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Across the Board

April 1, 2000

Rough Riders vs. Wonks; Review; book review

Howard Muson

Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists—A Conservative Manifesto
By Peter Huber Basic, $25.00

Can the political right convince the great American public that it is just as green at heart as liberal Democrats, maybe even greener? A good question in this election year, in which Vice President Al Gore, poster boy of the environmental movement, is likely to be the Democratic nominee.

Peter Huber, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, has written a withering attack on the elusive science used by "Soft Greens" to justify regulatory crusades. Corporate leaders may not want to base their public relations on his provocative arguments, but Hard Green makes a strong case against, ideas that have largely shaped the public’s thinking about "saving the planet" in recent decades.

Huber has scorn for an environmental ethic that stresses frugality, scarcity, and passivity toward nature. "Hard Greens," in contrast, take a tough-minded stance, placing more trust in free markets, technology, human ingenuity—and, ultimately, nature’s own healing powers—to correct the worst environmental ills.

Conservatives are good at conserving things—antiquities, historic buildings, institutions. What Hard Greens must work hardest to conserve, says Huber, are dwindling wilderness and recreational areas, where nature’s beauty may be enjoyed and the spirit nourished.

Huber’s hero is Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican who practically invented conservation and in his years as president protected millions of acres of Western land for the enjoyment of future generations. Roosevelt loved "silent places, unworn by man" (not incidentally, he’s one of John McCain’s heroes, too), but Huber admits Roosevelt also loved to shoot the wild animals who roamed those places. T.R. will never get any valentines from Greenpeace.

Huber thinks most conservation should be left to states and counties and the efforts of private-property owners themselves. He favors setting aside more acreage in private land trusts, which he calls the fastest-growing element in the conservation movement. But only the federal government can protect some areas of wilderness because of their sheer size and scope, he says. For Huber, conservation is something that happens in well-defined places you can see on a map, wild places walled off and kept sacrosanct for average folk in their Winnebagos. Regulation, too, was OK in the 1960s and ‘70s when it dealt with large, clearly visible nuisances such as smoke, unsanitary dumps, and algae-choked waters.

But the environmental movement got off track in the 1980s, he argues, when it began using computer models in its relentless pursuit of the invisible—the stray molecule, gases drifting on the wind for hundreds of miles, climatic changes far in the future. With the Endangered Species Act, Soft Greens became champions of the lowly snail darter and kangaroo rat instead of the noble beasts of forests and range—cougar, eagle, bear, and bison. From preservation of the great outdoors, they’ve gone to "officious meddling" with light-bulbs, flush toilets, and hairspray. From Theodore Roosevelt—Rough Rider, hunter, Dakota conservationist—they’ve turned to Al Gore, "fusspot curator, techno-rationalist, Kennedy School wonk."

To Soft Greens who say the pursuit of profit and unbridled economic growth play havoc with nature’s delicate fabric, Huber replies that nature is never in balance; evolution is ceaselessly striving toward ever greater complexity and new equilibria. "The destruction of nature is an aesthetic disaster, but not a utilitarian one," he writes. The pursuit of wealth is, in this view, not the problem but, rather, part of the solution. People and nations begin to care about the environment only when they become more affluent. Free markets and human invention, moreover, can usually be counted on to rescue the world’s people from Maithusian scarcity. "It is when Monsanto develops a new pest-resistant corn that doubles the farmer’s yield per acre that something really is saved: land itself. Same with a growth hormone that delivers more cow and milk on less pasture."

Hard Greens wouldn’t deny that "now and again we stumble across a micro-pollutant that does real harm," Huber says. But he believes countless studies of other substances in the environment— dioxin, PCBs, and "vanishingly small" traces of toxic metals—are contradictory and inconclusive. "For every DDT or mercury, the Softs come up with hundreds of other spurious candidates for very costly control," he says.

