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Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists

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Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists

April 1, 1998
Energy & EnvironmentOther

AS A political movement, environmentalism was invented by a conservative Republican. He loved wild animals. He particularly loved to shoot them.

In the spring of 1908, with time running out on his second term, President Theodore Roosevelt held a hugely successful conference on conservation. The report that emerged, T.R. would declare, was “one of the most fundamentally important documents ever laid before the American people.” He promptly called a hemispheric conference on the same theme, and was working on a global one when he left office in March 1909.

He had learned his conservation the hard way. After Grover Cleveland defeated the Republicans in 1884, T.R. returned to his Chimney Butte ranch in the Dakota Territory with plans to increase his cattle herd fivefold. Armed neighbors came by to complain. As H.W Brands recounts in his recent T.R.: The Last Romantic, “the potential for overstocking the range weighed constantly on the minds of the ranchers of the plains.”

Although Roosevelt faced down his angry neighbors, he also set about finding a political solution to the problem that concerned them, forming and becoming president of the Little Missouri Stockmen’s Association. He would only regret not starting earlier. The Dakota pastures were badly overgrazed in the summer of 1886, and many herds, T.R.’s among them, were destroyed in the dreadfully harsh winter that followed.

Occupying the White House two decades later, T.R. and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, would be the first to apply the word “conservation” to describe environmental policy. By then, Roosevelt had come to view the misuse of natural resources as “the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life.”

THE ADMINISTRATION of Theodore Roosevelt was certainly not the first to show such concern. Congress had proclaimed Yellowstone a national park in 1872. Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant national parks were established in 1890. The first U.S. forest reserve, forerunner of the national forests, was proclaimed in the area around Yellowstone National Park in 1891. Presidents Harrison, Cleveland, and McKinley transferred some 50 million acres of timberland into the reserve system.

T.R.’s distinction was to give conservation its name and, more importantly, to transform it into an enduringly popular political movement. On the way to adding 150 million more acres to the country’s forest reserves, he would persuade the great mass of ordinary Americans that conservation was in their own best interests.

What with two world wars and a depression intervening, it would take another six decades to complete a federal legal framework for conservation. In the meantime, much occurred to affect conventional notions of the environment. The radioactive aftermath of Hiroshima taught a first, ghastly lesson about insidious environmental poison. There followed popularized accounts of industrial equivalents of Hiroshima—fallout without the bomb. Rachel Carson defined the new genre in 1962, with the publication of The Silent Spring, about the dangers of pesticides.

All this became reflected in law. The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts of the 1960’s, like the Endangered Species Act passed unanimously by the Senate in 1973, seemed to be cut from the same old conservationist cloth woven by T.R. (though they concerned smoke, sewage, and landfills rather than parks and mountains). But even as they completed and somewhat extended the framework for traditional conservation, these laws also quietly launched a new era—the era of environmentalism.

Regulating multifarious forms of pollution—the purpose of the clean-air, clean-water, and landfill acts—required a more elaborate regulatory structure than regulating parks and reserves. President Nixon had to establish a new cabinet-level body, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to take charge. More significantly, each of the laws also included something quite new: an open-ended “toxics” provision, a general invitation to monitor the micro-environment for poisons and regulate them as needed. Even the Endangered Species Act, though written mainly with the likes of cougars in mind, was drafted broadly enough to protect unpleasant rodents like the kangaroo rat, and would soon be amended to prevent not only hunting but also “harming,” which a federal court then construed to cover “habitat modification.”

A mere statutory afterthought in the 1960’s, the micro-environment was getting entire acts of its own a decade later. The Toxic Substances Control Act was promulgated in 1976. Then, in 1980, came Superfund. And thus, somewhere between Vietnam and the discovery of alarming concentrations of chemicals in the soil and groundwater at a town in upstate New York called Love Canal, a legal infrastructure for the new environmentalism slipped into place. Conservation was not abandoned. But politically it was overtaken, subsumed into something bigger. Bigger precisely because it concerned the very small.

