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A WORTHWHILE ATTEMPT TO ADVANCE THE DEBATE ON ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
By Steve Chapman
Steve Chapman is a Tribune columnist and editorial writer.
HARD GREEN: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists: A Conservative Manifesto, By Peter Huber
When it comes to the debate on environmental protection, Americans often find themselves caught in the middle. They fret about global warming but drive ever-expanding sport utility vehicles. They are enthusiastic about preserving unspoiled tracts of land but resist limits on suburban growth. They favor clean air and water but are often unmoved by the latest environmental scare. In short, they want to protect the environment from real dangers and still enjoy the luxuries of modern industrial society. Peter Huber's book "Hard Green" makes the case that they can do exactly that, and should.
Huber, a witty and trenchant writer who has written provocative books on issues of law and technology, is a columnist for Forbes magazine, and most of his arguments will find favor with conservatives. Much of "Hard Green" is devoted to mercilessly cataloging the errors of leftish environmentalists, from Paul Ehrlich to Al Gore, and there are plenty to choose from. He recalls an assortment of false alarms: predictions that overpopulation would cause massive famine around the world by 1975, fears that humanity's excesses were bringing on a new ice age, a forecast after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident that there would be more, including fatal ones.
Remember the alarms about supposedly falling sperm counts, supposedly triggered by environmental degradation? Another phantom, says Huber. Sperm counts are higher in polluted New York City than in pristine Wyoming. "Abstinence time is by far the most important determinant of sperm counts: less frequent ejaculation means higher counts," he reveals. "But no sperm-count study can adequately control for how often men of different eras and social environments ejaculate."
He shows that previous palliatives, such as federal energy-conservation mandates on cars and appliances, failed to slow the growth of energy consumption, because Americans bought bigger refrigerators and drove more miles. Huber, unlike many on the right, is not complacent about global warming--merely agnostic. But he points out that because of reforestation, "All in all, North America doesn't dump carbon dioxide into the air. It sucks the gas out. . . . The rest of the world doesn't keep its carbon books in balance. But America does."
Huber thinks environmentalists are wrong in their entire view of how to preserve the environment. They're mistaken, he argues, to celebrate renewable resources, decentralized power supplies and pesticide-free agriculture. Expanding the use of solar power would require using land that could be preserved as forest. Pesticides boost crop yields, making it possible to grow more food on less acreage.
He also makes a powerful case that economic growth and rising wealth are the ally of the environment, not the enemy. "People struggling to survive don't much care about nature, except where they actively fear it," writes Huber. "With whales, elephants and rain forest, it is Western wealth that has propelled every last tusk of conservation." Higher living standards mean more resources, and many of those resources go into investments in a better quality of life--conservation high among them.
Huber is a lively polemicist, and he does an excellent job of arguing the conservative critique. But what about the conservative agenda? This is where "Hard Green" will surprise most conservatives and confound many of them. Huber's hero is not James Watt, as his targets might suppose, but Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the conservation movement. Roosevelt didn't fret about trace pollutants that pose a danger only if you believe speculative and highly fallible scientific models. What he cared about was roping off vast stretches of unspoiled land--150 million acres in all, including Yellowstone and Yosemite.
Huber thinks conservatives need to recapture the spirit of a Republican president who saw no contradiction between preserving nature and putting it to recreational use. "He loved nature the way a man first loves a woman: selfishly, because he finds her beautiful and exciting, because he needs her desperately, however little she may need him," writes Huber. "And what is wrong with that? Nothing. It gave us a president who so loved to shoot wild animals that he resolved to conserve the vast spaces in which they live."
Those on the right are generally unenthusiastic about public ownership of anything, not to mention dubious that the government can manage parks and forests well. Huber says public ownership is unavoidable because no private entity is big enough to assume the job. But privatization of national parks, he says, would also undermine their essence: "In every way an accountant, economist or even an ecologist might measure, Disney would operate Yellowstone much better than the National Park Service. But Yellowstone would be diminished nonetheless."
He thinks this is one case where government can do the job--not because of its virtues but because of its vices. "Nothing is the one thing that big government is capable of doing quite well, and doing nothing is the paramount objective of conservation. The whole point of conservation, one might say, is to be economically inefficient and unproductive, to retard conventional economic progress, not promote it, and to do so in well-designated places set aside for that specific objective. Even conservatives can believe in government's ability to do that."
Conservatives may not be convinced that government bodies can be induced to do that and nothing else. The natural tendency of government is expansion, not stasis, and given that this is not a work on political theory, it's beyond Huber's charter to figure out how that impulse can be reliably neutralized. Liberals, however, will conclude that the government should do far more than conserve land and combat only indisputably destructive activities and emissions. Though Huber's pithy dismissals of environmentalist bogeymen spare the reader from being drowned in scientific data, they occasionally sound glib and insubstantial.
But "Hard Green" is an unusual book, one that moves the environmental debate a bit beyond the trenches that the right and the left have been defending for two decades. Those in either camp who approach "Hard Green" with a halfway open mind may find that after reading Huber, the idea of a new approach no longer sounds so crazy.
©2000 Chicago Tribune
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