One model that Huber singles out for scorn is the "sandpile theory" described by Gore in his book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. The theory is based on the observations by two physicists of changes that occur in sandpiles as grains are added one by one. The researchers found that each new grain sends "force effects" throughout the pile that gradually build up to a critical state and set off "avalanches." Gore invokes this research as a metaphor to describe how the gradual, unremarkable accumulation of chemicals in the environment can trigger a sudden critical event, such as depletion of the stratosphere’s protective ozone layer, attributed to discharge of chemicals in refrigerants and aerosol cans.

The Earth’s average temperature rose about one degree Fahrenheit in the last century, but statistical studies have been unable to establish whether or not the trend will continue and at some point reach criticality. Studies of global warming involve numbingly complex variables. As an example, Huber points out that every trend in these studies depends on just how clouds form when extra water vapor is added to the air. "If the clouds are thick and puffy, they may have one thermal effect; if they are thin and flat, they most probably have the opposite effect. It all depends on whether overall they reflect more inbound sunlight or reflect more outbound heat."

Huber’s solution to the so-called greenhouse effect is not more regulation but more carbon-sucking trees. Instead of spending billions on misguided programs like Superfund, he says, we should use the money to buy more green spaces and plant new forests. Instead of pouring money into recycling, we should bury organic and plastic trash deep underground, returning carbon to the earth—"mummifying" it. Like the environmentalists, Huber wants to protect the surface of the Earth from too many encroachments. "The greenest possible strategy," he says, "is to mine and bury, to fly and to tunnel, to search high and low, where the life mostly isn’t, and so to leave the edge, the space in the middle, living and green."

In two previous books, Huber, an MIT-trained engineer with a Harvard Law degree, railed against the rampant use of junk science in the nation’s courts. He clearly has a solid grasp of scientific method, and for that reason his distrust of studies of the invisible and the "vanishingly small" strikes me as disingenuous. We humans are surrounded by radiation, mutating viruses, and other invisible potential killers. With issues as important as the Earth’s climate, it’s vital to keep on collecting data and creating models that anticipate dangers, even if we don’t act until the data is persuasive.

Hard Green can perhaps help corporate executives strengthen their case against the environmentalists’ extreme claims, but they’d be wise to eschew Huber’s moralistic tone. Turning questions of how best to "save the planet" into an ideological war will only further polarize the debate. Huber, for example, seems to regard the demented ravings of Ted Kaczynski’s "green manifesto" as just an extension of environmentalist attitudes. (His cheapest shot: He attacks unnamed Soft Green advocates who "recycle their wives as readily as they recycle their glass bottles.")

The public is disturbed by the pollution of local rivers and streams, the disruption of the world’s climate, disappearing plant and animal species, the seeming willy-nilly introduction of gene-altered crops and foodstuffs. No matter how weak the science used to feed such fears, corporations have to recognize and come to terms with them. (Remember Seattle!) Working with the more moderate environmental organizations to reduce their own environmental impact—as many have—is one way for companies to reassure the public. Companies such as DuPont, 3M, Toyota, Xerox, and Royal Dutch/Shell have found, moreover, that reducing their greenhouse emissions through energy efficiencies has led to gains in productivity and profits.

Curiously for a conservative Huber urges the walling off of more open spaces for the public’s enjoyment strictly on "aesthetic" grounds, suggesting that economic activity has no place within the walls. This position will not endear him to Republican ranchers, loggers, and mining and power companies in the West that have long argued for compromises between economic and recreational use of land and other resources. (Teddy Roosevelt himself, owner of a ranch in the Dakotas, supported such "wise use," which set him apart from pure preservationists like John Muir.)

The vast majority of Americans strongly favor creating and expanding public parklands and other recreational areas. Hard Greens trying to get on the side of the angels will find that some Squishy Greens have gotten there before them. In January, President Clinton created three new national monuments in the West and expanded a fourth bringing the total land his administration has protected from development to 2.7 million acres. With an eye toward his personal legacy, Clinton helicoptered to the lip of the Grand Canyon to make the announcement—the same spot where Teddy Roosevelt stood when he declared the canyon a national monument nearly a century ago.

HOWARD MUSON, former editor of Across the Board, writes frequently about environmental issues. His last article was a review of The Hidden Champions in the February 1997 issue.

© 2000 Across the Board

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