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The American Spectator
July 2000 / August 2000

Green--Both Hard and Difficult

Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists, A Conservative Manifesto
by Peter Huber (Basic Books / 224 pages / $25)

Reviewed by Brian Doherty; Brian Doherty is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

The title of Peter Huber's new book has a double-meaning he probably didn't intend, though he may well agree with its spirit: "Green" is indeed a " hard" thing for a conservative, in the modern context. Of course, the very purpose of Huber's book is to recontextualize Green. Huber wants to revive for environmentalism a meaning now a century old, one more Teddy Roosevelt than Al Gore, more conservationist than chemophobic.

Green is hard for conservatives because, in the modern political context, it has come to mean more federal micro-management, more federal encroachment on private property, more federal (and now often extra-federal) control in the pursuit of chimerical perfect environmental health, with statistical constructs standing in for real agents of disease.

That's not the sort of Green Huber is here to defend. He condemns it as " Soft Green"--"the realm of huge populations (molecules, particles) paired with very weak (low-probability) or slow (long time frame) effects. Soft Green is the Green of the invisible, the Green of the highly-dispersed or the far future.... To the Soft Green the model is everything," because it is only in models, not in reality, that the harm it fears and promises to evade seems real. It is this Soft Green that frets over dioxin and global warming, over MTBE and pesticides, over phantom and faraway risks. Soft Green is exemplified in its most politically dangerous form these days by the so-called Precautionary Principle, an idea rising in intellectual and political prominence among the enviro-left which says that no action or technological breakthrough that cannot be proven to be without long-term or unexpected deleterious consequence should be allowed to be adopted. This sort of Green fights new advances in biotech and simultaneously wants to ban the pesticides that biotech could do away with, without causing diminution in the quality or quantity of human foodstuffs.

In contrast, Huber's "Hard Green" is concerned with the huge, the physically observable, the beautiful: wilderness, ocean, rivers, lakes, shores. This is the kind of Green that Teddy Roosevelt, Huber's beloved father of conservative environmentalism, believed in and advanced. Huber thinks that the modern right could both do the right thing and earn political capital by emulating him. What that means in practical terms is a great expansion of federal ownership of wilderness lands.

It is that rhetorical distinction between Hard and Soft Green that comprises Huber's original contribution to the debate about the environment in this book. He has clearly been a careful reader in the world of politico- environmental debates--he knows that Malthus and Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome were wrong about population necessarily outstripping resources; he knows that the United States isn't adding to any greenhouse gas problem; he knows that creating markets for pollution rights can lessen pollution faster than command and control can. He explains all those issues well enough in his relatively short space, but adds little original to the body of observation, statistic, or argument over the environment. (Indeed, in one wry passage where he blithely and openly makes up figures to demonstrate that neo- Malthusians are wrong, he seems somewhat contemptuous of bean-counting in the defense of his intellectual principles.)

This is perhaps a little less than a reader would hope for from Huber, a Manhattan Institute policy wizard with both MIT engineering and Harvard Law degrees in his illustrious background, who has previously written insightfully and penetratingly on cyberspace law, the future of telecommunications, liability law, and junk science. The book's dearth of footnotes--only 26 for over 200 pages of text--is a political and rhetorical mistake in a field as rife with vicious disagreement over the bare facts of the matter as politico-environmentalism. Here Huber is moving into a turf that has not previously been his field of expertise, and this book is unlikely to convince someone not already steeped in the world of anti-left environmentalism.

To fully appreciate this book's charms and uses, which are manifold, one must remember that it is, as it says, a manifesto, not a textbook or a magisterial treatment of a body of thought. It is a book by a conservative environmentalist for other conservative environmentalists, giving them a new lens through which to view environmental/political issues, and giving them something they can be for--federal land ownership--rather than just a series of things to be against--like the Kyoto Protocol war on burning coal or gas.

Huber presents in an acidly skilled way most of the key principles of the left/right debate over the environment, the most important of which is the principle that wealth equals health--even in environmental matters. The rich are not the despoilers of the environment, but rather the only ones who can afford to consider environmental amenities. It is desperate poverty that leads to cutting down rain forest in order to grow food for survival; wealth leads to better agricultural technologies that allow us to grow more food on less land and let old agricultural land go back to forest. Huber is at his best when he points out that technological advances in agriculture and materials technology in the West have allowed us to lessen our footprints on nature even as there are more of us, consuming ever more. Though we live on more land than ever before, America is still being reforested slowly. In Huber's elegant formulation, he praises how we in the West have learned to " dig up our energy, bury our wastes, fly high, tunnel deep, and leave more of the surface alone."

