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The Washington Times
March 12, 2000, Sunday

Reigning in government and a 'pseudoscience'

Jonathan H. Adler

America's air and water have gotten substantially cleaner over the last few decades. It is an article of faith in most environmental discussions that this progress would not—indeed, could not—have occurred without the active intervention of the federal government. If Indur Goklany's Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution (Cato Institute, $19. 95, 250 pages) gets the readership it deserves, that view may change. The book makes an awesome contribution to environmental scholarship that should provoke substantial debate about the need for a sprawling federal environmental bureaucracy.

Mr. Goklany packs this slim, readable volume with a wealth of data to support his central thesis that economic growth and technological change are the primary causes of environmental improvement. "Once prosperity and technology were responsible for air pollution," he writes. "Today they are necessary for its cleanup. " Indeed, Mr. Goklany shows that American industry turned the corner on air pollution well before there was an EPA.

Challenging the idea that interstate competition triggers a race to the bottom which drives down state regulatory standards, Mr. Goklany documents the myriad state and local laws which preceded federal air quality efforts. With the exception of federal automobile emission limits, he argues, the data suggest that state and local governments did a better job at cleaning the air once pollution became a public concern.

"If there is any race, it is not to the bottom of environmental quality, but to the top of the quality of life," Mr. Goklany notes. His recommendations aren't radical, but the force of his scholarship is. With the publication of this book, defenders of the existing regulatory regime have their work cut out for them.

* * *

Whether or not there ever was a "race to the bottom" among the states, widespread distrust of state and local governments was a significant factor in the enactment of federal environmental legislation in the early 1970s. The worst environmental problems were easy to identify, and the federal government was called upon to act.

The bases for federal action in the 1970s do not necessarily apply today, according to The Morning After Earth Day: Practical Environmental Politics (Brookings Institution Press, $36. 95 cloth, $14. 95 paper, 153 pages) by Mary Graham. America's institutional capacity for addressing environmental concerns, and the very nature of the environmental concerns that need addressing, have changed dramatically. Today, the author writes, "there is an urgent need to update the understanding of the strength and weakness of public support, national initiative, state and local capabilities, and business roles in environmental protection. "

The book provides a solid, if somewhat cursory, overview of the political and historical forces that led to the current generation of environmental programs, and seeks to identify the factors that are driving a reorientation of environmental policy—whether or not Washington, D. C. is ready for it.

The author notes that while environmental battles on Capitol Hill remain ideologically polarized, there is a surge of pragmatism at the local level that is focused on obtaining tangible environmental results without sacrificing economic well-being. The challenge to environmental policy makers in the future, she observes, is to enact the necessary measures that will allow these trends to continue.

* * *

With a few notable exceptions, the political Right has made relatively little effort to advance a positive environmental agenda to counter that of green activist groups. With Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (Basic Books, $25, 288 pages), Peter Huber seeks to fill this void. Mr. Huber, an accomplished scholar with the Manhattan Institute, is author of several important and path-breaking books, including "Galileo's Revenge," "Law and Disorder in Cyberspace," and (with Kenneth Foster), "Judging Science. " Mr. Huber has arguably done more than any other to document the problems of junk science in the courtroom and the failings of America's tort system. Against this record of achievement, "Hard Green" comes up short.

Mr. Huber makes many excellent points, often with wit and verve. The logic of Vice President Gore's book, "Earth in the Balance," is shredded beyond repair. Mr. Huber also exposes the anti-technology and anti-prosperity strains of ecological thought as truly anti-environment. The "soft" energy choices favored by environmental activists, he notes, consume land at a tremendous rate. Replacing fossil fuel-powered plants with solar panels and wind farms would represent the ultimate in "sprawl," yet few "soft" greens seem to care. It is for good reason that Mr. Huber seeks to "save the environment from the environmentalists. "

Yet Mr. Huber also makes cavalier statements and generalizations without providing documentary support. He picks a fight with environmental activists, expertly dissecting the folly of many conventional views, yet provides the reader with few citations or notes. Moreover, some planks in his "conservative manifesto," including blithe support for expanding federally managed wilderness in the name of Teddy Roosevelt, seem naive, if not downright foolhardy.

Most surprising is that someone of Mr. Huber's intelligence and insight makes little mention of the importance of institutional arrangements in ensuring desired environmental outcomes. He praises private conservation at one point, and then turns around to proclaim that establishing private rights in nature is to destroy. In the end, the manifesto he offers has some good applause lines, but it fails to provide a workable environmental vision for the political right.

* * *

In Teddy Roosevelt's day, the federal government acquired land to maintain timber production. In the 1960s and '70s, federal land management focused on conserving parks, open spaces, and endangered species. Today, "ecosystem management" is all the rage in land management circles. Although no federal program was explicitly created for ecosystem protection, the word ecosystem appears in over 100 federal statutes, and numerous agencies have made ecosystem protection a part of their internal missions.

Yet as Allan K. Fitzsimmons shows in Defending Illusions: Federal Protection of Ecosystems (Rowman & Littlefield, $60 cloth, $22. 95 paper, 272 pages), no one really knows what an "ecosystem" is. There are numerous abstract definitions, but nothing concrete. "Ecosystems are not objective realities, not living and discrete entities on the landscape," he writes. They are "heuristic devices—not living things. "

The loose definition of ecosystem has created a vessel into which ideologues have poured their own visions of America's "proper" landscape. Through the ideal of "ecosystem management," long discredited notions of a fragile ecological balance have been given new life in policy circles, justifying all sorts of new land-use controls. As former Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas remarked, "I can do anything you want to do by saying it is ecosystem management . . . "

Indeed, the appeal to ecosystem management gives federal bureaucrats license to pursue greater control of land-use as they insist that any action can irreparably impact the functioning of natural systems. Mr. Fitzsimmons has provided a useful service by exposing ecosystem management for the pseudoscientific fraud it is.

Jonathan H. Adler is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of "Environmentalism at the Crossroads. "

© 2000 The Washington Times

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