Environmentalism

Preservation Instincts

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Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists: A Conservative Manifesto, by Peter Huber, New York: Basic Books, 208 pages, $25.00

This manifesto for a "conservative" environmentalism by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Peter Huber is being promoted as an answer to Albert Gore's 1992 alarmist tract, Earth in the Balance. Huber, a Forbes magazine columnist and the author of Liability: The Legal Revolution and Its Consequences (1988) and Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom (1991), is an excellent writer and provocative thinker. He begins his analysis in this book by making a useful distinction between Soft Green and Hard Green.

"Soft Green is the realm of huge populations (molecules, particles) paired with very weak (low-probability) or slow (long time frame) effects," Huber writes. "Soft Green is the Green of the invisible, the Green of the highly dispersed or the far future. To believe in Soft Green you must either be a savant or put a great deal of trust in one. To the Soft Green, the model is everything."

Soft Greens worry about largely invisible threats, such as parts per billion pesticide residues in food, or about dangers that are distant and vague, such as global warming or exhaustion of resources. Huber argues that Soft Greens can justify intervening in any human activity on the basis of their all-seeing computer models. Soft Green environmentalism doesn't need tangible evidence of harm. The most notorious Soft Greens are Rachel Carson, the Limits to Growth crowd, Paul Ehrlich, and Al Gore.

"Hard Green was and remains traditional conservation," writes Huber. "To believe in Hard Green we merely have to love the outdoors, the unspoiled wilderness, forest, river, and shore. It takes no special expertise, no extraordinary discernment, and not much science. It requires no big model of the far future. All it takes is an eye for natural beauty, a reverence for life, a sense of awe for the boundless grandeur of creation."

Hard Greens aim to ameliorate environmental problems that are clearly visible, easy to touch and smell, and are in the here and now. They want to do things like preserve forests, protect landscapes, and abate noxious pollution. Hard Greens embrace the tradition of wilderness conservation championed by Teddy Roosevelt.

Soft Greens rely on what Huber calls "sandpile theory." In sandpiles, each additional grain of sand causes little change until at last one hits the pile at a critical point and the pile collapses in a catastrophic avalanche. No one can be sure which additional grain of sand (environmental stressor) will cause the catastrophe, so Soft Greens conclude that we should be very careful about adding any stresses at all. "The sandpile theory–self-organized criticality–is irresistible as a metaphor," enthuses Soft Green presidential candidate Al Gore.

"The truth is, sandpiles are too inherently complex for theories about them to yield any practical green advice at all," responds Huber. "Most of the time, there is simply no way to know in advance whether a nuke, a swamp, or a Buick has the behavioral characteristics of a sandpile or glob of honey. We can confidently label something a `sandpile' only after we've seen the collapse."

The Soft Greens' sandpile theory underlies their worrisome faith in the so-called precautionary principle, which demands the impossible requirement that every human activity be proved safe before it is allowed to go forward. By subscribing to sandpile theory, Soft Greens can simply dismiss arguments that are based on past evidence and experience. If the facts don't fit the theory, that's just too bad for the facts. In the Soft Green view, naively insisting on evidence merely gives us hapless humans a false sense of security–the collapse is coming, but we have no way of knowing when.

Nothing is beyond the scope of Soft Green environmentalism because anything, as the computer models can be made to show, could be a sandpile. Sandpile theory justifies regulating everything from backyard barbecues and toilet tanks to nuclear power plants and the global atmosphere.

Hard Greens eschew complicated computer models and the speculative harms they generate for concrete things like pea soup smog and sludge-filled rivers. Hard Greens, according to Huber, want the government to define property rights over such pollution and then let private markets solve the problem. While Huber admits that the details of such schemes would be complicated, he argues that the principle is simple.

For example, governments could issue emission permits for all cars currently on the road. Car owners would possess the permits free and clear, and the permits would cover whatever level of pollution each car currently emits. When an owner goes to buy a new car, however, he will also have to buy the right to emit from someone who currently holds a permit. The result: "The market cannot create more permits. But it can create direct competitive substitutes: pollution abatement technology, procedures, and strategies. And so it does, driving the price of pollution abatement down steadily. On an ongoing basis, for new cars, pollution costs are fully internalized." Huber points to the current market in sulfur dioxide emission permits as evidence that similar schemes would work and insists that "many quite elusive externalities, from sewage to whales, can be internalized in this general way."

Huber points out that Soft Greens fear modern technology as both brittle (a sandpile) and overwhelming. Consequently they counsel humanity to cut back on the "overconsumption" that technology makes possible because it is supposedly unsustainable and destructive of nature. In their view, material poverty is good because it means that people are consuming less of nature.

Huber clearly demonstrates that the Soft Green fear of technology and economic growth is in fact profoundly anti-environmental in effect and leads directly to the destruction of nature. For example, many Soft Greens favor organic farming and producing energy by converting biomass or using windmills. These low-tech prescriptions would be disastrous for the natural world. By boosting farm productivity, modern, high-tech, chemically based agriculture has literally saved hundreds of millions of acres of land for nature; inefficient organic farming would have doomed millions of acres. The Soft Green energy prescription is especially destructive, since growing combustible biomass and building windmill farms would mean the clearing of millions more acres of land. Our modern energy system uses fuels–oil, gas, coal, and uranium–that are not derived from the biosphere, and thus it harms the natural world less.