OVER TIME, the distinctions between conservation and environmentalism have been obscured. But they really are two different schools.

Conservation happens in places we can see, and draw on a map. Yellowstone starts here and ends there. Bison, eagles, and rivers are only somewhat harder to track.

T.R. had no trouble seeing the things that made him a conservationist. Forests were being leveled, ranges overgrazed, and game depleted. Hunters and hikers, cattlemen, farmers, and bird-watchers could easily grasp all this, too. The political choices T.R. was urging were based on these considerations. Americans would want to preserve Yellowstone for the same reason they might some day wish to climb Everest: because it was there, because they knew it was there, and because they desired to keep it there.

If conservation happens in places we can see, micro-environmentalism happens everywhere. The microcosm is so populous, the forces of dispersion so inexorable, that in every breath we take we inhale many of the very molecules once breathed by Moses and Caesar. At that level of things, everything gets polluted, even though no one can see it, and it is all too easy to suggest causes and effects. Fish die, frogs are deformed, breast cancers proliferate, immune systems collapse, sperm counts plummet, learning disabilities multiply: every time, invisible toxics are assumed to be the culprit.

To believe wholeheartedly in micro-environmentalism one must either be a savant or put a great deal of trust in savants. In particular, one must put one’s trust in computer models. The model is everything. Only the model can say just where the dioxin came from, or how it may affect our cellular protein. Only the model will tell us whether our backyard barbecues (collectively, of course) are going to alter rainfall in Rwanda. OnIy the model can explain why a relentless pursuit of the invisible—halogenated hydrocarbons, heavy metals, or pesticides—will save birds or cut cancer rates. The cry of the loon gives way to the hum of the computer. T.R. trades in his double-barreled shotgun for a spectrometer.

But precisely because it involves things so very small, the microcosm requires management that is very large. Old-style conservationists maintained reasonably clean lines between private and public space. They may have debated how many Winnebagos to accommodate in Yellowstone, how much logging, hunting, fishing, or drilling for oil to tolerate on federal reserves, but the debates were confined by well-demarcated boundaries. Everyone knew where public authority began and ended. Yellowstone required management of a place, not a populace. Municipal sewer pipes and factory smokestacks may have required more management, but still of a conventional kind. The new models are completely different, so different that they are tended by a new oligarchy, a priesthood of scientists, regulators, and lawyers.

With detectors and computers that claim to count everything everywhere, micro-environmentalism never has to stop. With the right models in hand, it is easy to conclude that your light bulb, flush toilet, and hair spray, your washing machine and refrigerator and compost heap, are all of legitimate interest to the authorities. Nothing is too small, too personal, too close to home to drop beneath the new environmental radar. It is not Yellowstone that has to be fenced, but humanity itself That requires a missionary spirit, a zealous willingness to work door to door. It requires propagandists at the EPA, lesson plans in public schools, and sermons from the modern pulpit. Children are taught to enlighten—perhaps even to denounce their backsliding parents.

AT THIS point, environmental discourse often degenerates into a fractious quarrel about underlying facts. One side insists that tetraethyl lead, pseudo-estrogen, and low-frequency electromagnetic radiation seriously harm human health. The other side says they do not. One side says these things will hurt birds, frogs, and forests, and have already done so. The other side says they have not and will not.

One might suppose that science would settle such disputes. But it cannot. In a classic essay from 1972, the nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg explained why. He coined a term, “trans-science,” to describe the study of problems too large, diffuse, rare, or long-term to be resolved by scientific means. It would, for instance, take eight billion mice to perform a statistically significant test of the health effects of radiation at exposure levels the EPA deems to be “safe.” The model used to set that threshold may be right, or it may be way off; the only certainty is that no eight-billion-mouse experiment is going to happen.

