The Volokh Conspiracy

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Robert H. Nelson, R.I.P.

On the loss of a prolific scholar and independent thinker.


In the closing weeks of 2018, we lost one of the nation's most important and independent scholars of natural resource management, land use, and environmental policy. On December 15, Professor Robert H. "Bob" Nelson of the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs died of natural causes while attending a conference in Finland. His voice and insight will be missed.

I first met Bob while he was an analyst at the Department of the Interior's Office of Policy Analysis, where he served for nearly two decades. Once he left Interior to join the University of Maryland, I had the honor to work with him when he became a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where I ran the environmental studies program. I did not always agree with Bob's analysis or his conclusions, but I always learned from his work and our lengthy conversations on a wide range of subjects.

A Princeton-trained economist, Bob had a unique ability to combine economic analysis with cultural and institutional insight. His work spanned federal land management and land-use policy to the influence of religious thought and values on environmental and economic policy. He wrote important works on zoning and private land-use controls, public land management and fire control in national forests. (Spoiler alert: He was no fan of the Forest Service.) For the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana (where I am a senior fellow), he also wrote recent studies on the idea of "charter forests" and lessons federal land managers could learn from the states.

Not all of Bob's work was immediately practical and policy focused. A recurring theme in his work was the extent to which America's religious heritage influenced political ideology and policy agendas. He argued that much of contemporary environmental thought is effectively Calvinist (and creationist) in its worldview, as in this cover story for The Weekly Standard. It began:

For ten points, identify the secretary of the interior who once said that his political enemies were out to destroy him because they were "so deeply disturbed by the prospect of religious values entering the national debate" and that they should follow his policies because said policies are commanded in the Bible and reflect a "plan of God." The choices are (a) Cecil Andrus of the Carter administration; (b) James Watt of the Reagan administration; and (c) Bruce Babbitt of the Clinton administration. Most people would assume James Watt is the answer. Wrong. The correct answer is Bruce Babbitt.

It concluded:

For most of its history, environmentalism has been more a substitute for, than a complement to, religious institutions. Environmentalism appropriated a Judeo-Christian message, already deeply ingrained in the national psyche, to a new and largely secular vocabulary. This combination proved immensely attractive to large numbers of people hungry for spiritual values but seemingly unable to find them from more traditional outlets.

One can sympathize with the need to search for new religious answers at a time when the forces of modernity often seem to have undercut the moral foundations of American society. Yet, when government can barely get the potholes filled in the streets, it is still startling to think that the secretary of the interior regards his position as a suitable pulpit for spreading the word of God.

I suspect it was some of this work—and his criticism of federal land management agencies—that led the Unabomber to add Bob to his list of potential targets (a threat that thankfully never materialized).

Environmentalism was not a particular target, for he showed how much contemporary economic thinking suffers from the same failing in a series of books, including Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics and Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond. He combined these subjects in The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs Environmental Religion in Contemporary America.

Among his last works was the book God? Very Probably: Five Rational Ways to Think about the Question of a God. I have not read this book, but I suspect I would learn much from it. Whether or not I agreed with Bob's conclusions or his analysis, I always found his work to be engaging, wide-ranging and provocative in the best way. He enjoyed ideas and considering new perspectives on old questions, turning over long-dormant rocks to see what might lie beneath. He was the best sort of public intellectual—precisely the sort we have too little of today.