The last time we checked in with Jerry Brown, California's governor for life, he was channeling his best Zen-fascist aura, taking a break from hawking a monstrously stupid and expensive high-speed rail project, and forcing Golden State residents to ration the home use of water.
This, despite the inconvenient truth that California's highly subsidized agribultural sector uses 80 percent of the state's available water, often to grow water-intensive crops such as almonds and alfalfa. For all that, ag contributes a puny 2 percent of the state's GDP. So by all means, squeeze residential users rather than, I don't know, introduce markets, property rights, and real prices into water consumption.
But today is Earth Day, so Brown, the subject of what is to my mind one of the greatest political protest songs ever (California Uber Alles, by the Dead Kennedys), is upping End-of-Worldism that has often accompanied his rhetoric. He has now issued the following "Warning to Humanity":
Five inextricably linked areas must be addressed simultaneously:
1. We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth's systems we depend on. We must, for example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water. Priority must be given to the development of energy sources matched to third world needs–small scale and relatively easy to implement. We must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and marine plant and animal species.
2. We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively. We must give high priority to efficient use of energy, water, and other materials, including expansion of conservation and recycling.
3. We must stabilize population. This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.
4. We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty.
5. We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions.
This sort of thing is pro forma on Earth Day, despite the fact that many of the causes and concerns that spurred the first Earth Day are in fact much, much better. Air quality is better everywhere in the United States than it used to be (full disclosure: that's in large part to top-down regulations that libertarians typically rail against). So is water quality. Nobody's a litter bug anymore and trash is no longer a leading cause of aural stereotypes in public-service announcements (listen to the most-famous PSA ever and tell me its soundtrack isn't offensive to contemporary ears). The only people still hopped-up about overpopulation are, apparently, Jerry Brown, anti-immigration activists, and disgruntled ex-Sierra Club supporters. As Jonathan V. Last documented in his excellent 2013 study, What to Expect When No One's Expecting, the global fertility rate was 6.0 in 1979; it's now at 2.52 and dropping so fast that 97 percent of the world's population lives in a country where fertility is declining.
As Ronald Bailey, Reason's Science Correspondent, wrote in 2010 (when Earth Day turned 40), the environmentalist thinking behind the celebration has a long history of changing its goals once they are reached. Like the neocon militarists, greens don't seem to want to declare victory and bring the troops home. Rather, they want to reinvent the goals and aims of the movement and extend their mission. Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who more or less invented Earth Day, outlined initial goals for the environmentalist movement, including cleaning the country's air and water. Once those goals were attained, notes Bailey, Nelson issued a new set of wider-ranging goals, including:
- Establish the right of every citizen to plan his family.
- Establishment of a federal environmental advocacy agency.
- Halt pollution of our seas—moratorium on Outer Continental Shelf oil drilling.
- Establish a national environmental education program encompassing pre-school through college.
- Divert money from interstate highway construction to public transportation.
- National land use planning so as to "halt the chaotic unplanned combination of urban sprawl and industrial expansion." This included a ban on strip mining and the filling of wetlands. In addition, he wanted to expand national parks and other reserves.
- Establish a national minerals and resource policy—change the mining law of 1872.
- Establish a nonpartisan national environmental political organization.
- Establish a national air and water quality policy.
Well, OK, then. All of that wouldn't just extend the mission, they would entail vast new powers to regulate and even micromanage people's lives in all sorts of ways. In a characteristically brilliant and still-prescient May 1999 piece about attempts to regulate human activity, former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel talked about how environmentalism offered a rationale for all sorts of regulation of everyday life. Free-market advocates understand externalities, she wrote, but the concept was becoming infinitely elastic in an era when networks and integrated systems were becoming the dominant metaphors about economics and global interactions.
Most of us have been willing to grant the problem of externalities in such areas as air pollution and to look for ways of addressing it with minimal disruption of market processes. But it's not that hard to declare that every market action has potentially negative spillover effects. The infinitely elastic version of the externality argument turns the language of market-oriented economics against the essential nature of commerce. Indeed, we increasingly see the externality argument aimed not at producers, the traditional target, but at consumers. My choice of which movies to watch creates cultural pollution. My purchase of convenient packaging produces environmental waste. My house color or garage facade does not please the neighbors. My purchase of consumer goods leads to "luxury fever" that hurts everyone. We are all connected in the marketplace, and therefore, in this view, our actions must be tightly regulated to contain spillovers.
Read Jerry Brown's warning and then Postrel's piece. Written in a different century, it nonetheless anticipates many of the themes Brown hammers on about and offers up a better way of thinking about progress, interconnectedness, and human action and freedom. In the same issue, she also writes about "the dangers of calling everything pollution."
And if you want a quick reminder of just how much better virtually every aspect of life is today on Spaceship Earth, take a quick peek at Ronald Bailey's review of the cutting-edge statement of environmentalist alarmism, Overdevelopment Overpopulation Overshoot. Dubbing the lushly illustrated tome "the big coffee table book of doom," Bailey writes:
On the back of the book, physicist Albert Bartlett starkly asks: "Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?" The folks at populationspeakout.org apparently think this is a devastating observation. But is it?
In his insightful 2013 book The Infinite Resource, the technologist Ramez Naam counters such thoughts with another question: "Would your life be better off if only half as many people had lived before you?" In this thought experiment, you don't get to pick which people are never born. Perhaps there would have been no Newton, Edison, or Pasteur, no Socrates, Shakespeare, or Jefferson. "Each additional idea is a gift to the future," Naam writes. "Each additional idea producer is a source of wealth for future generations." Fewer people means fewer new ideas about how to improve humanity's lot and to further decouple our endeavors from the natural world. "If we fix our economic system and invest in the human capital of the poor," Naam writes, "then we should welcome every new person born as a source of betterment for our world and all of us on it."
The goal of empowering women and girls is central to making the world a better place. It is the right thing to do regardless of the effects on future population trends, though the evidence does suggest that the results will please those worried about "overpopulation." Focusing just on the increase of human numbers is a distraction and misleads the public and policymakers from what really needs to be done for humanity and the natural world to flourish. Happy Earth Day 45!
Indeed, Earth Day 45 finds the planet and its people in surprisingly good shape. Not perfect by any stretch but like Joe Namath used to say, getting better-looking every day.
And for god's sake—Gaia's sake?—watch this Reason TV video about "The Top 5 Environmental Disasters That DIDN'T Happen":