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Right on Green:Toward a conservative theory of environmentalism.
March 20, 2000


Robert Royal is author of The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates and president of the Faith & Reason Institute.

Environmental questions are hard-but most environmentalists respond with an easy answer: Nature is 'sacred and, if the earth's needs conflict with human alms, so much the worse for us. The fact that nature has been evolving since the Big Bang does not give the typical ecologist much pause. Nor does the fact that nature and nature's God seem to have intended us to be here. With a self-righteousness that would make a televangelist blush, the majority of environmentalists claim not only unshakeable scientific certitude, but moral superiority as well.

Peter Huber is well situated to expose this sectarianism. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, he has studied science as well as law. In a better intellectual climate, Huber's approach in Hard Green might put to rest the claim that human development through industrialization, markets, science, free political systems, and civilization in general-is simply a threat to nature. As he clearly demonstrates, development not only has made it possible for billions more people to live, and live better, but promises to make their impact on nature lighter. As things stand, however, Huber is a voice crying in the wilderness.

The patron saint of Hard Green was another wilderness voice. Theodore Roosevelt was the first to institute large-scale environmental programs, and he could wax lyrical about the outdoors: "There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm." At the same time, he had no qualms about hunting big game. Huber sees in this robust enjoyment of nature the central principle for hard greens. The human race could probably survive, hunkered down in an artificial environment. But we won't make that choice: Part of what makes us human is a desire for a beautiful environment.

Roosevelt and his chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, advocated "conservation" and "wise-use." This pitted them against John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and precursor of today's soft greens, for whom pristine "preservation" took precedence. How human beings are to live if preservation becomes a universal rule, Muir's descendants are hard pressed to say. Many advocate returning to some earlier way of life-native American, sometimes even neolithic. But given current numbers, going back to the land would be the most disastrous, anti-green policy. Traditional agriculture places large stresses on the earth. New mechanization, plant strains, fertilizers, pesticides, and methods to lessen spoilage mean that farmers grow more food on far less land. An area the size of India could be allowed to return to its natural state if the best agricultural methods were adopted around the world.

Similarly, modern electricity generation spares land. Huber sets it down as a principle that hard greens like himself want to "dig deep and fly high" to minimize impact. Traditional sources of energy-burning wood and animal dung-not only pollute more but lead to the stripping of resources. Coal mines and oil wells may not be lovely, but in the larger environmental bookkeeping, they spare the part of nature we most value, the thin layer of life at the earth's surface.

Soft greens gasp at these claims. The only technology they seem to approve of are those computer models that say the only way to avoid catastrophe is by our adopting "small is beautiful" alternatives to industry. These alternatives may appeal to our sense of nature's passivity and current human power. But nature is not at all fragile in the aggregate, and Huber is right to point to its powers of recuperation. The area around Mount Saint Helens began to recover in a remarkably short time. And in cases like the Exxon

Valdez spill, even Scientific American has admitted that it might have been better to let nature take care of the fine details once the rough cleanup was done. Overzealous efforts did more harm than good.

Prominent environmentalists such as Al Gore preach that "avalanches" of changes will result from our environmental sins. Gore would do well to look to his own metaphor: Avalanches already occur in nature without causing the end of the world. Gore is more schizophrenic than most environmentalists, putting a lot of faith in nature but purporting to be a technology junkie. But even he advocates less "brittle" technologies, smaller and simpler, to avoid the breakdown of complex systems. We do not, however, see breakdowns all around us. Airplanes are safer because of their increased sophistication, newer power plants pollute less. Huber argues that complexity-natural and man-made is a response to nature's instability, not its cause.

If there is a weakness in Huber's analysis it is that his approach can be, at times, a touch too hard. Softs go too far in fretting over every minor human impact on nature. But Huber leans too hard on big, observable effects, downplaying subtler human influences on nature. This bumps up against his own claim that the more money you have, the less you care what environmental precautions cost. That is why environmentalism is usually an enthusiasm of the rich, not the poor-and those wealthy soft greens, however often mistaken, may occasionally turn up something that we may decide is worth paying for, even if it is only a small improvement. Huber admits as much, but it is not easy to see how this concession fits within Hard Green.

Huber does not have all the answers, but he has many of them. And he has the basic vision right: "To believe in Hard Green, we merely have to love the outdoors, the unspoiled wilderness, forest, river, and shore.... Life is a fascinatingly complex good that requires no further justification. We conserve because it is there and we find it magnificent-today."

©2000 The Weekly Standard

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