for the environment?" According to Easterbrook, there are "a wide range of human actions careless, selfish, or destructive to the environment." That's a statement that few would argue with. But what is that wide range of actions? To Easterbrook, things are bad for the environment when they harm "the integrity of nature."

Of course, just saying that is of no help. A radical environmentalist like Bill McKibben might say that any rational human act harms the integrity of nature, because a) we're not part of nature, b) nature is random and spontaneous, and c) nature is fragile. Easterbrook can't say that, since he's rejected all three points of that philosophy. We're part of nature, rationality is our natural gift, and nature is robust. Phrases like "the integrity of nature" should be especially problematic for Easterbrook, with his tirades against the myth of Environmental Correctness. If nature has no proper state, how can you tell when it's doing badly?

Easterbrook's answer is subtler than the radical environmental notion, and, in a way, less satisfying. To say that an action toward nature is "wrong" requires a set of values by which to judge which actions are "right" and which ones are "wrong." Easterbrook's approach is to derive values from nature by "thinking like nature." He reveals his grand scheme of the universe in such statements as: "All impertinent actions by genus Homo combined have yet to produce anything approaching the environmental damage nature inflicts on itself on a recurrent basis." Even nature can do bad things. "Natural" values may be derived from nature, but even nature doesn't always follow them.

This exercise reveals more about himself than about nature, because what he's doing is reading his favorite values into nature. Whatever Easterbrook likes, nature is "striving for"—life, cooperation between species, self-awareness. For instance, "acquiring consciousness is what nature has been up to these 3.8 billion years." Whatever he doesn't like is a "structural flaw"—death by natural catastrophe, death by predation, death by disease, competition between species, the eating of meat (especially veal).

Of course, by choosing the right structural flaws, one can prove anything. For instance, he says, "To nature the circumstances of this solar system must seem fundamentally wrong. Nature wants life: On our world nature has shown unmistakably that it wants the maximum amount of the ecology to live." But suppose I said the opposite: "To nature the circumstances of Earth must seem fundamentally wrong. Nature abhors life: In the rest of the universe nature has shown unmistakably that it wants nothing but inanimate objects." Which statement is more correctly derived from nature?

In short, you can't derive values from nature without contaminating them with your own values. Easterbrook makes his personal values clear from the beginning: "The first round of environmental investments did not fail; they worked, which is a great reason to have more. I consider this glorious if only because as a political liberal I long for examples of government action that serve the common good. The extraordinary success of modern environmental protection is such an example: perhaps the best instance of government-led social progress in our age."

Easterbrook's vision of social progress generally is a government-led one. Cooperation is better than competition; let's alter animal genes to make them live in harmony! Eating vegetables is better than eating meat; let's produce synthetic meat! Killing is bad; let's change human genes to eliminate killing! (Of course, he qualifies himself: "[I]nstitutions of government must be reformed to the point of being consistently benevolent…before anyone in his or her right mind would endorse tinkering with the human gene line.") We shouldn't expose our children to pesticides that only make apples really red; let's remove Alar from society! Despite its declared goal, A Moment on the Earth isn't a study in how to think like nature; it's a study in how to think like Gregg Easterbrook.

It's possible to construct a system without such contradictions. For instance, a viable environmental philosophy could be based on the following notion: "Man is part of nature. Nature has no thoughts, feelings, or values. Therefore, we should do what we think is best, without regard for whether nature wants it. Our actions should be based on a certain theory of rights and a vision of the good life." Such a vision needn't be anti-nature. For instance, if you believe in preserving species diversity or ancient forests, you can protect them and try to build a society that will do the same.

But if you want to protect species and discourage industrial civilization—or whatever your vision is—you should advocate it because you think it's a good idea. Bringing in the fiction of "thinking like nature" is merely an excuse for reading your values into nature and cloaking them with the veil of objectivity. Easterbrook is unwilling to drop the fiction, and his book, while at times factually interesting, is ultimately unconvincing.

Alexander Volokh (volokh@netcom.com) is an environmental policy analyst with the Reason Foundation.