The same goes for any model of very-low-probability accidents—an earthquake precipitating the collapse of the Hoover dam, say, leading to the inundation of the Imperial Valley of California. Statistical models can be built, and have been, but their critical, constituent parts cannot be tested. And similarly with all the most far-reaching models of micro-environmentalism, a realm of huge populations (molecules, particles) paired with very weak, or slow effects. Whether we are talking about global warming, ozone depletion, species extinction, radiation, halogens, or heavy metals, whether the concern is for humans or frogs, redwoods or sandworts, the time frames are too long, the effects too diffuse, the confounding variables too numerous.

You may doubt this if you get your environmental trans-science the way most people do, for the mass media always convey a greater sense of certitude. There is no news in reporting “Dog May or May Not Bite Man; Scientists Waffle.” Instead, Newsweek gives us: “Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend. But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.” That was in 1975. They were still almost unanimous in 1992, according to Vice President Al Gore; but about what? “Scientists have concluded—almost unanimously—that global warming is real and the time to act is now.” (I owe this juxtaposition to the Economist, December 20, 1997.) If the papers give you the various sides of the trans-scientific debate at all, they give it in different editions; sometimes, the editions are published twenty years apart.

It is a fair bet that now and again a model will predict things exactly right. It is a fairer bet that much of the time it will not. Indeed, if overall statistics confirm anything, it is that environmental toxins of human origin are not the main cause of anything much. The more industrialized we become, the longer we live and the healthier we grow. There is a model—quite a credible one, in fact—that purports to prove that a steady dose of low-level radiation, like the one you get living in a high-altitude locale like Denver, or at some suitable distance from Chernobyl, actually improves your health.

Nor are these the only problems. Suspect toxins vastly outnumber modelers. The list of things we might reasonably worry about grows faster than new rules can be published in the Federal Register. But the axiology of science, its priorities of investigation and research, the criteria for what to study and what not to, are matters of taste, budget, values—everything but science itself. Scientific priorities, Weinberg notes, are themselves trans-scientific. So are all the engineering issues, the practical fixes that regulators prescribe. Science will never tell us just how much scrubber or converter to stick on a tailpipe or smokestack, how much sand and gravel at the end of a sewer pipe, how much plastic and clay around the sides of a dump.

So, in the end, the micro-environmentalist just names his favorite poison, and gets on with making sure that nobody drinks it. The process is arrayed in the sumptuary of science, but the key calls are political. Micro-environmentalism ends up as a pursuit of politics by other means.

THERE IS nothing wrong with politics, of course—T.R. reveled in them. But here too there is an essential difference between the old conservationism and the new environmentalism.

All the choices old-style conservationists make are conventionally political. The Clinton administration recently designated as a national monument a vast stretch of land in Utah, from Bryce Canyon to the Colorado River, and from Boulder to the Arizona state line. It was a controversial call: the area includes the Kaiparowits plateau, where a Dutch-owned concern was slated to begin mining massive coal formations. T.R. would certainly have understood the controversy over the Kaiparowits plateau, and would likely have approved the decision to conserve.

In the new environmentalism, by contrast, conventional political process decides little. The clauses about toxics that were inserted as an afterthought in the clean-air and clean-water acts, and as the central thought in Superfund, are just a stew of words. They articulate no standard, set no budget, establish no limits. In T.R.’s day they would not even have passed constitutional muster. The Supreme Court would have cited the “nondelegation doctrine,” which, then at least, forbade Congress to delegate responsibilities wholesale to the executive branch.

Today the delegation goes a lot further. Though nominally in the hands of the President and overseen by Congress, political authority for micro-environmental matters is now centered in the new trans-scientific oligarchy. The key calls are still stroke-of-the-pen politicaI, at bottom, but no ordinary observer can see to the bottom. The only thing ordinary Americans may dimly realize is that somewhere deep in the EPA it has been deemed wise to spend more money digging up an industrial park in New Jersey than ever was spent conserving a forest in the Adirondacks.

