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The American Prospect
April 24, 2000

Herman Daly

Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (A Conservative Manifesto), by Peter Huber.
Basic Books, 209 pages, $25.00.

In Hard Green, Peter Huber, a lawyer and Ph.D. engineer with the Manhattan Institute, concludes a paragraph about the efficiency of the free market in handling trash by noting, "In times of desperate famine, starving African children pick through human excrement in search of undigested kernels of corn." I have been engaged in the less tragic, though wholly analogous, task of trying to find some kernels of intellectual nourishment in Huber's book.

I did find a few and will share them later. But I confess that they were hard to extract, given the repetitive harangue and overstatement that Huber prefers to systematic argument and documentation.

But then, this is not a scholarly book. It is a political tract aimed at the coming election. The political message is that Al Gore—style environmentalism is bad, and Teddy Roosevelt—style environmentalism is good. Of course Roosevelt will not be running against Gore, but George W. Bush might find a use for Huber's hard-green banner. Environmentalists liked Gore's book Earth in the Balance and, to the extent they think that Gore still remembers it, will be inclined to vote for him rather than for "Dubya." But Huber's hope seems to be that if the Republican mantle of Roosevelt's conservationism can be cleaned up, then Dubya could wear it to the ball and dance with the environmentalists without alienating the growth-pushing roughriders who brought him and expect to take him home.

Huber's plan of argument: "Expose the soft green fallacy. Reverse soft green policy. Rediscover Theodore Roosevelt. Reaffirm the conservationist ethic. Save the environment from the environmentalists." Critical to Huber's case is the big difference he sees between Roosevelt and Gore on the environment. Roosevelt is "hard," macho, high-tech green, concerned with the macro, visible environment of mountains, forests, geysers, big game, big dams, and nuclear power plants. Gore is a "soft," sissy, low-tech green, a nervous Nellie worried about the micro environment, invisible things like molecules and intangibles like complex systems and ecological fragilities. The macro environment can be separated by boundaries and governed by hard-green property rights and markets, invariably "free" markets, which lead to unlimited wealth and are immune to resource shortages or polluted spaces. The micro environment of migrating molecules and complex interdependencies that the soft greens emphasize does not respect property rights; therefore, efforts to deal with them lead to central planning and communism, under the intellectual leadership of Huber's bete noire, the soft-technology guru and alleged market-hating central planner, Amory Lovins.

Huber borrowed the hard-soft imagery from Lovins (author of Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace) as a way of emphasizing their differences, but without specifically engaging Lovins's arguments. Lovins, in fact, is a strong proponent of markets and the profit motive. He believes that resource-efficient technologies already exist and more are being developed rapidly by the market—the same market that has turned thumbs down on nuclear power in spite of the enormous government subsidies and regulative apparatus that Huber glosses over in discussing his favorite hard-green technology. Lovins sees big, dangerous, subsidized nuclear power as inconsistent with Jeffersonian democracy, while end-use efficiency improvements are smaller, cheaper, decentralizing, and more conducive to democracy. A more systematic critique of Lovins's arguments would have been helpful.

What has led Gore and the soft greens astray, Huber believes, is the "sandpile metaphor," which Huber explains: "You can see it in an egg timer. The sand trickles down to form a pile, the pile grows, its sides grow steeper, until finally they exceed some critical slope, and there is a sudden avalanche. Each additional grain produces almost no visible effect until the last one kicks off a massive slide." The problem with "sandpiles unlimited," Huber points out, is that "[l]ots of complex things aren't sandpiles. When honey descends drop by drop onto a plate, guess what? The collapse never comes, it all stays slow and smooth, and you can stop the gooey spread whenever you like.... If you believe [James] Lovelock, the biosphere itself is honey, not sand." This for sure raises an interesting question: In what aspects does the world behave like sand and in what aspects like honey? For Huber it is mostly honey, but again I would have been grateful for a more systematic defense of that belief.

The most interesting thing about hard-green Huber is that for him the natural environment is entirely unnecessary. For example, "Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks, harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which will soon invent ways to replace blubber with olestra and pine with plastic. Humanity can survive just fine in a planet-covering crypt of concrete and computers.... There is not the slightest scientific reason to suppose that such a world must collapse under its own weight or that it will be any less stable than the one we now inhabit." Huber's only reason for caring about the environment is aesthetic: If we think it is pretty, we should keep some, but strictly because we like it, not because we need it. All we need is knowledge, and that is unlimited.

Even though I think it is Gnostic nonsense that we do not need the environment and can live on knowledge, it is certainly not nonsense that we might also want to protect the environment for purely nonutilitarian reasons. That is one of the kernels I promised to share. If Huber can convince his fellow free-marketeers to take more land completely out of the economy and create parks and nature preserves, and to look kindly upon and contribute to the Nature Conservancy for privately buying up land to retire it from economic use, then I will be happy to join in, whether this is labeled soft or hard. Huber did not suggest any particular lands or specific acreages to remove from the economy, nor how the opportunity costs of removal should be shared, and he may well think that Teddy Roosevelt already did enough. But he did not say that, so I remain hopeful.