Huber is clearly right when he points out that poverty causes environmental damage while wealth protects the natural world. "The rich, not the poor, are the ones actively committed to conserving wildlife, forest, seashore and ocean," he writes. "The charge that the rich are the despoilers, the exhausters, the expropriators of the planet's biological wealth is simply false. Rich people did not invent slavery, they ended it. Rich people did not invent the oppression of women, they ended it. Rich people did not invent environmental destruction. The rich are ending it."

Even the most casual inspection of the evidence shows that the countries with the cleanest rivers, the clearest air, expanding forests, and the most protected wildernesses are the wealthiest countries with the greatest economic growth.

Huber treads perilous ground, however, when he argues that government can be used to advance conservative environmental goals, particularly the preservation of wilderness. "All in all, private conservation is, by a wide margin, the most important form of conservation we have," he acknowledges. That said, he hastens to argue that "at some point the vastness of White Mountains and Everglades, or river archipelagos and coral reefs and the sheer scope and scale of the most ambitious conservation objectives require a reach to match. That means the reach of local, state, and federal governments." Huber says government can play a necessary role expanding and protecting "the wilderness broadly defined–because the objective here is to see to it that in those places nothing much is done at all. Nothing is the one thing that big government is capable of doing quite well, and doing nothing is the paramount objective of conservation."

Government can, of course, buy land under the doctrine of eminent domain if taxpayers are willing to foot the bill. But the federal government already owns 28 percent of the land area of the United States, and Huber does not specify how much more he would like it to acquire. Furthermore, when Huber talks about "wilderness" he doesn't make clear distinctions between national parks, wilderness areas, national forests, etc. Ultimately he doesn't seem to want to "conserve" so much as "preserve" wilderness. He would limit human activity in his government wilderness areas to recreation only. By contrast, Huber's icon, ur-conservationist Teddy Roosevelt, wanted to conserve forests largely so that they could produce lumber in the future. In Huber's "conservative commune" such productive activities would be forbidden.

It's an open question whether government conservation of wilderness is better or worse than private efforts. Although Huber might dismiss the vast private well-managed forests in Northern Maine or the rapidly expanding forestlands in the South as not wilderness enough, they function well ecologically and are superb havens for a huge variety of wildlife. Meanwhile, the history of federal land management is rife with failures. It was, after all, the Army Corps of Engineers that channelized, dredged, dammed, and drained all those rivers and wetlands. It was the Bureau of Land Management that deployed "range improvement" programs that ripped up native vegetation on thousands of square miles of land and offered below-market leases that ultimately encouraged overgrazing on its ranges. And as Alston Chase has amply shown in his book Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park, federal managers of U.S. national parks, despite Huber's claim to the contrary, don't "do nothing" very well at all.

Huber acknowledges that political management has been problematic, but I suspect that because he is in a hurry to protect what he loves, he is willing to justify the use of government to promote the values he personally deems important. He apparently believes that without government efforts to preserve wilderness, we will drive willy-nilly into the "high-tech hell" of a future where nature will be stamped out beneath a technologically triumphant humanity. "In all likelihood… high-tech environmental hell is perfectly feasible, sustainable, and viable," Huber writes. "Humans multiply like grains of sand on the shore. The entire surface of the planet ends up like Manhattan, without Central Park. These thoughts are repellent, but that does not make them untrue. Our most likely future is a high-tech hell: comfortable, stable, sustainable, perfected in every way for the comfort of our species and no other."

Huber is so anxious to avoid the high-tech hell he predicts that he reaches for government power to stop it. Having donned his seer's hat, he then curiously castigates both neo-Malthusians and techno-optimists for making "big future" predictions, insisting that they are simply flip sides of the same determinist coin. It is true that neo-Malthusians such as Stanford University's Paul Ehrlich and Worldwatch Institute President Lester Brown make supposedly precise predictions about the coming catastrophic destruction of nature and human society. And on the basis of their models, neo-Malthusians claim that they know exactly what needs to be done and therefore should be given political power to avert the looming doom.

Of course, techno-optimists, including many of the Wired magazine crowd or so-called Extropians, also make forecasts about the future, but Huber's charge that they are as deterministic as the neo-Malthusians is too strong. Contrary to Huber's claims, most technological optimists don't generally prescribe ends. Like Huber himself, they prescribe means, and the means are essentially identical to Huber's: markets, property, and freedom.

As technology improves, we learn to do more with less, and we depend less on the living resources of nature. Already, increased agricultural productivity has enabled the expansion of temperate forests in the U.S. and Western Europe. And this could easily become a worldwide phenomenon, according to noted agricultural researcher Paul Waggoner. "If during the next sixty to seventy years the world farmer reaches the average yield of today's US corn grower, the ten billion will need only half of today's cropland while they eat today's American calories," concludes Waggoner in his article, "How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature?" in the summer 1996 issue of Daedelus. Similar trends can be seen with regard to levels of air and water pollution: As productivity increases, pollution levels fall. So in fact the technological progress celebrated by techno-optimists is arguably more likely to permit the flowering of a green paradise than it is to result in a Huberian "high-tech hell."

Nevertheless, Huber is far more right than he is wrong. As he shows, Soft Green programs and policies do imperil both the natural world and the economic progress humanity needs. If all we had to worry about is whether or not the government should buy up more land, we would very well off indeed. By focusing on tangible environmental goals like protecting wilderness and abating noisome levels of pollution, Hard Green conservatives can legitimately appeal to the majority of Americans who share these goals and lead them away from the dangerous, self-defeating fantasies peddled by Soft Green alarmists. That would be good for the polity and good for the natural world. In the end, though, Huber should have more confidence than he apparently does in freedom and markets to provide the innovations, wealth, and incentives needed to protect what we value.

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