Politicians know how to reward friends and punish enemies, but democratic politics tends, as a whole, to be pretty even-handed. When the old conservationists took your land, they paid you for it, and the money came from taxes and user fees. That was about as fair as the income tax—not very, but fair enough. In the new environmentalism, most of the taxing occurs off the public books. There is a great deal of creeping, uncompensated expropriation, and a freakish rain of ruin on those unlucky enough to discover the wrong rodent, marsh, or buried chemical on their land. Any amount of public environmental good, however small, can entail any private financial burden, however large.

We have likewise lost all pragmatic sense of when enough is enough. Conservation, driven as it must be through normal political channels, can be pushed only so far. The Clinton administration had to trade political chips for the Kaiparowits plateau; nobody feared it would soon seize the rest of Utah. Conservation works, politically, because the boundaries are reasonably well defined and because it targets real estate, not molecules. By contrast, most of the Northeast could be placed in regulatory receivership for its countless micro-environmental derelictions. Whereas hikers and hunters occupy a seat or two at the political table, synthetic estrogens and carbon dioxide have somehow escaped from the coils of politics, and the priesthood can pursue them without restraint.

The “remedial” efforts that emerge from this pursuit end up repelling even the intended beneficiaries. Contact with Superfund has become socially poisonous. The very arrival of the EPA in a community shatters property values, repels new industrial investment, and throws a region’s entire future into doubt. Environmental regulation has in effect become a mirror image of the problems it is supposed to solve, leaking into society cancerous plumes of lawyers, administrators, and consultants, the brokers of ignorance, speculation, and uncertainty.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT was no Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, or John Muir. These “preservationists” revered wilderness for its own sake. Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, adamantly opposed building the Tuolumne River dam in Yosemite to supply water to San Francisco. T.R. supported it, consistent with his “wise-use” philosophy of conservation. For T.R., the whole of conserving nature was to continue using it—forests for lumber, ranges for grazing, rivers for electrical power. Hunters, cattlemen, ranchers were to be involved in conservation because it was in their own self-interest. “Despite occasional moments of doubt,” writes H.W. Brands, T.R. “passionately believed in the capacity of the ordinary people of America to act in the public welfare, once they were alerted to the true nature of that welfare.”

That was the faith that defined the first century of conservationism. Congress had established Yellowstone National Park as a “pleasuring ground” for people. The national parks would include forests, seashores, lakeshores, and scenic trails but also monuments, historical sites, and battlefields-—man’s creation alongside nature’s. T.R.’s distant cousin Franklin, too, was an ardent conservationist, and during his presidency he established his own share of national parks and forests; but he also built roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and skyscrapers. Like T.R., he believed there was room enough in nature for man.

Today, the preservationist vision is back on top. The quasi-pagan nature worship of the late 19th century has been reworked as the trans-scientific demonology of the late 20th. Those who believe in the new methods and models do not even credit the distinction between conservation and preservation. The computer models can link any human activity, however small, to any environmental consequence, however large—it is just a matter of tracing out small effects through space and time, down the rivers, up the food chains, and into the roots, the egg shells, or the fatty tissue of the breast. This is what chaos theorists call the ”butterfly effect,“ traced out by computer. If you believe in the computer, you must believe that the only way really to ”conserve“ is not to touch at all.

IS IT possible to change course, and if so, how? The answer comes in two parts, the philosophical and the practical-political.

There was never much high-church philosophy to T.R.’s conservationism. It was inspired by an abiding appreciation for the beauty of nature-—that is, by aesthetics. And it was disciplined by a real sense (this may seem a curious thing to say of a man like T.R.) of humility. Not much philosophy there, but enough.

A sense of aesthetics would get us a long way in reforming environmental discourse. It would, to begin with, help us cut through the scientism, the fussy bureaucratic detail. It would let us ignore the priesthood and dispense with its soaring intellectual cathedrals. It would save us the enormous expense and inconvenience of digging up New Jersey and conserving our own trash. It would allow us to spend our energy and dollars on places that are simply beautiful, and oppose things for no fancier reason than that they are ugly.