Another kernel of interest is Huber's oft-repeated distinction between efficiency and frugality, and the point that achieving efficiency does not guarantee frugality. We gain efficiency by inventing cars that get more miles per gallon. But we then travel more miles in more cars and end up using more gasoline. Frugality requires that we use less gasoline. For precisely this reason, I have always thought that the policy instrument should be frugality, leading to restrictions on the quantity of aggregate resource flow, trusting the market to then make the best adaptation by inducing innovation and efficiently allocating the limited resource total. I am pretty sure that Huber would not go along with any limitation on resource flow (he even rejects shifting the tax base from goods to bads) because he does not think that resources are ultimately scarce—he says there are no environmental limits to growth. In the absence of scarcity, one wonders why Huber cares about either frugality or efficiency in the first place, and why he emphasizes the distinction. But it is a useful distinction, and to his credit, in later chapters, he frequently contradicts his earlier overstatements. For example, early on Malthus is wrong on every count and "Malthusian limits will never arrive." Later Malthus has become "half right." At this rate, Huber will be a Malthusian in his next book.

Since Huber's only reason for hard-green environmentalism, as opposed to no environmentalism at all, is aesthetics, one might expect to find some serious discussion of aesthetics: perhaps a theory of aesthetics or at least a catalogue of things Huber thinks are pretty. The only clue he gives us is, "Whales and redwoods are magnificent. Smallpox and tapeworms are vile." I'd be happy if our free market economy found it profitable to deplete the supply of both smallpox and tapeworms, but unfortunately it prefers to exploit whales and redwoods, contrary to my aesthetic judgments and Huber's. Is beauty purely in the subjective eye of the beholder, or does it have an objective relation to truth and goodness? I love landscapes, but I also think buildings and even offshore drilling rigs can be beautiful. Is a Central Bureau of Aesthetics going to replace the Bureau of Central Planning? Or is something automatically beautiful by virtue of the fact that some moron bought it? If the latter, then we are back to economic relativism, and "aesthetic" becomes an empty word.

Combing the book for some normative principles does not yield much. Huber offers a normative critique of Garrett Hardin's "lifeboat ethics" and correctly puts his finger on the critical assumption that we can have accurate knowledge of consequences in the future, sometimes the distant future. But in harshly dismissing Hardin as one who assumes what he does not know in order to support misanthropic judgments, Huber is being disingenuous as well as ungenerous. Huber himself is cocksure that there are no limits to carrying capacity. Just like Hardin, Huber assumes precise knowledge of future carrying capacity: that it is precisely infinite. Thus, Huber dismisses Hardin's consequentialist ethics by virtue of his own extreme technological optimism—future technology will eliminate all negative consequences of any act. That leaves only positive consequences and the inherent rightness of the act as ethical criteria. It is just too facile for technological optimists to take this high road to ethical purity.

It is odd that Huber gives so little discussion of aesthetics when it is so central to his overall case. But even more central is the market, and it too gets scant analysis. There is some grudging discussion of externalities, and a welcome recognition (despite his earlier claims) that the market cannot constrain its own expansion into the biosphere and needs an external limit. But markets also require competition to be efficient, which suggests the need for many small buyers and sellers—small enough that no single participant can affect the price. In a time of massive mergers and corporate giantism, you would expect that ardent followers of Adam Smith would be calling for trust busting—especially if they are also admirers of Theodore Roosevelt! Not a word on the subject from Huber. Ronald Coase in his classic article on the theory of the firm said that firms are islands of central planning in a sea of market relationships. As the islands of planning grow and the market sea dries up between them, more and more allocative decisions are made by corporate central planning and less by the market. Unlike Adam Smith and Teddy Roosevelt, our free market friend does not worry about monopoly power—or distributive inequality of any kind. Perhaps he thinks technology will cure that too! But the free market will not.

In spite of fundamental differences, I do agree with Huber on a number of things: that communism is bad, that central planning is inefficient, that the Unabomber is bad, that well-defined property rights and markets can be a big help in environmental-economic policy, and that some greens, like some growth enthusiasts, are extreme in their views. I knew all this long before reading Huber. But I am older than the average reader and have been teaching economics for a long time. Huber is writing for the general public, especially conservative, young, technically trained Republicans. He may well teach them some important lessons, once he gains their confidence by excoriating the godless, Malthusian, communistic, soft greens. What I personally learned from reading Huber is that the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism (salvation by esoteric knowledge that allows transcendence of matter) is still a perversion to be reckoned with. The salvific knowledge is now less spiritual and more technical, but the heresy of human transcendence of the material Creation by esoteric knowledge is the foundation of Huber's book, and that, unfortunately, will appeal to many readers.

Herman Daly is a professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland and is the author of Beyond Growth.

© 2000 The American Prospect

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