He thoroughly skewers the kind of eco-puritanism that advocates living simply and frugally as the key to environmental holiness, pointing out that human wants tend to grow to fill our means. If we manage to, say, make refrigerators more energy-efficient and thus cheaper, we just make a bigger better fridge that uses the same, or more, energy for the same, or less, expense. New ways to "save energy" lead always to more energy being used--but that's all right, we have plenty.

In fact, as Huber explains so well, the kinds of energy that left/Soft Greens tend to fear the most, like nuclear, are in fact the most Green, giving us the greatest amount of power for the least amount of disturbance of the earth and environment. Meanwhile, "renewable" sources like solar, wind, or burning wood leave enormous marks on the land or add pollution to the air. What we don't have plenty of, he stresses repeatedly, is untouched wilderness. This is the only scarcity we need be concerned with, Huber argues, and its preservation is what a right/Hard Green ought to be dedicated to.

It is because of that insistence on federal land management that Huber's work hasn't found an entirely warm reception from a dominant wing of conservative environmental thought, the largely libertarian free-market environmentalists who were waging the scientific and ideological fight against left-environmentalism long before Huber took up the cudgels.

Note that Huber doesn't discuss federal "management" of wilderness, which environmentalists of all wings can agree is often egregious--think of the recent Los Alamos fires. (Such failures don't stop the left from wanting more federal control, however.) But in Huber's world of Hard Green, the government ought not manage what it owns in any meaningful sense; a world where government is making decisions about, say, timber sales or mineral rights on the land it owns is not what he wants. For Huber loves the wilderness--and wants a political movement that loves the wilderness--for its own sake, for its aesthetic glory, for what he sees it adding to the nonmonetary value of the national patrimony.

However, the argument isn't as simple as free-market supporters of private property versus a public-management loving Huber. Huber does understand that private conservation has been in the past and can continue to be extremely valuable to the natural environment. He says so in Hard Green and has been saying it more and louder in public discussions of his book. He does not stake out a cut-and-dried position that government preservation is always, or even often, superior to private preservation. He merely offers the proposition, anathema to the more hardcore free-market environmentalist, that under some conditions--not very precisely defined by Huber, but having to do with huge size crossing many political boundaries and a national reputation that gives an aura of sanctity--public management is both more practical and redounds to the benefit of the national spirit.

As Huber always says when dismissing the more radical private propertarians, You can't politically sell the notion of selling the Grand Canyon. What's more, Huber clearly thinks it would be a bad idea even if you could sell it politically. But there's a sophisticated world of free-market environmental thought that can't be reduced to this easy caricature, like the writings of Bruce Yandle of Clemson University on property rights, common law, and institutional incentives in environmental preservation. Regrettably, Huber spends little time in this book discussing these ideas.

Despite being marketed as a politico-environmental manifesto for the conservative movement, the book's strengths really lie more in its marshaling of interesting arguments and observations than in its political advice. If the right follows Huber's advice by championing increased federal land acquisition--and the May passage in the House of Representatives by 315-102 of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, sponsored by House Resources Committee Chair Don Young (R-Alaska) shows they are already starting to, even if Huber isn't the proximate cause--there isn't any way for them to stake this out as a distinctively winning position. Democrats, also fans of federal land ownership, can always gleefully outbid them in money spent and acreage taken under the federal wing. Hard or Soft, there isn't an easy way for Republicans to claim political advantage in the Green world, nor is there any real evidence that not doing so is hurting them politically in any significant way.

Huber, in a debate about his book, said that for most of what Hard Green discusses, the question: "Government: the problem, the solution?" is "kind of beside the point." That is the most encouraging thing for a conservative, or any human, to understand about these issues: that through our ingenuity and the right incentives, humans can continue to live, grow, and thrive without destroying the world or themselves. That the more we know, the more we can grow using less land; that we constantly learn better ways to do more things with fewer resources; and that the best evidence to date indicates that we are not creating catastrophes, either hidden or impending, by doing so. The environment needn't be a source of constant political crisis, and property and markets and technology are more a boon to environmental health than a bane. Debates about federal ownership of wilderness are indeed less important than all that, and whether or not you agree with him on that point, for most of this book Huber brings the good news with intelligence and wit.

©2000 The American Spectator

 

 


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