The aesthetic approach does not mean ignoring the micro-environment completely, still less rejecting every commandment ever prescribed by the priesthood. Priests and propagandists have every right to help shape our aesthetic preferences, for better or worse; they just should not be allowed to palm off their art as science. Purity is beautiful, and industrial byproducts in our drinking water are ugly, even if invisible and harmless. (Fluoride and chlorine in the water are sort of ugly, too, even if they give us healthier teeth and guts.)

There is also an aesthetic case to be made for frugality: we are not going to run out of space for dumps, but garbage is not beautiful, and making do with less often is. By the same token, however, profligate excess in the digging up of dumps is as ugly as profligate excess in the original dumping. T.R.-style conservationists would devote far more energy to parks and forests, to sewage treatment and cleaner smokestacks, and far less to part-per-billion traces of dioxin. Whatever impact pesticides may have, setting aside 100 million acres of forest will likely protect more birds than vying to bankrupt the DuPont corporation through the Superfund. The most beautiful way to purify water is probably the most effective way, too: maintain unspoiled watersheds. While an ”almost unanimous“ priesthood forecast cooling in 1975, and warming in 1992, the conservationist just went on planting trees, the most pleasant and practical way to suck carbon out of the air, however it may (or may not) affect global climate.

As for a sense of humility, it might usefully take the form of a wariness of grand public works. T.R. endorsed his share of them; FDR endorsed many more. In retrospect, it seems clear that more of the megalithic government projects of those days should have been opposed. They certainly should be as we go forward. Yesterday the federal dollar erected huge dams and drained swamps; today federal money is used to unleash those same rivers, and convert sugar plantations back into swamp.(The swamp programs are doubly expensive because the government also props up the price of sugar.) A consistent conservationism might have blocked more of the before, and thus saved us from having to do much of the after.

A consistent philosophy of moderation and caution could also do much to blunt the vindictive, punitive impulses of the modern environmentalist—and thereby help make things greener. In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill, the multi-billion dollar steam-cleaning of rocks in Prince William Sound did far more harm than good, stripping away the organic seeds of rebirth along with the oil. In places where the cleanup was left to the wind and the waves, ”nature,“ Scientific American would conclude, ”fared better on its own.“ But the frenzied demands that Exxon be made to pay and pay overwhelmed every other impulse, to the point where increasing the damage to the oil company became much more important than abating damage to the Sound.

SO MUCH for philosophy. Politically, the most important principle is that whereas the environmentalist mission is exclusionary, the conservationist mission is populist and inclusionary, welcoming humankind as in integral and legitimate part of nature’s landscape. Conservationism does not see man as a tapeworm in the bowel of nature. Symbiosis is possible. And when a choice has to be made, as it sometimes must, people come first.

The old conservationists were reluctant collectivists; the new environmentalists, eager ones. Having successfully conflated eagles with snail darters, halogenated hydrocarbons with the mountain peaks of Yosemite, the new environmentalists claim to speak for them all. This is an agenda that fits easily into a left-wing shoe. Running the whole environment—literally, ”that which surrounds”—is an opportunity the Left gladly welcomes. The micro-environment is the best part of all, requiring as it does a pervasive, manipulative, and intrusive bureaucracy—for the Left, political ambrosia.

In reply, the Right has nothing better to offer than a long tradition of creating parks, husbanding wildlife, and venerating natural heritages of every kind. Politically speaking, however, that should be enough. It is the old conservation, not the new, that welcomes the family in the camper. It is the old that dispenses with oligarchy and caters to the common tastes of the common man. It is the old that is the legacy of T.R., a man who so loved to shoot wild animals that he resolved to conserve the vast open spaces in which they live.

Besides, too-eager collectivists never end up conserving anything; only the reluctant ones do. (Behold the land once called East Germany: Love Canal, border to border, perfected by Communists.) The old conservationism, of parks and forests and Winnebagos, advances the green cause because of the Winnebago. The man in the Winnebago is enlisted in the cause precisely by an appeal to his own private sense of what is beautiful, and therefore to what he wants for himself and his family.

What is wrong with that?